Egypt's Hosni Mubarak was no Cleopatra

Middle Israel: Unlike Cleopatra, Mubarak’s political toolbox did not include seduction, and he also never faced an invading general, let alone slept with one.

AN ANTI-GOVERNMENT protester defaces a picture of then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Alexandria, in 2011. (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN ANTI-GOVERNMENT protester defaces a picture of then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Alexandria, in 2011.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
"How strangely awake I feel,” said the filmic Cleopatra in the brief moments between her suicide and death. It is “as if living had been just a long dream,” she went on, the snake that just bit her slipping away, “someone else’s dream – now finished at last.”
Hosni Mubarak’s 91 years were nothing like Cleopatra’s 39, not only because of his own long dream’s extensiveness, but because his life was the opposite of what made Egypt’s last Pharaoh the heroine of more than a hundred films, operas, ballets and plays.
Unlike Cleopatra, Mubarak’s political toolbox did not include seduction, and he also never faced an invading general, let alone slept with one. If there is anything he took from Egyptian history’s physical fixtures it is the pyramids’ immovability and the blank face of the Sphinx.
Mubarak’s political career actually was underpinned by the same challenge Cleopatra faced, only his handling of this challenge was entirely different, and ended tragically – for him, for Egypt, and for the rest of the Arab world.
HISTORY’S DEMAND from both leaders was to find a troubled Egypt’s place in a transforming world: Cleopatra faced the rise of Rome; Mubarak faced the rise of freedom.
Cleopatra was underrated by chauvinist writers who overplayed her femininity and underplayed her statesmanship. In fact, she was a sober strategist who detected Rome’s emergence as her world’s sole superpower, and set out to prevent Egypt’s decline into a Roman vassal. Her only misfortune was that the allies she bedded were killed, one (Julius Caesar) at home, the other (Mark Antony) at sea.
With Mubarak it was the other way around: He had the right allies, but no grasp of history’s direction, and no vision with which to answer its call.
Like the cinematic Chauncey, the gardener who became president in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, Mubarak became president not because of his merits, but because he was there. Yes, he commanded the Egyptian Air Force during the Yom Kippur War, but his role in the war paled compared with that of Field Marshal Mohamed Abdel Ghani el-Gamasy, who planned and oversaw the crossing of the Suez Canal.
Yet when Anwar Sadat chose a deputy, he preferred the much less original, critical, and potentially threatening Mubarak. Being there paid off again when Sadat was assassinated, as Mubarak was sucked into the presidency, where he grazed for 30 years.
As president, Mubarak preserved his predecessor’s estate. It was no small thing, especially from Israel’s viewpoint. Peace survived, even after the Golan Heights’ annexation and Lebanon’s invasion. Mubarak also stayed in the exact geopolitical position where Sadat left him, after defecting from East to West.
Strategic passivity worked well for eight years, during which Mubarak earned global respect for his balance, poise and disdain for adventure. But then came Mubarak’s Cleopatra moment, though not in the form of Europeans knocking on Egypt’s door, but in the form of Europeans knocking down a wall.
THE FALL of the Berlin Wall was the first of two alarm bells that history rang in Mubarak’s ears.
In 1989 Mubarak saw with the rest of the world how his friend, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, was driven from office by people power and gunned down by a rebels’ court. The thought that he, too, might someday face a similar fate may or may not have crossed his mind, but he clearly never prepared for that prospect.
The second alarm bell was sounded in 2001 with the 9/11 attacks. Though the world saw in him the most important Arab leader of the day, Mubarak never got down to the business of changing the direction of the Arab world, as its fundamentalists’ assault on civilization begged.
The Arab world’s social plagues – tyranny, under-education, cronyism, clannishness, bigotry, misogyny, and the poverty all these collectively spawned – thus continued to fester.
When the people he neglected unseated him, the population of 40 million that Mubarak inherited from Sadat had become 90 million. Nearly half of them were illiterate, hardly one in 10 owned a bank account, millions of university graduates were jobless, and the land that in Cleopatra’s time was the Roman Empire’s breadbasket was importing annually $2 billion worth of wheat.
MUBARAK’S Egypt begged three revolutions previously launched in Iran, Turkey, and India.
Demographically, Mubarak should have been inspired by Iran’s imposition of family planning on its Islamist conservatives. The mullahs began distributing contraceptive pills, implants and condoms after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death, ultimately slashing population growth from an annual 3% to 0.7%.
Educationally, Mubarak should have been inspired by Turkey’s defeat of illiteracy, when Kemal Ataturk turned a society that was 90% illiterate into what now is a fully literate nation.
Economically, Mubarak should have launched India’s kind of Green Revolution that since the 1960s has made the subcontinent self-sufficient in food grains.
Mubarak had 30 years in which to complete these revolutions, none of which he ever began. It was a failure of vision that will likely be remembered as an emblem of the broader, postcolonial Arab world’s tragedy, whose unelected leaders were busy looking after themselves while the rest of mankind raced ahead.
At the same time, he will also be recalled as the war hero who, even after the people drove him from power and readied to try and possibly execute him, refused to leave his homeland, insisting he would die and be buried in Egypt.
That quest was, incidentally, also the will of Mark Antony, who indeed ended up buried in Egypt after taking his life and dying in his beloved Cleopatra’s arms. The Roman’s will, exposed in the Senate as part of an approaching civil war’s propagandist prelude, scandalized him.
Mubarak’s burial wish was no scandal. It was an inept leader’s surrender note, and a genuine patriot’s last hurrah.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019) is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.