Mubarak: a leader on the brink

The world watches and waits to see how the 30-year reign of Egypt's corrupt, incompetent President will end – whether the man who has reduced his country to a political slum will fight or take flight. Patrick Cockburn studies the lessons of his past
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Will he or won't he go? And if he goes in what circumstances will he do so? Never has there been such acute interest in Egypt and the rest of the world about what goes on inside the head of President Hosni Mubarak.

Almost everybody is agreed from street protesters in central Cairo to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington that Mubarak is going to lose power in the short or medium term. His 30-year regime has long been notorious for its corruption, incompetence, authoritarianism and brutality, and it now appears to be losing the monopoly of force which alone guaranteed its survival. The riot police fled the streets at the weekend and the tank commanders who replaced them are pictured fraternising with demonstrators.

But the uncontested transition to a democratically elected government, largely preserving the political status quo, which the US and Britain would like to see, will not happen easily. First of all, Mubarak shows no signs yet of departing, though he is unlikely to advertise his travel plans.

His appointment of a new government led by Omar Suleiman, the chief of intelligence, might open the door for Mubarak to step down, but it might also mean that he believes he is not finished yet.

For all Mubarak's three decades as president of Egypt it is difficult to read his mind or his likely reactions, particularly as he faces an unprecedented crisis. Egyptians have long mocked his bovine appearance and utterances. "La vache qui rit" was the contemptuous phrase used to describe him. But he would not have held power for so long if he did not know how to manipulate political forces inside and outside Egypt.

Parts of the army leadership may now want to replace him, but if he does not go voluntarily, like President Ben Ali in Tunisia, will they be able to compel him to go? The problem for the generals is that Mubarak is at the head of a state that is also a patronage machine the beneficiaries of which have a vested interest in seeing continue.

The US would also like Mubarak to go as a means of preserving the status quo. It does not want the Muslim Brotherhood to become more powerful. It needs to preserve the treaty between Egypt and Israel and keep Israel as a close ally of the US. But the US is extraordinarily unpopular among Egyptians according to the Pew Global Attitudes project which shows that just 17 per cent of Egyptians (the figure is the same for Pakistan and Turkey) have a favourable view of the US. Washington is faced with the likelihood that a truly democratic election in Egypt will produce a government hostile to Egypt's close alliance with America. No wonder it would like a close confidant of Mubarak such as General Suleiman to take charge.

Probably Mubarak cannot survive for very long, but does he know that? Egypt may have an omni-present intelligent service but it has the reputation of keeping bad news from the President.

On one occasion in the 1990s he only learnt that a district of Cairo was controlled by Islamic militants because he accidentally read a Reuters report about it in a newspaper he picked up in a plane. This isolation has grown with the years with Mubarak spending much of his time in the holiday resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in Sinai where his family owns much of the property.

It is the Egyptian army that will decide Mubarak's future just as it defined his past. Born in 1928 he became a professional air force officer as a young man and climbed steadily through the ranks. He was known as being largely apolitical, his years of training as a pilot in the Soviet Union in 1959-61 attracting no unfavourable comment from the ever suspicious Egyptian security agencies. By 1967 he was head of the Air Force academy and two years later chief of staff of the Egyptian air force. After the October war in 1973 he was promoted to air chief marshal despite the variable record of the Egyptian air force in the fighting.

So far Mubarak had been a successful career officer but in 1975 he was appointed vice-president by Anwar Sadat. He was wholly loyal to the president and his policies as Egypt moved towards alliance with the US and a peace treaty with Israel. When President Sadat was assassinated in 1981 Mubarak took over and has remained in power ever since.

His rule has been conservative, never taking chances or adapting any course radically different from that first chartered by Sadat. He stayed close to the US, joining the coalition against Iraq in 1990. He was also lucky in his enemies since attacks by Islamic militants in the 1990s, leading to several assassination attempts against him, meant that all opposition to his rule could be targeted and used to frighten the US into giving him support. Mubarak was regularly re-elected by vast majorities in referendums that were blatantly fraudulent.

How much of this happened because of Mubarak's personal initiative and how much would have happened anyway? In reality, almost all the Arab governments in North Africa and the Middle East have a great deal in common and were shaped by common political and economic forces. This was as true of states such as Egypt, Syria and Libya, whose governments claimed to be the fruit of revolutions, as it was of monarchies such as Saudi Arabia. Leaders of republics groomed their sons as their successors.

Oil revenues and foreign aid enabled Arab states to fund powerful security forces and sizeable armies without taxing the population. States without much oil such as Egypt exported labour to those that did. Remittances poured in. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that the US was the only superpower to conciliate and to fear. Islamic militancy was a serious threat – Mubarak survived six assassination attempts – but the extent of its popular appeal always had its limits. Even now Mubarak's supporters hint at the Islamic threat. The Islamists themselves benefited from being identified as the main opposition by an unpopular regime.

Under Mubarak Egypt has become steadily more decrepit, politically, economically and socially. The poverty rate jumped from 20 to 23.4 per cent over the past two years. The state machinery is notoriously obstructive to any new initiative, because it exists as a patronage machine providing jobs for those working for it or in order to extract bribes from anybody dealing with it.

Mubarak has had little interest in economic change, treating foreign exchange reserves as a sort of personal treasure trove. It could never be spent to stabilise the currency because its size was a matter of prestige, so it could not be reduced. Even when he did back reforms they did not necessarily happen. David Gardner, the author of Last Chance: The Middle East in the Balance, cites the fate of an important innovation in Egypt's antique and complicated corporate law whereby a new enterprise could be automatically registered. The change was never implemented, the reformer who originated it explained, noting that the Mukhabarat (the intelligence services) had stopped it because it would have reduced their arbitrary power. "With anything you try to reform there is a hidden security element," the frustrated reformer said. "The security obsession is not really about catching anyone, but about maintaining the power of the security people."

This story is worth bearing in mind in assessing whether Mubarak will go and what will replace him. Any real change in Egypt will require members of the security elite to give up part of their power which in the past has generated great wealth for them. The very absence of any effective reforms over the past 30 years, means that it will be difficult to get rid of Mubarak and maintain the rest of his regime in place.

Mubarak is under intense pressure. He is an old man in his 80s, and even he must realise that his hopes of having his son Gamal succeed him are no longer feasible. But it is also true that the failings of his regime have been true for decades without his rule being threatened. He may blame many of his troubles on US actions he opposed, such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In 2005 he made some concessions by allowing a multi-candidate presidential election, but the vote was widely regarded as fraudulent and the opposition candidate Ayman Nour was later jailed.

Mubarak's regime is crumbling but it still has sharp teeth. It benefits from its previous onslaughts on its critics making it difficult to create a coherent opposition quickly. Over the last decade even the mildest of academic criticism has led to distinguished academics such as Saadeddin Ibrahim being put in jail. The Muslim Brotherhood may be organised but it is divided and has decided it is wise not to allow itself to be portrayed as leading protests.

Some tanks carry banners saying "Down with Mubarak", but this may not last. Continuous street protests are difficult to sustain without an organisation. Mubarak could wait them out just as the Iranian government did in 2009 and then gradually re-impose authority. The West would clearly like General Suleiman to take takeover, prepare the way for elections, and stand as an obstacle to radical change.

But in the longer term the day of the Middle East "strong man" of which Mubarak is the most typical example, is drawing to its end. Like the military regimes in Latin America in the second half of the 20th century or Communist governments in eastern Europe, they have not been able to reform themselves and, if they try to, they are likely to fall apart. Their methods of control rely on coercion and brutality and this is no longer enough. The next few days will show if the age of the Mubaraks, who reduced so much of the Arab world to a political slum, is truly coming to an end.