The Magazine

The Autumn of Mubarak

The high price of going soft on Egypt's autocrat.

Sep 8, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 48 • By JEFFREY AZARVA
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Like most aging autocrats with declining legitimacy, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak seeks to perpetuate the prevailing order. Today, the man who has ruled longer than almost any pharaoh is leaving no stone unturned in his quest to secure the longevity of the regime and a seamless transition of power. Determined to pass the baton to his son, Gamal, he has embarked on an unbridled campaign to crush dissent and consolidate autocratic rule.

But at what price? Coupled with an appeal to nationalist sentiments, Mubarak's repression has stoked tensions that may destabilize the Arab-Israeli arena.

Examples abound. Just last year, members of his National Democratic party (NDP) advocated "trampling over" the Camp David Accords in response to Israeli excavations near the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, claiming that "war with Israel is still ongoing." Following Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon, Mubarak warned that no map can be imposed on the region, and NDP members of parliament voiced similar protests.

Such bluster is nothing new: Mubarak has long used the Arab-Israeli conflict as a release valve for popular discontent. In a bid to deflect attention from its domestic deficiencies, his regime has often used rhetoric to fan the anti-American and anti-Israeli flames.

Yet, for years, Mubarak has walked a tightrope, billing himself as a stalwart U.S. ally and secular dike against the rising tide of extremism. This balancing act has paid off. For maintaining nominal peace with Israel and strengthening strategic cooperation with the United States, his regime has been rewarded with approximately $2 billion annually, behind only Iraq and Israel as the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.

Now the sun is setting on his rule, and Mubarak is approaching the end of his high-wire performance. Indeed, as he digs in his heels rather than relax his grip on power, the assumptions that have long held Egypt to be an anchor of peace and stability could prove mistaken.

At home, economic problems are mounting. Abroad, Egypt's influence is waning. And Mubarak has done little to pull the Arab world's most populous country out of its paralysis. Instead, he is preoccupied with choreographing a succession that has deepened the country's stagnation.

Take recent events: On July 23, Egypt's independence day, security forces arrested and beat 14 Facebook activists who had congregated on a beach to sing patriotic songs and wave Egyptian flags. The charge? Attempting to "topple" the regime.

The accusation would have been comical had such tactics not become commonplace: The clampdown on activists whose weapons are keyboards and digital cameras is par for the course as Cairo retreats from its modest feints toward democratization. Once considered a testing ground for the Bush administration's freedom agenda, Egypt has now abandoned even reform. Since Mubarak permitted Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential election in September 2005, only to imprison his runner-up, he has cracked down with abandon.

It was not always so bad. In the 1990s, Mubarak reserved the brunt of his repressive energies for Islamist extremists. Later, high-profile critics who had the temerity to challenge him in elections, speculate about his health, or question the sanctity of U.S. aid were imprisoned, tortured, or harassed by the regime. Now, with that political opposition defanged, he has turned his sights even on anonymous critics who have broken taboos and crossed government red lines.

It seems a long time ago that President Bush, in his 2005 State of the Union address, exhorted Egypt "to show the way toward democracy in the Middle East." When, a month later, Mubarak announced the contested presidential election, there was even talk of an "Arab spring."

But Mubarak's reelection and the subsequent success of Islamists in parliamentary elections gave his regime a pretext to renege on reform and once again remind Washington of Egypt's indispensable role in the fight against al Qaeda. The Bush administration took the bait, and has refrained from playing hardball ever since.

Today, Mubarak brims with confidence. In the Middle East as elsewhere, autocrats like him do not see weakness as an invitation to compromise. Now assured it will outlive the Bush administration, his regime treats U.S. largesse as an entitlement and dismisses Washington's demarches as "unacceptable interference" in Egyptian affairs. Still, if the Bush administration's abandonment of its democracy project helps explain Mubarak's rollback, it does not account for his retreat to something more ominous than the status quo ante.