Jonathan Wright worked for Reuters between 1979 to 2010 as a correspondent in the Middle East, Africa and the United States. He began and ended his Reuters career in Egypt, where he now lives and translates books. He was standing meters away from then leader Anwar Sadat when he was assassinated by Islamist soldiers in 1981. He was kidnapped in Lebanon, managing to escape. In this item he gives an account of Mubarak’s rise and the challenge he now faces. Views expressed are his own.
By Jonathan Wright
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak came to power at a moment of national crisis after a dramatic act of political violence coupled with an armed insurgency.
Thirty years later he is clinging to power, with more than 130 people dead in the streets and with no clear successor.
Throughout the intervening three decades and despite scores of empty promises, Mubarak has done nothing to create an institutional framework for a peaceful and democratic transfer of power in the Arab world’s most populous nation.
Instead he has perpetuated a system in which politics in the conventional sense hardly exists, running the country by administrative fiat as if it were an army or a corporation.
Mubarak owes his presidential career to President Anwar Sadat, who saw him as a loyal subordinate and appointed him vice president in 1975. At the time he was commander of the air force, with no political experience or ambitions.
When Sadat summoned him to the presidential palace to offer him the job, the most Mubarak expected was that he would end up as Egyptian ambassador in some European capital, he said in a television interview in 2005.
Islamist revolutionaries gunned Sadat down at a military parade in Cairo on Oct 6, 1981, and Mubarak, who was sitting next to Sadat and was slightly injured, stepped into the breach, to widespread relief among ordinary Egyptians.
Islamist insurgents, incensed by Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel, simultaneously tried to take over the southern city of Assiut. Mubarak sent in the army to crush them.
At the time his solid presence and cautious demeanor had a calming effect on a country traumatized by the assassination of Sadat and fearful of chaos and civil war.
But once installed in power, Mubarak never offered Egyptians any vision other than economic development under the same authoritarian system he had inherited from the army officers who overthrew the monarchy in 1952.
Mubarak has spoken about democracy whenever the occasion arises but his actions have never suggested he understood the concept to include the possibility of early retirement or losing power through elections.
He preferred to talk about security and stability, portraying himself as a benign patriarch protecting the country from an array of enemies, some real and some imaginary.
During a lesser crisis during the presidential election campaign of 2005, when Washington was leaning on him to loosen up, he dismissed with contempt the advice of intellectuals who told him he needed to create real institutions.
Until 2005 Mubarak was the only candidate in presidential referendums. Even in 2005 he never deigned to debate his main rival, liberal lawyer Ayman Nour, who was then imprisoned for five years on dubious charges of forging signatures.
Even economic development was slow and patchy until his son Gamal, a former investment banker, persuaded him to bring businessmen and neoliberal economists into the cabinet.
Economic growth picked up, hitting 7.2 percent in the financial year 2007/8, but meanwhile the gap has grown between rich and poor, inflation has stayed high and the poor complain that they have seen none of the benefits.
On the political front, little changed. Businessmen friends and associates of Gamal Mubarak moved into the upper reaches of the ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP), which has been one of the prime targets of the current uprising.
More and more complacent and unimaginative as he ages, Mubarak has condoned or turned a blind eye to the gradual erosion of the rule of law, making a smooth and broadly accepted transition of power more and more elusive.
Police have tortured with impunity anyone who challenges authority, and corrupt politicians have monopolized the political scene by rigging elections and fixing the rules to exclude all rivals. Officials say voting is fair and that it investigates any cases of torture.
Mubarak has seemed oblivious to the dangers. Asked last year who would succeed him, he said: “Only God knows who will be my successor. Whoever God prefers, I prefer.”
U.S. ambassador Margaret Scobie, summarizing Mubarak’s vision in a cable leaked by WikiLeaks, concurred. “He seems to be trusting to God and the ubiquitous military and civilian security services to ensure an orderly transition,” she wrote.