Hosni Mubarak: what the pharaoh is like

About the author
Tarek Osman is an Egyptian writer. He was educated at the American University in Cairo and Bocconi University in Italy. He is the author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010)

In its fifty-three year history as a republic, Egypt has so far had three pharaohs: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and the incumbent Hosni Mubarak. As the 78-year-old Mubarak approaches a quarter-century in power, Egyptians wonder – for, after a year of political turbulence that has left the current regime firmly in power – who would be their next pharaoh. The absolutist nature of Egypt’s presidency makes the character of the ruler’s visions, disposition, and personality a vital matter to his subjects.

Nasser’s Egypt was dynamic: it grabbed the political landscape with a thunderous coup, abolishing monarchism, installing republicanism, reforming the agricultural sector – the then spinal cord of Egypt’s socio-economic fabric; eliminating entire social strata and creating others, building whole industries, introducing ground-breaking political systems; entering into wars – close and far away, triggering a regional political tsunami, inspiring revolutions and social overhauls across Africa and Asia, emanating artistic and cultural revolutions all across the middle east; and altering – almost without recognition – the social makeover of the society. No wonder Nasser’s Egypt is either revered or despised; such dynamism ignites only acute emotions.

Also by Tarek Osman in openDemocracy:

Egypt: who’s on top? ” (June 2005)

Egypt’s crawl from autocracy
(August 2005)

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It was not only politics and economics. Egypt lived an intoxicating artistic ambience in the 1950s-60s; some of the country’s, and the Arab world’s, most prominent literature, films and plays were produced in that period. Some would dispute the quality and/or integrity of such artistic produce, yet few would doubt the vibrancy of the era.

That dynamism was a direct consequence of the vision and ambition of the man who led the country in that period. Nasser was among the giants of the post-second world war era, and his ambitions matched those of historic empire-builders and social revolutionaries. The pillars of his grand strategic vision for Egypt were threefold: a country at the heart of the Arab nation, committed to social equality and a bottom-up social system, and playing an influential Arabic role in international affairs. Add to that the man’s own varied interests – ranging from art, cinema, photography, literature and music to the study of history and biography – and you have a larger-than-life figure who can justly be compared to inspiring leaders with holistic legacies such as Otto von Bismarck or Charles de Gaulle.

Nasser’s cursers, perhaps more fervidly than his worshippers, emphasise his dynamism by lamenting the fast pace by which Egypt has changed in his reign – for worse, in their eyes.

Sadat’s Egypt was no less dynamic, albeit its energy was more internally directed. The political, economic and thereby social pulses continued and – more unsettlingly – interwove to result in severe internal frictions. Sadat effectively led a counter-coup against Nasser’s model, planned and managed an all-out war against Israel in 1973, lifted Egypt’s strategic stance from siding with the Soviets in the cold war to make it a staunch ally of the United States, dramatically initiated the peace process with the Jewish state in 1977, and led a complete makeover of Egypt’s political-economic system from socialist central planning to laissez-faire capitalism – at least so was the aim. Whether one condones or rejects the Sadat-inspired-and-led transformations, and whether one condones or rejects the mutiny against these transformations that ended in the assassination of the man himself, few would argue against Egypt’s vigorous forward movement in his reign.

Again, the man himself – his attitude, interests, characteristics – was a major contributing factor to these transformations and their pace of materialisation. Though he lacked Nasser’s legendary appeal, he commanded a father-figure, head-of-the-tribe persona, in addition to a cinematic charisma. He emphasised and used these qualities to maximum effect. Unlike Nasser who interacted with his people as a historical leader on a mission to lead them to glory, Sadat interacted with Egyptians as an oumda (village chieftain) would – dressing traditionally, attending weddings, funerals and regional celebrations, engaging in earthly discussions on day-to-day matters, accentuating his modest roots, and emphasising his piety.

A phantom leader

Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt is quite a different story. The man has neither Nasser’s grandeur nor Sadat’s charisma. For many, he is bland, monotonous, and uninspiring. A leading Egyptian weekly publication once described Mubarak as severely lacking in the leadership department, yet excelling in the execution one. To some, such a profile was perfectly suitable for the occupant of the presidential office at the time of Mubarak’s accession.

In October 1981, following the assassination of Sadat, Egypt needed – or so some journalistic doyens argue – a smoother, low-profile president. Dullness was, perhaps, a sought-after quality in a country torn between various political and economic ideologies, and that had just lost its leader in a bloody murder witnessed by the whole nation. Yet, the effect of a tranquilliser is usually expected to be temporary; a patient expects the long-term effect to be that of the curative medicine. Egypt, with great challenges as well as potential, needed the medicine to be invigorating socio-economic structures blossoming in the midst of a stable political environment. And that needed leadership – with all its components of imagination, charisma and the ability to inspire.

The transmutation of nation into person is not always an indulgence – France as a beautiful, elegant lady; Egypt as a hard-working, dignified female peasant. Mahmoud Mokhtar’s sculpture Nahdat Misr (Egyptian Revival) across the gates of Cairo University, depicts the Egypt idolised in the minds of millions of Egyptians – a pulsating, life-affirming young female peasant. That was not Mubarak’s Egypt. Why?

The man’s lack of vivacity became the modus operandi of his administration; he imposed his pace, tone and work style on the various assistants, advisors and prime ministers who have worked with him; and, consequently, the sluggishness was disseminated through the whole political-economic system ruling Egypt.

Mubarak’s own style was not the sole factor behind Egypt’s lethargy in these years; other socio-economic factors played leading roles. Yet, in Egypt’s absolutist, unchecked, unipolar, extremely influential presidential system, the president has a dramatic influence on the country. Jonathan Fenby, in his insightful book France On the Brink, argues that countries like France whose political system is based on a powerful presidency are significantly swayed by the character, style and personal experience of the president. If that argument is partly true in a spirited democracy such as France, it is absolutely spot-on in an autocracy such as Egypt.

After almost twenty-five years as their ruler, Egyptians know very few things about Hosni Mubarak – the person. His public persona is associated with state ceremonies and public events, but the thoughts, feelings, disposition behind the façade are a mystery to the people. Egyptians hear that he is a fan and a good player of squash. But he has never played in public. The man is said to like traditional folk music, but he never expressed that liking in any way. Despite the billions of words and images that the state-controlled Egyptian media has devoted to Hosni Mubarak since 1981, the man has not connected with his people.

Many Egyptians believe that the man lacks a defined, energetic character. And that such blandness has been a key factor behind his mode of work, his choice of aides, and his overall approach to ruling. Egypt needs to carve for itself a future full of dynamism and vivacity; today, as they prepare to assimilate the lessons of a year charged with social and electoral tension, many Egyptians hope at least that blandness will not be a key characteristic of their next pharaoh.