The Tragedy of Mubarak

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey

The Egyptian president had ruled for decades. Then his grandson died, and the unraveling began.

The night before he finally stepped down as Egypt's president, the protesters in Tahrir Square heard Hosni Mubarak deliver his final address as their head of state. "A speech from a father to his sons and daughters," he called it, and like many of his orations in the past, it was filled with lies, although he may have believed some of these himself. He would stay as president until September, he promised, because the country needed him for a transition to democracy. This, after three decades of autocracy. The hundreds of thousands gathered in the square wanted to hear him say only one word: "Goodbye." Amid their screams of fury, one woman could be heard shouting into a phone, "People are sick of the soap opera!"

The protesters had reason to be weary of the president's final, delusional public performance. But there was another long drama coming to an end that night, mostly out of public view--a personal story that helps to explain the president whose stubborn incomprehension of his "sons and daughters" dragged Egypt so close to ruin. Former U.S. ambassador to Egypt Daniel Kurtzer has called it the "tragedy" of the Mubaraks. As Kurtzer says of the Egyptian president, "He really did feel he was the only one holding the dike"--as if beyond Mubarak lay the deluge.

Mubarak's fall is not a story like the one that unfolded in Tunisia, of a dictator and his kin trying to take their country for all it was worth. Although there have been widely reported but poorly substantiated allegations of a $40 billion to $70 billion fortune amassed by the Mubarak family, few diplomats in Egypt find those tales even remotely credible. "Compared to other kleptocracies, I don't think the Mubaraks rank all that high," says one Western envoy in Cairo, asking not to be named on a subject that remains highly sensitive. "There has been corruption, [but] as far as I know it's never been personally attached to the president and Mrs. Mubarak. They don't live an elaborate lifestyle."

On the contrary, vanity more than venality was the problem at the top in Egypt. Despite the uprising of millions of people in Egypt's streets, despite their ringing condemnations of secret-police tactics and torture, the Mubarak family remained convinced that everything the president had done was for the country's own good. "We're gone. We're leaving," the deeply depressed first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, told one of her confidantes as the crisis worsened last week. "We've done our best."

The man at the heart of the story, the patriarch, had never imagined he would hold the presidency--and when that came true, he couldn't imagine it ending. As commander of the Egyptian Air Force, he had been a hero of the 1973 war against Israel, so when President Anwar Sadat summoned him to the palace in 1975, he thought maybe he was going to be rewarded with a diplomatic post, but no more than that. (Friends say Suzanne told him to try to get a nice one in Europe.) Instead, Sadat named him vice president. And on Oct. 6, 1981, as Sadat and Mubarak sat side by side watching a military parade, radical Islamists opened fire, killing Sadat and making Mubarak the most powerful man in the land. Egypt was a different country in those days, one where the government's lies to the people went unquestioned and the police routinely intimidated the public into submission. The only television was state television, and the primary contact with the outside world was via sketchy phone lines. Some international calls had to be booked days in advance. As Mubarak's reaction to the protests made clear, he failed to understand how the country had changed in 30 years.

His partner in the family tragedy was Suzanne Mubarak, the daughter of a Welsh nurse and an Egyptian doctor, who married Hosni when he was a young Air Force flight instructor and she was only 17. …