Return of the Pharaoh

Profile: Hosni Mubarak; His re-election has never been in doubt. Robert Fisk on democracy gone awry
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The Independent Online
IN Cairo, they say Hosni Mubarak changed after the Gema'a Islamiya - the "Islamic Group" - tried to kill him in Addis Ababa. On 6 October 1981 he had seen the gunmen firing at the reviewing stand in Nasser City, sat next to Anwar Sadat as the bullets tore into the president's throat. And in Addis on 26 June this year, Mubarak saw the gunmen again, coming for him this time, firing at his car, one of their bullets smacking into the bullet-proof window inches from his head. And he came to believe, within the next few hours, that God had saved him. He said as much when he returned to Cairo, greeting thousands of poor Egyptian fellahin - bussed to his palace by the security police - with repeated thanks to the Almighty for saving his life.

This was no ritual expression of gratitude. Mubarak, they say, believed that his life was spared by an act of divine providence, that God had personally interceded to prevent the wicked acts of his Islamist opponents. No wonder, then, that within hours he was boasting that he could overthrow Sudan's semi-Islamic regime - which he blamed for the assassination attempt - "within 10 days". While his people suffer 20 per cent unemployment, 50 per cent illiteracy, rising prices and - if they are picked up by the security police and convicted of armed insurrection - torture and the gallows, there was the Egyptian President on television, day after day, telling peasants how the bullets whizzed past him at the critical moment.

No one had seen Mubarak like this before. It would have been typical of Sadat. But not Mubarak, the dark-suited image of political sobriety, the man who ostentatiously closed Sadat's palaces and ordered Sadat's wife Jihan to stop talking, preferring to live in the quiet if handsome suburb of Heliopolis with his own equally quiet half-Welsh wife, Suzan. "The laughing cow" was what they used to call him in Cairo, his bovine face reminding Egyptians of the benign cow that graces the French cheese La Vache qui Rit. When he cleared Cairo's traffic jams by slinging motorway overpasses across the capital, they called him "Hosni Kabari", Hosni of the Bridges. But when they came to hate him as much as they hated Sadat, his most vicious enemies - those who tried to kill him in Addis - called him "Hosni the Pharaoh". That's what Khaled el-Islambouly yelled as he shot Sadat - he called him "Pharaoh" and it was a death sentence.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the irascible sociologist at the American University of Cairo, was among the first to notice the Sadat-like appearance of Mubarak at the post-Addis demonstrations. "I hope these rallies won't go to his head," he said, "and that he'll continue to be modest and show humility." But on the eve of last Wednesday's national elections, Mubarak went on television again and delivered a Sadat-style peroration, insisting that the path to democracy should be slow, ferociously attacking foreign journalists who had dared to criticise Egypt. "He talked down to us," a Cairo businesswoman said. "I've never seen him so condescending."

HOSNI Mubarak, like Sadat, was of humble origins, born in the tiny village of Kafr el-Mosheila in Minufiya on 4 May 1928. His parents had wanted him to study liberal arts at Cairo university but, overwhelmed by the nationalist politics of the 1940s, he became obsessed with the idea of a military career, dedicating himself - with a single-mindedness that has remained one of his principle characteristics - to the air force. He took command of an air squadron, flew the new (and dangerous) Soviet Tupolev-16 jet fighter and studied combat techniques at the Frunze military academy in Russia. He became friends with an equally ascetic young pilot officer who had graduated from the Aleppo air academy in Syria, Hafez el-Assad; and like Assad, Mubarak was a man of almost ruthless personal integrity who suffered neither fools nor opportunists.

When he was an instructor at the Egyptian air force academy, President Nasser's brother Husain turned up as a cadet and tried to use his family connections to attend college classes without paying his fees on time. Mubarak sent him home. When Anwar Sadat's brother Atef sought special treatment, Mubarak disciplined the young man and ordered him to fly more hours than other students. When Anwar Sadat launched the October 1973 war against Israel, Atef was one of the first Egyptian pilots to be killed in action. Mubarak's role as air force commander in the 1973 war - when Egyptian pilots at last redeemed their humiliation at the hands of the Israelis in 1967 - persuaded Sadat to appoint him vice-president. "State secrets should not be placed in the hands of only one man," Sadat told him. Mubarak worked punishing 18-hour days, was elected secretary general of the ruling National Democratic Party and became a foreign policy envoy on those overseas missions too humble for Sadat's growing egomania. Mubarak watched with concern; his president began to govern by whim, imprisoning even peaceful Islamist opponents, deciding during a satellite television interview to fly to Jerusalem to make peace with Israel while ignoring the catastrophe of Egypt's economy. By the time of his death, Sadat had jailed not only Islamists but Copts and political opponents, almost anyone who opposed him in word or deed.

"Mubarak was different when he took over," Magdi Hussein, a moderate Islamist and editor of the Labour party paper Al' Shaab, recalls. "Mubarak was a very humble person. He would telephone the leaders of the opposition, Ibrahim Shukri and the late Fathi Radwan. He was open to intellectuals. Hetold governors to stop sending him messages of congratulations. He was very reasonable, so his first years - from 1981 to 1986 - were very relaxed. But then when the Islamic opposition took 60 seats in the next election, he became angry. In all, the opposition took 100 seats [out of 444] and he swore never to let us have such a success again."

With the Americans pumping more than $2bn a year into the Egyptian economy as a reward for the country's peace with Israel, Washington studiously ignored those aspects of the Mubarak regime that cast doubt on its democratic credentials. Mubarak refused to appoint a vice-president and his own elections began to assume Saddam-like proportions. In 1987 he won 97.1 per cent of the parliamentary vote; in 1993 96 per cent.

"It was in 1990 Mubarak decided to stay for ever, like Sadat," Magdi Hussein believes. "He stopped meeting leaders of the opposition ... In 1993 he banned any activity against him to gain 96 per cent for the presidency. Saddam got 99 per cent this year and that is the difference between our democracy and Iraqi democracy - 3 per cent. This has nothing to do with Addis Ababa. It was gradual. Mubarak began a very harsh campaign against Islamic groups after 1993. He made use of military courts on a larger scale than ever before in Egyptian history, even more than Nasser and the British. We believe the Islamists are extremists but that you can deal with them with ideas. But this government has no ideas, no ideology. Now Mubarak thinks he is a genius, that he is the best person to rule the country and he wants to go on enjoying the privileges of his post."

A more critical politician than Magdi Hussein - but one who fears Mubarak's wrath enough to demand anonymity - was more savage in his comments. "The worse thing about Mubarak is that he has no vision, secular or non-secular, leftist or rightist," he said. "His only vision is to stay in power, and this harms our country. He has no other vision - no vision about science, politics, the economy. And in his campaign to crush the Islamic movement, he has crushed democracy. I expect his assassination - I really do. There have been eight attempts already, the last in Addis. That's why he no longer visits factories or any crowded places. That's why he didn't go to the UN in New York this year."

Surrounded by sycophants, Mubarak's regime has been touched by corruption, the cancer of the Arab world; ageing ministers have kept their cabinet seats for well over a decade while rumours persist that although Mubarak is personally incorruptible, his advisers are involved in large-scale business deals, including an international arms scam. But there is a far more chilling side to the regime. Military courts have sentenced dozens of armed Islamists to the gallows, at least 26 more have died of ill-treatment in Egyptian prisons in the past 11 months. Torture is now routine at state security police headquarters in Lazoughly street in central Cairo. The military sentenced 54 Muslim Brothers - non-violent Islamists who included doctors and lawyers - to jail just before last week's poll, including several election candidates.

"I know three of those arrested and tried," Mohamed Heikel says. "One of them was the head of a doctors' union, another the head of students' organisations in upper Egypt. They were trying to play the democratic game. These were intelligent people who knew exactly how crude is the power of the state in a democratic country, and I cannot with a good conscience accept that they've done anything wrong. Yet they got five years. The catastrophe is that the regime really thinks it is popular." Woe betide the journalist who thinks otherwise. The state prosecutor has prepared cases against five writers - one of them Magdi Hussein - under a new law which allows journalists to be sentenced to up to 15 years' imprisonment for defaming a "public figure" or harming the economy.

Negad al-Borai, the head of the Egyptian Human Rights Organisation, draws unpleasant historical parallels. "The Americans supported the Shah of Iran and look what happened - they got Khomeini. Now the Americans need Egypt for their peace process but they could lose Egypt by the way they support Mubarak. They must help the civil society grow up and seek a real solution to our problems. We hate the fundamentalists but if Hosni Mubarak continues the same way, the West will lose Egypt, like Iran."