Despite being discredited and ousted by the 2011 Arab Spring, former president Mubarak’s funeral aims to rehabilitate him and his legacy of military rule.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Greg Wilpert: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington, Virginia. Egypt’s long-time dictator, Hosni Mubarak, died at the age of 91 on Tuesday, he was buried the following day. Mubarak ruled Egypt with an iron hand for nearly 30 years from 1981 until the protest of Egypt’s Arab Spring ousted him in 2011. After his forced resignation, Mubarak faced a trial where he was at first convicted largely as a result of the Egyptian public’s demand for him to be tried for the killing of over 800 protesters during the Arab Spring.
He received a life sentence in 2012, but it was released five years later when his conviction was overturned under current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Mubarak’s former director of military intelligence who became president shortly after the 2014 coup d’état against elected president, Mohamed Morsi. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s top military officers, Mubarak’s sons Alaa and Gamal, and other Egyptian and Arab officials accompanied Mubarak’s funeral procession in Cairo.
Joining me now to discuss Mubarak’s death and what he meant for Egypt is Angela Joya. She’s a political economist with expertise on the middle East and North Africa, and who has taught at the University Of Oregon. Her most recent book is The Roots of Revolt: A Political Economy of Egypt from Nasser to Mubarak, forthcoming very soon from Cambridge University Press. Thanks for joining us again, Angela.
Angela Joya: Pleasure to be here, Greg.
Greg Wilpert: Let’s start with who Mubarak was. How did he come to power and how did he govern Egypt for 30 years as Egypt’s longest serving president?
Angela Joya: Mubarak, interestingly enough as a cohort of free officers, had came from a rural background in the Nile Delta in the North of Egypt, and it was through the military schooling and military training that he climbed through the ranks of power within the state. His role became more prominent in the 1973 Egyptian Israeli war. It was right after that that Sadat basically appointed him as his vice president. He served as vice president for Sadat until you mentioned 1981 when Sadat was assassinated, Mubarak assumed the presidency of Egypt until he was overthrown decades later.
Greg Wilpert: So the 2011 Arab Spring protests actually forced Mubarak to resign. Let’s review those developments a little bit. I mean how and why did the Arab Spring come about in Egypt?
Angela Joya: When I heard the news of Mubarak passing away, you reflect on how long he actually ruled Egypt. Talking to my Egyptian friends, a lot of them remark how they were born under his rule, they grew up under his rule, and now they’re getting closer to becoming in their early 40s. Close to two generations of Egyptians almost have seen no one else in power except Mubarak. He has had a massive influence in the state, in Egypt and in society there. That, I guess in some ways, affected politics in Egypt, affected the economy in Egypt.
When I think about the chronology of Mubarak’s rule I see a particular transition that happens initially in the 1980s, for instance, because of the environment of fear, because of Islamists and the fact that Sadat was assassinated, Mubarak was very cautious in the kind of policies that he was implementing.
Egypt was gripped in economic crisis, and so Mubarak was not necessarily so keen on implementing reforms that the International Monetary Fund at the time or the World Bank were prescribing. This waited until the end of 1980s, early 1990s when Egypt started accepting some of those requests for opening Egyptian markets to the global economy.
In the 1980s also, Mubarak was seen… I mean if you look at his legacy, he was seen more of a democratic figure in some ways because he opened up society to a more political competition by other groups. It was repressive as it later on became post reforms, I mean the political environment in Egypt.
I would say Mubarak’s rule transformed quite a bit in the 1990s when Egypt adopted a structure adjustment program recommended by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In that period, Mubarak’s reputation among Egyptians, ordinary Egyptians, transformed quite a bit as well.
I recall when I was doing my field work in 2008 I was going through some of the villages and smaller towns in upper Egypt, and ordinary Egyptians were already referring to him as a foreigner, as a foreign ruler over Egyptian. They were disowning him in some ways because of the way his policies were affecting the lives of these people.
The 1990s is when you see Egypt opening up and Egyptians seeing Mubarak as taking away the wealth of Egypt and handing it over to private investors, whether Egyptian or foreigner, they didn’t make the distinction. But that’s what the process of dispossession that I discussed in my book, it started happening in the course of 1990s land reform and housing reform which I’ve looked at more closely.
Greg Wilpert: Talk a little bit more about how people reacted to these policies. I mean like you said, he implemented this structural adjustment program, how’s that related then to… First of all, the economy seems to have picked up a little bit, but still in 2011 you saw the Arab Spring. Why was that?
Angela Joya: Right. I guess the part of the violence that I examined in my research was mostly linked to urban land reform and rural land reform, so agricultural reform and urban land rights, tenancy rights. We saw slow mobilization with the Kefaya group, but also with peasants in rural areas engaging in resistance, acts of resistance across villages and towns of Egypt, against the actions of landlords, and against the actions of the military that often would send off security forces to support the landlords in this process of dispossessing peasants and farmers, small farmers.
Workers also went on various strikes so [inaudible 00:06:35] happened where various manufacturing centers of Egypt started revolting against some of the changes that were introduced that entailed shrinking the labor force, but also bringing in stringent rules of contract that were short-term contracts and wages that were stagnating for the longest time. Egypt experienced quite a radical… Basically increased the rate of poverty, and there’s a rule of Mubarak. A lot of that had to do part and parcel because over a million Egyptians were dispossessed from land in the late 1990s, ’97 and onward.
So by the time 2000s rolled in, there was expectation that maybe investors will be attracted, foreign investors, but also Egyptian private investors, then they would transform the economy, create jobs and lift people out of poverty. Unfortunately by the end of 2000s, the number of strikes, the number of protests in Egypt started climbing up precisely because people’s conditions of life were not changing, it was not getting better.
I remember around those times walking in the streets of Cairo, but also Alexandria, their bigger cities, there was an increasing environment of fear that was setting in. I remember my internal couturiers would often say, “Do not take a picture of that. Do not take a picture of this particular building.” They thought that they were being seen. Oppression seemed to have set in Egypt as economic reform packages were introduced, and basically, people’s lives were being put under pressure.
By 2010, it was predictable in some ways that some uprising would happen but not to the scale that it happened. The scale of it and the fact that it was more urban based was quite shocking to a lot of experts of Egypt. Now thinking back to 2011 and how Mubarak reacted to that, it says quite a bit about Mubarak and who he had become in the 2000s.
I wanted to emphasize is that in the 2000s, it was his son, Gamal Mubarak and a lot of his friends who were trained in western universities and who worked for the World Bank, for International Monetary Fund, they had taken over various cabinet roles and advising basically the government as to what policies they should implement. They had become the government basically. Mubarak was, at this part, I think at this part of his rule, more of a figure without much influence. I do not think that he had the power to basically dictate the kind of policies that came out under his name in the late 2000s.
This is the part where Mubarak was shocked that the people were revolting in 2011 in January. He didn’t believe that they were actually asking him to step down, and he thought, “I’m the father figure, these are my children,” and he did refer to all Egyptian as his children, and so he was quite shocked. But I can assume that at this point, maybe even mentally, he was not there fully and so he had been going through various rounds of sicknesses.
The actual manipulations, and rules, and policy-making were happening at the hands of, at this point, late 2000s, the military-supported capitalist class in Egypt that had gained quite a bit of control of the state and the economy.
Greg Wilpert: Now, another major player and factor in Egypt of course, was the United States. That is Egypt, for a long time, was the second largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel. Why would you say that the US give so much support to Mubarak, about $2 billion per year, and how important was that aid for keeping Mubarak in office?
Angela Joya: I have to say that initially, the aid started with the peace agreement, the Camp David Accords with Israel under Sadat, and so the aid was promised then, but it continued happening afterwards because Egypt continued to fulfill its role as a “peacekeeper” between Israel and Palestine.
But in reality, when we talk to Palestinians, they would often talk or refer to Mubarak as the one who kept the Gates closed for Palestinians not to escape the conditions that they were experiencing, especially the Sinai region and the border between Gaza and Egypt. Mubarak was seen by the Palestinians and by some of the critical scholars of the region as doing the dirty job of Israel for it. In some ways, that’s what they thought they got rewarded for.
I think given that the kind of research that I’ve done in my forthcoming book, you also find out that the relationship between the Egyptian military and between the American corporations over the course of 1980s, 1990s and 2000s strengthens and becomes much closer, and so Egypt became a market basically for American products, mainly military products. Either they were assembling them in Egypt or they were preparing, making them, and selling them, and getting licenses out of US.
It was that relationship also that ensured if Egypt received this $3 billion a year of US aid, they would continue becoming or remaining a customer for American military. That was another reason, it was not necessarily just for the support of Egypt’s role in maintaining the peace between Israel and Palestine.
Greg Wilpert: Now, finally, very briefly, Mubarak spent only a few years in prison and was ultimately released under a President el-Sisi. It seems that also given Mubarak’s ceremonious funeral, that he has been completely rehabilitated by the current government. Would you say that’s correct? If so, what does this say about the current president?
Angela Joya: Ultimately in the case of Egypt as I have noticed since 2011 onwards, the military has definitely assumed a stronger control over the state and under el-Sisi, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, we see a consolidation of the military’s power within the state and economy. Some of the activists in Egypt that I speak with, they have confirmed some of my worst fears that the environment of safety of journalists, of activists, of NGOs is much worse now under the rule of el-Sisi than it was under Mubarak in all of his period of rule.
In some ways, this repression is also speaking to how the military as a class want to celebrate the legacy of one of their own, and that’s where this three days of mourning for Mubarak comes into play and this massive ceremony that they are going to have for his funeral, is part and parcel of that consolidating this [inaudible 00:13:57] of the military in Egypt, in the mind of Egyptians.
It’s not surprising. I mean, I kind of expected that they will rehabilitate him not because of who he think, they think he is or he was, but more so as to what he symbolically represents on the part of the military and how the military should be viewed by the Egyptian public in general.
Greg Wilpert: Okay. Well, very interesting but we’re going to leave it there. I was speaking to Angela Joya, author of the forthcoming book, The Roots of Revolt: A Political Economy of Egypt from Nasser to Mubarak. Thanks again, Angela, for having joined us today.
Angela Joya: Pleasure to be here, Greg. Thank you.
Greg Wilpert: Thank you for joining The Real News Network.