Hosni Mubarak: The Egyptian Autocrat Whose Regime Endures

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Hosni Mubark died in February at the age of 91, a free and rich man who spent 30 years of his life stealing from, torturing and holding Egypt captive.

When the dictator who ruled your country for three decades dies, it is like the death of a long-time abuser. You don’t mourn the abuser — you mourn the versions of yourself that might have existed without him. Mubarak didn’t just steal Egyptians’ wealth with rampant corruption; he stole our ability to imagine. He wasted our time, and so many of our years.

I was 14 when Mubarak became president in 1981, and 44 when an 18-day revolution, part of the historic Arab Spring, forced him out on Feb. 11, 2011. That day, I was on Brian Lehrer’s WNYC radio show, in front of a studio audience, when an Egyptian friend who had been forced into exile because he had posted videos of police brutality on his blog called me during a break.

“He’s gone, Mona!” he told me in between sobs. “He’s gone.”

I was crying when the show resumed.

Mubarak kept Egypt under emergency law for every one of his years in power. The feared security services became bigger and bolder in their brutality, detentions and torture. Elections were routinely rigged, and crony capitalism filled the bank accounts of his family and their circle while millions struggled in poverty.

Since I had become a journalist in 1989, Mubarak regime crimes had become as familiar to me as the sound of the dictator’s voice. One of my earliest assignments was an interview with a woman in her 60s who had come to Cairo from her village in southern Egypt to demand that the nonprofit Egyptian Organization for Human Rights get her justice. I have never forgotten her story: The police had insisted she testify against a man they said was a car thief. She refused, saying she had never seen him steal anything. Police took her from the soda stand she ran to the police station and anally raped her with a chair leg. Hearing this was my introduction to just how drunk on power the police were.

When I took home the EOHR report that documented her case, along with others, the uncle I was living with at the time asked to read it. He returned it to me the next morning, its horrors registered on his face. “These things happen in Egypt?” he asked me. I had recently returned from some time abroad, and every week, I asked my uncles and aunts, “Where is the revolution?” It wasn’t just the abuses. It was also the poverty — half of the population lived on $2 a day.

As a Reuters correspondent, I shouted out Mubarak’s name at so many news conferences that he took to calling me “the troublemaker from Reuters.” A presidential press pass was a precious commodity that was used to reward and punish. Once, a few weeks after I did not stand up when Mubarak entered an open-air restaurant, his security detail confiscated my press card. When Reuters called the president’s media office to get it back, they were told: “The next time the president enters anywhere, make sure Mona Eltahawy stands up.”

The first time I shouted, “Down, down with Hosni Mubarak!” was during rush hour on an afternoon in June 2005, in Shubra, a working-class neighborhood of Cairo. Small, astonishingly brave protests had begun in Cairo the year before as part of the Kefaya (Enough) movement. We could not have been more than 100 in total that day, marching along the street. I had covered protests as a news reporter, but now I was shouting in unison with my compatriots. Surrounded by police on both sides, we would at times come cheek-to-jowl with rush-hour commuters taking the bus home. They looked at us as if we were out of our minds, seemingly wondering when we would “go behind the sun,” the Egyptian phrase for “disappear.”

I went to that protest with Alaa Abdel-Fattah, an anarchist Linux developer who, like the majority of the Egyptian population, had known no other ruler than Mubarak; Alaa was born a month after soldiers assassinated President Anwar Sadat during a military parade in 1981, as Mubarak, his vice president, stood by his side. The longer Mubarak’s rule ran, the younger Egyptians seemed to become, in a macabre political riff on The Portrait of Dorian Gray. By the end of his rule, he was less Father and more Grandfather of the Nation.

By the time Mubarak died this year, just days after the ninth anniversary of his ouster, Egyptians were so exhausted by the viciousness of our current dictator, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, that some pined for Mubarak; others hardly noticed. Mubarak killed some 900 people during the 2011 uprising. Sisi killed more than 800 in one day in 2013.

Many Americans probably missed Mubarak’s death too, even as the United States played a pivotal role in keeping him in power. His 30-year rule of Egypt spanned five U.S. presidents, Democrats and Republicans, each happy to prop him up with arms and billions of dollars in aid to Egypt, all the while insisting that we Egyptians liked our leader to be iron-fisted because he brought us stability. It was classic gaslighting — the equivalent of your abuser’s friends mansplaining your abuse to you, while insisting that your abuser is good for you.

Mubarak spent 30 years consolidating a regime that continues to steal from, torture and hold Egypt captive. Yet outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly has called Sisi “my favorite dictator.” President-elect Joe Biden said in a PBS interview in the middle of our revolution in 2011, “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.” Biden has been willing to call Sisi a dictator, but will U.S. policy toward Egypt change once he takes office?

Alaa, the young anarchist who took me to my first protest, is in Sisi’s prisons, along with an estimated 60,000 political prisoners. Mubarak has died, but for now the regime lives on.

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