CAIRO (AP) — War hero. Savior of the nation. An anchor of stability in a turbulent region. And in the twilight of his life, a criminal convicted for his role in the deaths of those fighting to oust him.
Hosni Mubarak was sentenced Saturday to life in prison after a court convicted him on charges of complicity in the killing of protesters during the 2011 uprising that forced him from power. His two sons — Gamal and Alaa — were acquitted on corruption charges.
It was an inglorious end for a leader who rose to power after Islamic extremists assassinated his predecessor Anwar Sadat and then steered the nation through the turmoil that swept the Middle East buffeted by wars, terrorism and religious extremism.
The frail, 84-year-old Mubarak heard the verdict from a gurney in the defendants’ cage, surrounded by his sons and former officials who stood in the dock to answer for the crimes of his nearly 30-year rule. The decision can be appealed.
That scene was in stark contrast to the image Mubarak had sought to portray as the rock-solid “father of the nation.” In the early days of his rule, Mubarak’s stern, colorless demeanor was a welcome change from the destructive charisma of Gamal Abdel-Nasser and the mercurial style of Sadat.
As Mubarak clung to power, the status quo that he personified became increasingly loathed. Like the Great Sphinx that sits immutable through the millennia, this ancient land once revered as the vibrant leader of the Arab world stagnated. Its masses struggled to feed and clothe themselves while countries of the Gulf — once little more than desert oases — seized the role that Egypt once enjoyed.
At home, Mubarak and his aging coterie of generals and business tycoons were unable to check boiling currents of popular fury, or harness the history unfolding in his nation of 85 million — the most populous in the Arab world.
A former pilot and air force commander with a combative, stubborn streak, Mubarak took tentative steps toward democratic reform early in his presidency but pulled back toward the dictatorial style that eventually propelled the protests against him that began on Jan. 25, 2011.
A 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, released by the secret-sharing WikiLeaks website, called him “a tried and true realist, innately cautious and conservative,” and with “little time for idealistic goals.”
It noted that Mubarak disapproved of the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein of Iraq, which he believed was in need of a “‘tough, strong military officer who is fair'” as leader.
“This telling observation, we believe, describes Mubarak’s own view of himself as someone who is tough but fair, who ensures the basic needs of his people,” the cable said. “In Mubarak’s mind, it is far better to let a few individuals suffer than risk chaos for society as a whole.”
Yet that very image of cautious stability was once welcomed in the West, which feared that Sadat’s death in a hail of gunfire at a military parade would unleash a wave of unrest that would scuttle the fledgling peace with Israel at a time when America and its allies were panicked over the rise of militant Islam in Iran.
Instead, Mubarak maintained the peace with Israel and kept Egypt free of the grip of Islamic extremism. He struggled with the problems that have long bedeviled the Arab world: choking corruption, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and religious militancy. Economic reforms spurred growth, but the fruits trickled only to a few.
He engineered Egypt’s return to the Arab fold after nearly a decade in the cold over its 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Early on, Mubarak crushed an insurgency by Muslim extremists, whose ranks had produced Sadat’s assassins and some future al-Qaida leaders. In the 1990s, he fought hard against another resurgence of Muslim militants whose attacks included the slaughter of dozens of foreign tourists at the temple city of Luxor.
Eli Shaked, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Egypt from 2003-2005, described Mubarak as “a strong presence, not charismatic but with a heavy body like a fighter bomber, and very levelheaded.”
Shaked said Mubarak met visiting Israeli officials with at least three top advisers by his side, often consulting with them and demonstrating a detailed knowledge of Israeli politics. The Israeli said Mubarak liked “political jokes and witticisms,” but was short on creativity: “The man is completely status quo.”
Mohammed Hosni Mubarak was born on May 4, 1928, in the village of Kafr el-Moseilha in the Nile delta province of Menoufia. His family, like Sadat’s and Nasser’s, was lower middle class.
After joining the air force in 1950, Mubarak moved up the ranks as a bomber pilot and instructor and rose to leadership positions. He earned nationwide acclaim as commander of the air force during the 1973 Middle East war — a conflict which many Egyptians see as a victory — and was vice president when Sadat was assassinated. Mubarak, who was sitting beside Sadat in the reviewing stand, escaped with a minor hand injury.
In his early days, Mubarak made popular moves that held up promise of a more open society, including freeing 1,500 politicians, journalists and clerics jailed during Sadat’s last months in office.
But hopes for broader reform dimmed. Mubarak was re-elected in staged, one-man referendums in which he routinely won more than 90 percent approval. He became more aloof, carefully choreographing his public appearances, and his authoritarian governance, buttressed by harsh emergency laws, fueled resentment.
Age took its toll on the president, who was once an avid squash player with a consistent style that matched his personality. He became hard of hearing, and was so devastated by the death of a 12-year-old grandson in 2009 that he canceled a trip to the United States.
Egypt’s influence in the Middle East, meanwhile, waned as the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah and their patron, Iran, gained momentum and followers. The oil-rich countries of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates seized the mantle of leadership regional leadership. The growing profile of Turkey, a democracy led by an Islam-inspired government, also chipped away at Egypt’s heavyweight stature in the region.
In 2005, Mubarak held the country’s first contested presidential election, an event marred by charges of voter fraud and intimidation. He retrenched when opponents made gains in ensuing parliamentary elections, launching a harsh campaign of arrests against the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest and best organized opposition group that now dominates the parliament elected after Mubarak’s downfall.
Before the protests began, Mubarak had been silent on whether he intended to seek re-election in September. But the quick rise of his son, Gamal, through the ruling party caused immense anxiety.
The fear that Mubarak was grooming Gamal, a wealthy businessman, to succeed him left many Egyptians feeling trapped in the past, deprived of change and renewal. Then, the uprising in Tunisia delivered an electrifying message: an old order can be ousted.
Mubarak initially responded to protests by saying he would not seek another term, and his government said Gamal Mubarak would not run, either. But the president rejected demands that he step down immediately, telling ABC News that he’d like to leave but feared the country would sink deeper into chaos without him.
It was a persuasive argument for 29 years, but in 2011 it was overwhelmed by the cries of huge crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square: “Leave! Leave!”
Associated Press writers Hamza Hendawi and Lee Keath contributed to this report.