Hosni Mubarak was once the most powerful man in Egypt, inheriting the presidency after his predecessor Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamic militants residing within Egypt’s own military command. He took over in 1981 as an inexperienced politician but someone who was widely respected by the military as a hero during Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel. Indeed, pending Mubarak’s rise as president, he was not so well known in the United States, at least not as famous as Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, Saudi Arabia’s Al Saud family, or Iran’s Shah, Reza Pahlavi.
Yet this modest political character would soon transform the Egyptian state into his personal garrison, repressing political dissidents at home while acquiring billions of dollars in military aid from abroad. An Egyptian society that was once the intellectual, spiritual and political leader of the Arab world was relegated to the back burner, losing its place with the Arab masses as a result of an Egyptian foreign policy that many saw as too pro-Western.
Even so, Mubarak and his family would consolidate their power, marginalize the opposition through arrest, imprisonment, torture and execution, and accumulate an enormous sum of wealth to the detriment of the Egyptian people.
Now, thirty years later and a short two months after his ouster as Egypt’s president, the autocrat that other Arab autocrats could only wish to emulate finds himself detained by police in his hospital room. His wife Suzanne faces corruption charges while his sons Gamal and Alaa are in a notorious Egyptian prison for embezzlement.
According to news reports, protesters on the streets and pro-democracy candidates could not be any happier, with thousands cheering the Supreme Military Council for acting on their demands for the arrest and prosecution of the former ruler. Egyptians young and old have long suspected that the Mubarak family had used their positions of authority to amass a personal fortune running in the millions (some say billions) of dollars. Now, with prosecutors leveling questions at the Mubarak clan, the people will finally be able to acquire some sort of justice, however late in the game.
In addition to charges of corruption and abuse of power, Egyptian prosecutors will investigate the extent of Hosni Mubarak’s connection to the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators during Egypt’s January 25 Revolution. If the case sticks, Mubarak’s regime could be held responsible for the killing of over three hundred and fifty protesters, a number that human rights groups in the country regard as a conservative estimate.
Far more significant than the symbolic effect of Mubarak’s arrest is the Egyptian military’s calculated move to usher the country toward a new period of political normalization and democratization.
Protesters and the ruling military council have been at odds over the past few weeks over issues ranging from the slow pace of increased accountability, the military’s harsh tactics in the streets, unwarranted detentions and the interim council’s close relationship with Mubarak’s old National Democratic Party. Last Saturday, tensions rose to the highest levels since Mubarak’s ouster when one protester was killed as the army entered Cairo’s Tahrir Square to enforce a curfew.
Mubarak’s questioning is therefore not only a legal move but an act of politics from the army command: detaining the most hated figures of the old regime was a surefire way to increase the public’s support for the military, or at least temper down the public’s complaints as the transition continues into the spring and summer.
The Egyptian military has grown used being the nation’s preeminent institution in the eyes of the people, as well as the most respected among wide sectors of the population. Maintaining that favoritism is a top priority for the generals. Pursuing the Mubarak family for past crimes and abuses will succeed in that goal, albeit temporarily.
Egypt still has a long way to go. Parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for the fall and the established parties (the Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of the NDP) have an advantage in comparison to the liberal organizations spawning up in the Egyptian political system. Hundreds of protesters remain jailed without access to lawyers or family members. And there are still doubts as to whether Hosni Mubarak will actually be tried for his crimes, let alone convicted.
Nevertheless, the lockup of Gamal and Alaa and the questioning of Hosni and Suzanne are unprecedented gestures for an Arab state that has known nothing but authoritarian politics for the past sixty years.