Hosni Mubarak, the man with no ideas
Mubarak, having come of age during the era of the Free Officers and having witnessed Sadat’s assassination first-hand, saw the problems associated with trying to resolve Egypt’s underlying identity questions through some bold ideological vision, and opted for a strategy that he hoped would bind people to the regime through economic and social development. By official measures, Mubarak achieved a lot during his almost thirty-year reign. The World Bank data shows impressive results. The problem is that ideas matter. For Mubarak it was all about “stability for the sake of development” and anyone who dissented from his conception of stability was beaten into submission until they—along with a lot of others who felt the same way but were afraid to speak out—refused to be intimidated. That’s how you got January 25. This was not an uprising about economic grievances, though they played an important role in creating an environment of misery. Rather, people rose up because they wanted social justice, representative government and national dignity. Not surprisingly, these are common themes throughout late 19th-, 20th-, and early 21st-century Egyptian politics.
Of course Mubarak had to deal with tremendous population growth during his reign — almost a doubling, from around 45m to 85m today. It’s true he achieved some things in terms of development, but any other president would have too. In many respects he did not do enough, and I remember a nice turn of phrase used by a (tame) opposition figure a few years ago: “The problem with Egypt is that it never really recovered from the 1967 and 1973 wars.” Sadat, and Mubarak who largely continued his legacy but in a more pragmatic manner, was supposed to have made the grand bargains with the US and Israel precisely to do that. The result, while impressive in some regards (a lot of improvements in infrastructure, public health, etc. — believe or not) was not enough: not only it could have been better and fairer, but it also came as a heavy price. Part of this is that he created, through dull leadership and strategies of de-politicization, an enormous moral and inspirational vacuum.