Middle East in Focus
News of the passing of Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak has triggered varied responses from regional observers, as each of them tries to come to terms with a legacy that spans 3 decades. Mr. Mubarak became president following the assassination of his predecessor, former President Anwar Sadat, and has been credited with strengthening Egypt’s standing in the region and more broadly. On the other hand, critics of the former president point to his failure to stem poverty, unemployment and corruption, as well as his heavy-handed approach to political dissent, issues that ultimately led to mass protests and his ousting in February 2011.
Mr. Mubarak is remembered particularly fondly by the Kuwaitis, many of whom credit him for standing up against Iraq’s former strongman Saddam Hussein. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Arab Times editor-in-chief, Ahmed Al-Jarallah, is so effusive in his praise: “Despite his physical departure, Mubarak remains a beacon of nationalism. He adhered to nationalism until the end of his life, even at the most difficult time, when the toxic wind of the ‘Brotherhood’ blew and several countries called on him to go into exile. However, he insisted on remaining and stood firm.... He interpreted his conviction admirably in the state institutions, starting from the judiciary to the lowest employee in rank. He was also convinced that Egypt produces the best, and what he built during his 30-year rule was not based on malice, personal interest or opportunism or even self-gain but commitment and devotion toward public service.”
However, in what may have been the most poignant evidence of the difficulty of dealing with Mr. Mubarak’s legacy, most heads of state decided to stay away from the funeral processions, opting for, as Daily News Egypt’s Fatma Lotfi points out, sending lower-ranking officials instead: “A military funeral for former president Hosni Mubarak was held on Wednesday at Al Musheer Tantawi Mosque, in the Fifth Settlement, in an abrupt farewell, where major heads of states were absent.... Major state heads did not show up to the burial ceremony, despite Mubarak having strong regional and international relations. Delegations of several regional ambassadors were present.... Debates were raised over holding a military funeral for Mubarak, as he and his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, were convicted in May 2015 on charges of seizing public funds by embezzling money specified for the presidential palace.”
Among those who did not attend the funeral was the Israeli prime minister, who nevertheless issued a statement referring to Mr. Mubarak as his friend. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is not the only Israeli who has kind words for Egypt’s longest-serving president. The reason for that is not very difficult to imagine, given what a recent Jerusalem Post editorial calls “Mubarak’s legacy in Israel”: “How he will be perceived in the history books in coming generations is still a question mark. But in his relationship with Israel, Mubarak’s legacy is already written in stone. Considered a war hero for his role in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Mubarak ironically ended up rigorously guarding the tenuous peace between Egypt and Israel that was forged by his predecessor Anwar Sadat in 1979.... [H]e will be remembered in Israel as the Egyptian leader who kept the treaty, maintained the cold peace and got down in the trenches to work toward peace between Israel and its neighbors.”
While Mr. Mubarak’s legacy in international affairs may be considered a successful one, there is more ambivalence and outright criticism of his handling of the economy and political discourse in the country. For example, Al Ahram’s Dina Ezzat casts Egypt’s former president as a leader ever-evolving, but always firm in his commitment toward the poor: “For years Mubarak was reluctant to adopt the kind of economic programmes promoted by the International Monetary Fund, and when he finally bowed to the advice of his aides in the early 1990s, he insisted on a very slow process, especially when it came to the elimination of subsidies. In the third and last decade of his rule, Mubarak signed up for more fundamental economic reforms but still took a firm stance against some of the advice proffered by his aides.... He refused to allow the Egyptian currency to float freely and backed away from draconian cuts in subsidies. Instead he opted to open the economy to more foreign investment and adopted policies intended to encourage investors.
The Jerusalem Post’s Amotz Asa-El is even more direct in pinning the blame for Egypt’s struggling economy on Mr. Mubarak’s timidity and lack of initiative: “Demographically, Mubarak should have been inspired by Iran’s imposition of family planning on its Islamist conservatives. Educationally, Mubarak should have been inspired by Turkey’s defeat of illiteracy, when Kemal Ataturk turned a society that was 90% illiterate into what now is a fully literate nation. Economically, Mubarak should have launched India’s kind of Green Revolution that since the 1960s has made the subcontinent self-sufficient in food grains. Mubarak had 30 years in which to complete these revolutions, none of which he ever began. It was a failure of vision that will likely be remembered as an emblem of the broader, postcolonial Arab world’s tragedy, whose unelected leaders were busy looking after themselves while the rest of mankind raced ahead.”
In her reflection for Arab News, Dania Khatib concludes that Mr. Mubarak’s poor handling of the economy led directly to his ousting, even though Egypt’s former president’s legacy may have been rehabilitated following the chaos and increased corruption of the post-Mubarak era: “During his rule, the economic conditions in Egypt kept on worsening until they led to the uprising that ended his control over the country. However, as the Arab uprisings unfolded further and the world watched other rulers brutally crush protests, one should pay tribute to Mubarak for respecting the will of the people and leaving his seat gracefully.... one cannot describe Mubarak’s rule as being marked with prosperity. It was more of an era of crony capitalism... However, today Egypt is not really any better off. The sectors that were once controlled by oligarchs are now controlled by the army and its generals. Therefore, the revolution did not really lead Egypt to a free market economy. “
And yet, as a recent Gulf News editorial highlights, Mr. Mubarak’s decision during the height of the Arab Spring to cede power without resorting to extreme violence against the protesters may have ensured that his legacy will remain a mostly positive one: “The outpouring of condolences from Egyptians, including those who rose against him in 2011, shows that despite his obvious shortfalls as president, Mubarak will always be remembered as a patriotic leader, unlike many others in the Arab world who unleashed the full military power against their people during the so-called Arab Spring. He chose to withdraw peacefully from public life to preserve his country’s unity and stability and avoid internal conflicts that erupted in other countries such as Syria and Libya.... all agree that Mubarak, despite his often-autocratic governing style, will be remembered as the man who kept his country united during a critical junction of its modern history.”