Mubarak Rose To Rule From Earlier Egyptian Unrest

Host Scott Simon and NPR's Peter Kenyon, who was stationed in Cairo for six years, discuss Hosni Mubarak's long and controversial rule in Egypt.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The protests in Egypt have a specific target: a man who has ruled his country with an iron fist for three decades. Hosni Mubarak was thrust into the presidency amid drama and bloodshed when Anwar Sadat was gunned down by Islamist assassins in 1981. And now, this unprecedented public uprising may hasten the 82-year-old Mr. Mubarak's exit.

NPR's Peter Kenyon lived in Cairo for six years. He joins us today from Beirut. Peter, thanks for being with us.

PETER KENYON: You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: And as we watch these - I must say - riveting scenes from Cairo, from Alexandria, from Suez, it's almost hard to imagine that Hosni Mubarak was initially welcomed as a kind of comforting, stabilizing force.

KENYON: Well, that's exactly right, and he was. It's important to remember how traumatized Egypt was then. Sadat had done the unthinkable in the Arab world in those days; he'd made peace with Israel. Now, the Arab League had expelled Egypt, moved its headquarters from Cairo to Tunis, and so Egypt was under a great deal of pressure.

And Hosni Mubarak, he'd been picked as vice president precisely because he was a solid and non-threatening number two. He was standing next to Sadat when the president was gunned down by radical Islamists, and instantly became Egypt's president.

Now, in the early years, Egyptians loved Mubarak for what he was not. He wasn't an ambitious Arab nationalist like Gamal Abdel Nasser. He wasn't likely to spring big surprises on people, as Sadat had done. In his first term, he prevented disaster, enacted some modest reforms. And Egyptians were - if not thrilled, at least comforted to have him there.

SIMON: But even in those earlier days, were there signs that his approach to stability had more to do with - I'll put it this way - more to do with control than problem-solving?

KENYON: Well, I think that's right. Mubarak learned some lasting lessons from the fates of his predecessors. He prizes stability, above all. In the wake of the Sadat assassination, when mass arrests of Islamists were being carried out, he forced through a set of emergency laws that gave, basically, the powers of a martial law declaration to the military and security.

Those powers have remained in place. In other words, Mubarak's tenure, in effect, has been one long state of emergency. Now, after many of the most radical fundamentalists were arrested or fled, the state turned its sights on the Muslim Brotherhood, which it has portrayed as a dire threat to Egypt and the region ever since. And that - I must say - that's something that's played well in Washington.

SIMON: Now, there seemed to be a flurry of hope among members of the opposition in Egypt. I guess in 2005, the Bush administration was making, really, some very pronounced threats that it might reconsider its support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. What happened?

KENYON: Well, 2005 marked the first election where Mubarak's wasnt the only name on the ballot. Of course, he still won a huge victory. His opponent was thrown in jail for several years. Still, for Mubarak, it was a big concession at the time. But when it became clear that the Bush administration had no follow-up to its threats, the ruling party cracked down with even more intensity.

It was at this point that I heard my one Egyptian joke, Scott. With your permission, I'd like to tell it.

SIMON: Yeah, please.

KENYON: OK. Here it is. An aide comes rushing into Mubarak's office, waving a few sheets of paper. And he says, (foreign language spoken), Mr. President, here it is at last, your farewell address to the people. And Mubarak looks up from his desk and he says: Why, are they going somewhere?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, that does raise this question, Peter. As you watch these ongoing protests, where does Egypt go from here? What are some of the possible outcomes?

KENYON: Well, clearly, the Army's views are going to be crucial, as people have said. The Army leadership was already thinking about who might come after Mubarak, because the Army's not that fond of Gamal Mubarak, the son, who some say was being groomed to succeed his father next year. But this - it really is new territory for Egypt. So we've got to be prepared for more surprises in any direction.

I wrote - a couple of years ago, in a piece - about what might come next, that Egyptians simply aren't revolutionary by nature, which is something I had been told over and over again during my six years living there. And they probably would wait and see what comes next.

But I also wrote at that time that there has been riots, general strikes and other protests that had raised another possibility - that even Egyptians can only take so much stagnation and desperation before there's an explosion of political unrest. And now it's come; Mubarak's still in power; and how he responds is going to be crucial.

SIMON: NPR's Peter Kenyon, thanks so much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Scott.

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