The Tyrant's Brutal Legacy

Article excerpt

Byline: Tarek Masoud

As Egypt's democracy fights for its life, Hosni Mubarak is at death's door.

There will be no dramatic moment of closure on the era of Muhammad Hosni al-Sayyid Mubarak, the man who ruled and misruled Egypt for 30 years before being overthrown in early 2011. There will be no choppy cellphone video of the dictator's final helter-skelter moments, no shots of him being dragged out of a hole looking disheveled and confused, suffering unspeakable violations of his manhood before finally bleeding to death as feral young rebels pose with his lifeless corpse, as was the fate of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

But for those who need some visual evidence of Mubarak's expiration in order to put the man behind them, there is a photograph that portrays, more arrestingly than any gallows snapshot could, the autocrat's end. It was taken on Aug. 3, 2011, when he was first wheeled into a makeshift courtroom at the police academy to hear the litany of charges against him. Dressed in a white prison jumpsuit, lying on a stretcher, his finger firmly lodged in his nose, he was unrecognizable as the man who for almost 30 years sought to project an image of near immortality. Though it's not a depiction of Mubarak's death in its physical sense, that image surely represents his death in every other meaningful sense of the word.

The impact of that image, and of the trial that produced it, is impossible to exaggerate. Where it was once a crime to suggest that the ruler was unhealthy--one journalist spent a month in prison in 2008 for doing so--the former president now seemed to be parading his infirmities. Jihan Sadat, the widow of Mubarak's murdered predecessor, Anwar Sadat, and a well-wisher of the deposed president's, expressed to a television interviewer her distress at seeing Mubarak look so wretched. She had hoped for defiance, for him to show the world that he was a "fighter," and she fretted that whoever had advised him to play up his infirmities had not served him well. She was right. Muhammad Subhi, one of Egypt's leading satirists, compared the pitiful Mubarak with former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who had stood up to his prosecutors during his own trials almost seven years ago, cutting a defiant figure even as masked executioners slipped the noose around his neck.

But Mubarak had tried defiance once, and it did not work in his favor. In April 2011, amid mounting protests for him to be put on trial for allowing the murder of protesters and for allegedly stealing more than $70 billion from the public treasury, the former president chastised his accusers and declared his intention to seek legal recourse against them. His brazenness backfired, making it impossible for the generals to fend off their former boss's pursuers any longer. Two days later, he and his two sons were under arrest, setting in motion the final act in the ill-fated tale of Egypt's fourth president.

Mubarak was born 84 years ago in a dusty village in the Nile delta, the son of a minor government functionary. At the time, Egypt was presided over by an uneasy trinity of an ineffectual monarch, a heavy-handed British colonial administration, and a dissipated Turco-Circassian aristocracy. For someone of Mubarak's limited means and ignoble lineage, the pathways to social mobility were few, and the military was one of them. Mubarak graduated from the Royal Military Academy in 1949, and immediately signed up to join the country's young Air Force because, as he later put it, with his characteristic lack of poetry, "to be a pilot was something new."

And he was good at it. Anwar Sadat first met Mubarak in 1950 while the latter was stationed at an airbase in the Sinai Peninsula. Lore has it that Sadat was so impressed with the young pilot that he recorded his name in a little notebook. Although Mubarak was not invited to join Sadat's secret faction of "Free Officers," his career went into overdrive after their successful coup against the monarchy. …