[Husni Mubarak (1928–2020) was the fourth president of Egypt, ruling from 1981 to 2011. His resignation was announced on 11 February 2011 in the wake of Egypt's January 25 Revolution. On the occasion of his passing this week, Jadaliyya's Co-Editor Hesham Sallam considers the legacy of Mubarak in light of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, the current regime of Abdel Fattah El-Sissi, and how the political establishment is reacting to news of his death.]
Jadaliyya (J): How would you assess the place and legacy of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency vis-a-vis the post-colonial political and economic history of Egypt?
Hesham Sallam (HS): The slogan of the 2011 uprising that led to Hosni Mubarak’s ouster was “bread, freedom, and social justice.” The legacy that Mubarak is leaving behind is exactly the inverse of that slogan, namely state-sponsored corruption, repression, and economic marginalization.
Mubarak was able to structure the regime he inherited from his predecessor in such ways that allowed the state to embark upon a host of economic reform policies that effectively annulled the economic and social rights that the state had committed itself to guaranteeing since the rule of Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Significantly, these were steps that seemed unthinkable under the rule of Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar Al-Sadat: the privatization of large segments of the public sector, the suspension of guaranteed employment for college graduates and the freezing public hiring, the slashing of state-sponsored protections of labor in the public and private sectors, not to mention a host of policies that ultimately resulted in unprecedented price hikes and brought fixed income earning households to their knees. While IFIs lauded these developments with great enthusiasm, partisans of social justice were absolutely mortified at the widespread socio-economic grievances these policies generated, not to mention the corrupt practices and elite profiteering that animated the implementation of economic liberalization schemes.
These developments would have not been possible if it were not for Mubarak’s success in taming opponents of economic liberalization through a combination of cooptation schemes and repression. Under Mubarak, the security apparatus became aggressively involved in party politics, not only by rigging elections, and intimidating and silencing opponents through arrests and coercive means, but also by planting and recruiting informants inside opposition political parties. Whenever a given opposition party crossed what Mubarak and his associates deemed as the “redlines”, the security apparatus prodded their informants inside parties to stir up conflict and internal disarray. In many cases these conflicts provided the state the necessary legal pretext to freeze the activities of this party or replace its leadership with friendlier figures—a familiar scenario that we often witnessed under Mubarak’s rule, whether inside the Labor Party, Al-Ghad, the Liberal Socialist Party, and Al-Wafd. Beyond repression and intimidation, the Mubarak regime developed a variety of “soft” strategies to contain its opponents, particularly those that espoused a leftist orientation. In one memorable incident, one of Mubarak’s longest-serving ministers, Farouk Hosni who headed the ministry of culture, once remarked, quite proudly, in a parliamentary session that it was him who was able to get all the “intellectuals to enter the barn” of the ministry of culture. On a symbolic level, Hosni was, in fact, referring to one of the most important accomplishments of Mubarak’s authoritarian state, namely coopting the leftist activists and former Marxist writers who were once a thorn in the side of Sadat in the 1970s and making them dependent on state rents and favors. Mubarak was able to buy the silence of these once dissidents by offering them employment and career-advancing opportunities inside cultural institutions and publically-owned newspapers. It was that development that tamed large swaths of what was once a dissident, unruly left and convinced many of its members to temper their criticism of the regime, quite ironically, at the exact same moment when the political leadership was aggressively pursuing the very economic liberalization policies these same leftist figures once opposed under Mubarak’s predecessor. It was that same accomplishment that steered many leftist activists away from factory-shops and political rallies, and toward state-sponsored fora where they often pontificated about the dangers of political Islam and the militant groups that the state was confronting during the 1990s.
Another legacy that Mubarak leaves behind pertains to the enormous expansion of the security state and the emergence of the elite of the policing establishment as a privileged social class. This was largely the by-product of the growing dependency of Mubarak on the coercive apparatus as a result of two developments. The first is growing need to silence and contain losers of economic reform and their allies in the political arena. The second is Hosni Mubarak’s plans to orchestrate a transition of power to his youngest son Gamal. The latter project greatly reduced the state’s tolerance for dissent even within the ranks of the ruling party and necessitated a degree of control that only further empowered the domestic security apparatus under the leadership of Mubarak’s notorious Minister of Interior Habib Al-Adly. That development licensed police brutality and corruption not only vis-à-vis political dissidents and voices of opposition, but also large swaths of the middle class and communities that were previously shielded from that form of abuse. It was in that context that the issue of human dignity and police violence became a widespread public concern that is not limited only to political dissidents and human rights advocates. The repercussions of that legacy, unfortunately, are well and alive until this day.
J: What are some important starting points for understanding the changes and continuities between Mubarak’s Egypt and that of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi?
HS: I will preface my answer by saying that the comparison between Mubarak and Sisi is often invoked to argue that Mubarak’s authoritarianism was quite tame compared to that of Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. Normatively speaking, I do not believe that the contemporary realities could in any way justify or provide any moral grounds to the abuses and crimes that have been committed by the Mubarak regime. And on this matter, it is important to remember that until this day no one has been held accountable for the death of 800+ people during the 18-day uprising.
That being said, analytically speaking, we are talking about two different regimes with two very distinct orientations. I think the key difference between the two is the fact that Sisi presides over a regime that lacks the same political tools and human resources that existed under the rule of Hosni Mubarak. As my previous comments suggest, “political control” under Mubarak translated into a variety of tools that range from bare repression--whether imprisonment or prosecution under politically-driven pretexts or the use of violence—the engineering of rules and legal and institutional frameworks in favor of the ruling party, or the cooptation of dissidents through the provision of material and symbolic benefits. The Sisi regime is one wherein coercion is, in fact, the primary tool of control and enforcing compliance. In simple terms, it is not a regime that reaches its ends by meticulously engineering electoral rules and legal codes, or by playing divide-and-rule with the opposition. It is a regime that actively chases after its opponents through harsh prison sentences, executions, forced disappearances, and the use of deadly violence. Whereas under Mubarak, opposition voices attached so much weight to court battles regarding the constitutionality of ruling party’s conduct inside the bureaucracy, parliament, or the electoral sphere, today the focus of Sisi’s opponents is simply on survival and overcoming (or averting) the wrath of the security apparatus. Under Mubarak, authoritarianism was the law of the land; under Sisi, authoritarianism is the rule of coercion.
In spite of these differences, however, there is an important commonality that connects the two ruling establishments. Specifically, regardless of who is in the driver’s seat, be it Mubarak or Sisi, the structural predicament challenging Egypt’s leaders is unchanged and has arguably remained as such since the late years of Gamal Abdel-Nasser. It is a state that is still struggling to fulfill the redistributive obligations it inherited from the Nasserist era and is consistently failing to live up to its perceived historic role as the guarantor of social and economic rights. Paving the way for an escape—or rather a new social pact that rids the state of these obligations—has been a constant nightmare that haunted every Egyptian leader since Abdel-Nasser’s death. In that respect, Sisi is grappling with the same predicament that Mubarak inherited from Sadat and that Sadat inherited from Abdel-Nasser.
J: How has the current Egyptian regime publicly responded to the death of Mubarak and what can that tell us about its orientation to the memory and aftermath of the January 25 Egyptian Revolution?
HS: The office of the president has issued a statement mourning Mubarak’s death. Al-Sisi has reportedly ordered that the late president be buried in a military funeral and declared three days of national mourning. Pro-regime commentators linked to the security apparatus have praised Sisi’s decision, asserting that Mubarak deserves to be honored by virtue of his military career and accomplishments. To my mind, the decision to offer him a military funeral was driven primarily by an interest in catering to the sensibilities of military leaders, as well as those of Gulf rulers who have strong personal ties to Mubarak and who happen to be important sponsors of the current regime. I highly doubt that the memory of the January 25 Revolution that toppled Mubarak was given much consideration, since Sisi himself has already done so much to smear that memory in the public eye.