The Pharaoh's Legacy

Hosni Mubarak is dead, or very close to it. The Egyptian state news agency MENA reported that the former president was pronounced clinically dead after having a stroke on the evening of June 19 -- a statement that was quickly denied by a member of the ruling military junta, who clarified that Mubarak was nevertheless in critical condition.

Whatever the case, Mubarak's final moments in a military hospital in Cairo would not be what many Egyptians had in mind when they sought justice and revenge for those who suffered at his hands. No doubt, his supporters would have preferred the pomp and circumstance of a state funeral honoring a man they believe was a transitional figure who had placed Egypt on the path of prosperity and even democracy.

For better or worse, Mubarak's predecessors, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat were larger-than-life figures who accomplished big things, whether it was nationalization of the Suez Canal or negotiating peace with Israel. Once Mubarak, for all his failings, seemed larger than life himself; but he will not join their ranks. Instead, he will be remembered for the squalid politics, brutality, and repression that characterized the last decades of his long reign, and the mass demonstrations that ended it so abruptly.

Looking back over the late Mubarak period, it is hard to believe that his presidency began on October 14, 1981, with promise. Upon taking his first oath of office, it was possible to imagine Mubarak as a reformist. He struck a self-effacing tone, reached out to an opposition that had been in open revolt against Sadat, and promised to use judiciously Egypt's emergency law, which gave the government extraconstitutional powers. In another gesture at reconciliation, soon after taking office, Mubarak emptied the jails of those Sadat had imprisoned and vowed to undertake political as well as economic reforms.

Nor was the Mubarak era strictly a period of economic stagnation. The country's gross domestic product was approximately $40 billion when Mubarak entered office; on the eve of the uprising, it topped $145 billion. There were only 430,000 telephone lines in the entire country when Mubarak took power -- by 2010, it had well over 12 million. In 1981, the life expectancy of the average Egyptian was 57 years old; it is now 70. The World Bank reports that the Egyptian literacy rate was less than 50 percent 30 years ago. Today, the literacy rate stands at 66 percent, though it remains dismally low for Egyptian women. But by the later Mubarak era, Egypt's private sector was prospering, the levels of foreign direct investment were unprecedented, and the international business community began talking about Egypt as a promising "emerging market."

Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.

The above article was published in foreignpolicy.com on June 19th, 2012.

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