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Egypt's Mubarak: From poverty to the presidency

By Christopher Torchia

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 1 2011 5:38 p.m. MST

FILE - In a June 3, 2003 file photo, U.S. President George W. Bush shakes hands with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, right, after the conclusion of their meeting with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah, King Abdullah of Jordan, King of Hamad of Bahrain, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, during the Multilateral Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. More than a quarter-million people flooded Cairo's main square Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011 in a stunning and jubilant array of young and old, urban poor and middle class professionals, mounting by far the largest protest yet in a week of unrelenting demands for Mubarak to leave after nearly 30 years in power.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File, Associated Press

CAIRO — President Hosni Mubarak came to power amid crisis three decades ago, a reassuring symbol of stability for many Egyptians as well as for Western leaders seeking a solid ally in the Middle East. Today, crisis again envelops Egypt, and Mubarak is widely seen as the root of the problem.

In the span of his presidency, Mubarak, a former pilot and air force general with a combative, stubborn streak, took tentative steps toward democratic reform but then pulled back toward the authoritarianism that, coupled with poverty and a culture of corruption, helped drive Egyptian protesters into the streets.

The prospect that Mubarak was grooming his son, Gamal, to succeed him left many Egyptians feeling that they were trapped in the past, deprived of the opportunity for change and renewal. Then, the uprising in Tunisia delivered an electrifying message: an old order can be ousted.

Mubarak, 82, announced in a televised address Tuesday that he will not seek another term, but rejected demands that he step down immediately. The halfway concession — an end to his rule months down the road — was derided by protesters massed in Cairo's main downtown square.

It was a stark departure from the praise Mubarak had once won for keeping Egypt free of the grip of Islamic extremism, and solidly allying with the West amid wave after wave of Mideast crises.

His ascent to power — he was sitting on a military viewing stand next to his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, when he was assassinated by Islamic militants — recalls the welcome legacy of his early years.

On the whole, his serious, cautious image reassured many Egyptians, including some of those who shout for his downfall in street protests. Even after looters roamed major Egyptian cities following deadly clashes between protesters and security forces, Mubarak sought to portray himself, and the military forces at his command, as the only obstacle to outright anarchy.

His political credibility, however, suffered irreparable damage. And that vulnerability, at least in hindsight, goes back decades. He lacked the charisma of his two legendary predecessors — the peacemaker Sadat and the great Arab nationalist, Gamal Abdel Nasser — and constantly served in their shadows.

He also struggled constantly with the problems that have bedeviled much of the Arab world through modern history: economic stagnation, choking corruption, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and fighting Islamic militancy at the expense of personal freedoms.

As the years went by, Mubarak also became more aloof, carefully choreographing his public appearances, and his authoritarian governing style appeared increasingly out of sync with a world focused on economic and political openness.

Resentment toward his regime built especially in recent years, as new press freedoms exposed brutal police tactics, and a spate of economic reforms trickled down to only a handful of Egyptians. He moved toward democratic reform in 2005 by launching the country's first contested presidential election, but retrenched sharply when opponents made gains — jailing both his main secular opponent, Ayman Nour, and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet it was his young son's quick rise through the ruling party that caused the most domestic anxiety in recent years, in a country scornful of the prospect of a hereditary succession.

More seriously for the West, Mubarak oversaw the wane of Egypt's regional influence in recent years as the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah and their patron, Iran, gained momentum and followers.

Yet throughout, Mubarak remained a strong ally of the United States, carving out a niche as a key negotiator on the Palestinian crisis, and bolstered by billions in U.S. aid because of his country's ties to Israel.

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