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Egypt's Mubarak: A Cautious, Heavy-Handed Ruler

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Egypt's Mubarak: A Cautious, Heavy-Handed Ruler

Egypt's Mubarak: A Cautious, Heavy-Handed Ruler

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We should repeat this for people who may just be joining us, may just be waking up this morning to news that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, after refusing to resign last night, is said to be leaving power today. That's according to his vice president, speaking on Egyptian television.

Now, during his three decades in power, he was known around the world as an Arab leader who maintained peaceful relations with Israel, close ties with the United States through often-difficult times. He was also known for repression at home, and NPR's Peter Kenyon reviews his career.

PETER KENYON: Mubarak was Egypt's longest-serving leader since the 19th century. And and for many Egyptians, his reign was most notable for what it was not. Mubarak was not an ambitious Arab nationalist, like Gamel Abdel Nasser. He was not a risk-taking statesman, like Anwar Sadat, who surprised Egyptians by plucking Mubarak from the ranks of the Egyptian military to be his vice president, in 1975.

The burly air force pilot, from a small village in the Nile delta, seemed uninspiring next to Sadat, who stunned the Arab world by not only visiting Jerusalem, but by signing a historic peace accord with Israel.

As it happened, Sadat's boldness only reinforced Mubarak's natural caution, especially after the blood-soaked tragedy that elevated him to the presidency on October 6th, 1981.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man: After stun grenades had been tossed at the platform, soldiers from the top of the truck opened fire.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

KENYON: Islamist assassins, enraged by Sadat's recognition of the Jewish state, gunned down the president before Mubarak's eyes as the men watched a military parade. This archival news account from the BBC was posted on YouTube.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man: A security guard fires at the fleeing assassins. Eleven people are killed, and 38 wounded. In the turmoil on the platform, Vice President Hosni Mubarak is hustled away. There are shouts that Sadat has been hit and Mubarak, the man groomed to succeed him, is afforded special attention.

KENYON: Mubarak was wounded in the attack, and took away a number of lessons from his predecessor's demise. He made security an absolute priority, arresting and imprisoning Islamists and their supporters across the country.

Analyst Dia Rashwan says so much time has passed that it's hard to remember how reassuring it was to see this sturdy military man take control of a country traumatized by Sadat's assassination and fearful of an Islamist coup.

Mr. DIA RASHWAN (Analyst): And when Mr. Mubarak came, he came under very difficult conditions - a president was assassinated - and he succeeded to have his legitimacy from mainly the Egyptian establishment, from the Egyptian army, and also from his first measures.

KENYON: Ordinary Egyptians embraced Mubarak as one of their own. And while he continued to jail Islamists, he released some of the more secular political prisoners arrested by Sadat. Mubarak also cracked down, to some extent, on corruption within the government and spoke of political reform, promising to serve only two, six-year terms.

But Mubarak broke that promise when he ran for a third term in 1993. Six years later, having survived an assassination attempt and waged a brutal campaign against violent Islamist factions, he went a fourth term.

Journalist Mohamed Sayed Said gives Mubarak credit for quelling Islamist uprisings, and averting total economic collapse in Egypt. But he says the cost, in terms of democratic reform and human rights, was high.

Mr. MOHAMED SAYED SAID (Journalist): His first tenure in office was more or less compassionate, but the situation got very, very bad and increasingly worse since 1986. Dramatic and massive abuses of human rights characterizes his regime, and caused the country a great toll in terms of human rights.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in foreign language)

KENYON: In 2005, feeling pressured by demonstrators at home and by the Bush administration's preemptive and activist foreign policy moves, Mubarak announced that Egypt's constitution would be amended to allow for the country's first multi-candidate presidential election.

Suddenly, the demonstrations took on a new tone, as protesters campaigned explicitly against Mubarak for the first time, shouting the Arabic word for enough - kefaya.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in foreign language)

KENYON: For the slick and expensive political campaign organized by his younger son Gamal, who was rising quickly through the political ranks, the 77-year-old Hosni Mubarak announced in July 2005 that he would seek a fifth term in office. He's heard here through a translator.

President HOSNI MUBARAK (Egypt): (Through Translator) I would never, ever let Egypt down, and for this sake, I announce that I am determined to be nominating myself in the coming presidential elections.

KENYON: Despite the early promise of more openness, observers said the election was marred by widespread irregularities and intimidation. Mubarak cruised to an easy victory, making promises of economic and social reform in villages around the country.

Yet analyst Mohamed Saeed says by this point, Egyptians knew better than to expect real changes.

Mr. MOHAMED SAEED (Analyst): We have rampant corruption. We have a society that has totally alienated the infrastructure - the institution infrastructure of the country is totally fake and imposed from above. So I'd say that well, unfortunately, it was never really a philosophe. But you know, he was not even the kind of wise man that he could have been if he continued the way he started in his first tenure of office.

KENYON: In their desperation, more and more Egyptians began listening to the arguments of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had abandoned the violent rhetoric of its past in favor of an anti-corruption platform.

Mubarak's regime responded by arresting thousands of Brotherhood supporters, keeping the movement from gaining enough seats in parliament to effect any real change. The secular liberal opposition, meanwhile, was in tatters. And it seemed the most popular jobs for those young Egyptian men who didn't emigrate in search of work were in the security forces.

In a 2008 documentary aired by the Al Jazeera satellite channel, analyst Osama Harb noted that in a country of 70 million people, there was a policeman for roughly every 40 Egyptians.

Mr. OSAMA HARB (Analyst): Eight hundred and fifty thousand officers and soldiers, 450,000 state security forces, 400,000 secret police - this is a president who's relying on an internal army in addition to the army itself.

KENYON: In recent years, Mubarak made an effort to re-establish Egypt's role as a regional mediator, especially in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His strongest asset in that regard was his longtime intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, the only Egyptian other than Gamal Mubarak regularly mentioned as a possible successor to the presidency.

Meanwhile, those connected to the regime's elite inner circle grew ever richer, and ordinary Egyptians saw decent living standards slip farther and farther away.

Analyst and author Hugh Roberts, formerly with the International Crisis Group, believes that the seeds of the long, slow decline that characterized much of Mubarak's tenure were sown in the chaos and bloodshed of Sadat's brutal murder.

Mr. HUGH ROBERTS (Analyst; Author, "The Battlefield"): Sadat, in some ways, had quite a certain charisma precisely because he did have big ideas. And I think that in a way, if Mubarak drew a lesson from Sadat's experience, it was that it's safer not to have big ambitions in terms of shaking things up.

KENYON: With a glorious past and a depressing present, Egyptians might be forgiven for looking backward. But that makes the question of what's next for Egypt a difficult one to answer.

One popular view is that Egyptians simply aren't revolutionary by nature. And so this generation, that has known no leader except Hosni Mubarak, will probably wait patiently to see where their next leader chooses to take them.

But in recent years, a rash of riots, general strikes and other protests has raised another possibility - that even Egyptians can only take so much stagnation and desperation. Some say Egypt's next president must urgently improve living conditions, or risk an explosion of political unrest.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.

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