The World’s Jeb Sharp looks back at its start.
President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in a blaze of bullets on October 6, 1981. Hosni Mubarak, his vice-president, stepped into his shoes.
Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation said that like Sadat, and Sadat’s predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mubarak was a military man.
“He was the head of the air force during the 1973 war which was seen as a heroic moment for the Egyptian military and for Egypt,” said Hanna. “There were military gains made in October 1973 against the Israelis.”
But Mubarak’s DNA was very different from that of either Sadat or Abdel Nasser, said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Abdel Nasser had an idea and that was Arab Socialism,” said Alterman. “Sadat had an idea and that was to open up the Egyptian economy and to reorient Egypt from a pro-Soviet orientation to a pro-Western orientation. Mubarak hasn’t had an idea. There’s really a sense that Egypt had two leaders who led the Arab world, who changed the Arab world, and then they have a president who’s just sat there and he has no intention of moving!”
When he first came to power, Mubarak represented stability. That’s because he took power after a somewhat rocky period. Anwar Sadat had accomplished a lot — a peace deal with Israel and a new relationship with the United States but those came at the expense of Egypt’s relations with the Arab world.
Mubarak smoothed things over, according to Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
“He kept the peace, he kept the relationship with the United States, he fixed relations with the Arab world,” said Dunne. “He initially carried out some limited political liberalization; let a lot of people out of jail who had been imprisoned at the end of the Sadat era.”
The problem, Dunne said, is that stability turned into stagnation … and increased repression.
The protestors on the streets today cite concrete problems in their lives but part of their distress also stems from the loss of Egypt’s place in the Arab world.
When Gamal Abdel Nasser and fellow officers deposed the British-backed King in 1952, the new military regime was hugely popular, in Egypt and beyond.
“Abdel Nasser was a fantastically famous figure throughout the Arab world,” said Michael Wahid Hanna. “People waited to hear his speeches and he transfixed the entire region. Obviously 1967 was the big turning point for Nasser. The crushing defeat to the Israelis in the Six-Day War and the loss of Sinai, that’s a critical moment in the history of Egypt and of the region and really you begin to see many of the trends of stagnation and disillusionment that followed.”
Nasser died in 1970. It was his successor, Anwar Sadat, who famously switched Egypt’s allegiance in the Cold War from the Soviets to the United States. Sadat made peace with Israel at Camp David in 1978.
That deal paved the way for massive American aid to Egypt; aid that Mubarak’s regime has benefited from for nearly three decades.
“But that aid relationship didn’t create a strong US Egyptian relationship,” said Jon Alterman. “It didn’t create a partnership, instead it created a dependency, and resentment on both sides that the other side really took them for granted.”
That uneasy but mutually-dependent relationship continues today, which is what makes the Obama Administration’s current decision-making on what to do about Mubarak so loaded and tricky.