The West Loses Its Favorite Tyrant
In the end, the refusal of pro-democracy protesters to back down sealed his fate. The people on the streets of Egypt insisted that Mubarak leave. But the West stood by the leader almost to the end, despite the fact that the despot had turned his country into a police state and plundered its economy.
It was exactly 6:00 p.m. local time in Cairo when the decision was made public. In a curt statement, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that President Hosni Mubarak, due to the “difficult situation” in the country, was leaving office. Power, Suleiman said, would initially be transferred to the Egyptian army.
The resignation is a triumph for the opposition. Weeks of growing demonstrations continually increased pressure on Mubarak. Three times, the president addressed his people. Three times he said he would not step down.
The 82-year-old Mubarak ruled his country for three full decades, but in the end, even he realized that he could not stand up to the mass protests that have rocked Egypt for the last 18 days. The demonstrators simply refused to give up. And even those who had long stood by Mubarak’s side — United States President Barack Obama; leaders from across Europe — began to abandon him. It was time, they said, for the Egyptian leader to make way for a new beginning.
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators cheered Friday evening’s announcement from Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s pro-democracy movement in the heart of Cairo’s city center. After Mubarak’s Thursday evening speech, in which he said he would stay in office until September, many had almost lost faith that they could push through their central demand. Mubarak, they have said since the very beginning, must go.
For 30 years, Mubarak’s partners in the West have stood by as he ruled Egypt with an iron fist. Called “the smiling cow” prior to his ascent to power — a nickname earned for the grin he often wore as he stood behind former Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat — Mubarak quickly became a powerful leader after his predecessor was assassinated in October 1981. He became a reliable partner to the West — and ruled his own country with force.
His portrait hung in every official office in the country; he was dutifully praised in every speech. Young Egyptians, well over half of the population, have never known a leader other than Mubarak. Indeed, for them, he came to embody all that was wrong with the country: few economic opportunities, little freedom and no right to voice criticism.
An Insurance Policy for the West
But Mubarak was valuable to the West. He never wavered in upholding his peace deal with Israel and played an outsized role in the Middle East. His far-reaching influence in the Arab world also made him indispensable. US presidents, French heads of state, British prime ministers — all maintained close relationships with the Egyptian president.
He was a welcome guest in Germany too and met with almost all of Berlin’s top politicians. Indeed, Germany had even been mentioned as a possible place of exile for Mubarak, before he put such speculation to rest.
When then-German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher visited Cairo in 1982, Mubarak extravagantly praised the politician, “in the name of Allah the Merciful,” as “my dear brother.” When, after their meeting, Genscher complimented the openness of his counterpart, the Egyptian leader made the flattering reply that such things were usual between brothers.
The appreciation of Mubarak’s skill as a diplomat remained as high as ever until very recently. In March 2010, he was received by Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, ahead of having a gall bladder operation in Heidelberg. Nevertheless, the German government continued to broach the subject of human rights in its talks with Mubarak. For example, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he brought up the issue during his visit to Cairo in the spring of 2010.
But it never went further than a cautious dialogue, and Berlin never made genuine demands for reform. Instead, Mubarak was seen as a bulwark in the struggle against radical Islam. The administration of US President George W. Bush also considered Egypt’s hard-line regime useful in the fight against suspected terrorists and their supporters. The most spectacular example of their cooperation was the case of the cleric Abu Omar, who was kidnapped in a public place in Italy by the CIA before allegedly being tortured in Egypt. Abu Omar’s description of his detention in Egypt provided an insight into the horrors that can be found in the regime’s dungeons.