On 28 January 2011, a reporter colleague and I boarded a ghostly Cairo metro train travelling east below the Nile, from Giza to the city centre. Far above us, the capital was ablaze. Pockets of fighting between anti-government protesters and police shook the streets; bridges across the river were revolutionary battlegrounds; ribbons of smoke and teargas filled the sky. In a final, futile attempt at self-preservation, the country’s authoritarian regime had shut down mobile networks and switched off the internet, so reliable news was hard to come by and we didn’t know who would emerge triumphant from what had already been termed Egypt’s “day of rage”.
Related: Hosni Mubarak obituary
By the time our carriage pulled into the mammoth complex underneath the Ramses rail terminus, we had our answer. The platform was largely dark and choked with fumes, but by the light of a flickering bulb we could just about make out the name of the stop, printed in large font along broken walls. This was Mubarak station, and it was devastated.
It would take another fortnight for one of the world’s most enduring modern dictators to finally topple, yet it was obvious then – as his security personnel fled into the night and his ruling party headquarters went up in flames – that Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year grip on the Arab World’s most populous nation was coming to an ignominious end. His wife Suzanne reportedly spent her final moments at the presidential palace howling at officers who were escorting the couple on to an army helicopter. “Do you think they can get in here?” she is said to have cried. “Please, don’t let them come in.”
“They” were the Egyptian people, and one of the defining legacies of Mubarakism – a system of power predicated on the idea that citizens belonged forever outside the citadel – was that it ended with those barricades being breached. Egypt’s co-opted elites experienced that breach, short-lived though it was, as a trauma from which they are yet to recover. It’s one of several aspects of the Mubarak era that help explain much about the country’s current and more violent iteration of autocracy. Mubarak’s death this week at the age of 91 provides a useful opportunity to think through the complex relationship between his dictatorship and that of Abdel Fatah el-Sisi today, though one has to delve into the gaps and silences that litter most of Mubarak’s obituaries to do so.
One important parallel is the way both regimes were and are entwined with forces beyond Egypt’s borders. Mubarak was a personal friend of the Clintons; Tony Blair, whose family holidayed in Sharm el-Sheikh as guests of the dictatorship, praised him as “immensely courageous and a force for good”. A key partner to the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme and beloved by the global business community – for whom Egypt’s IMF-sponsored structural adjustment opened up a range of lucrative investment deals, even as the number of Egyptians below the poverty line doubled – Mubarak’s corruption, repression and appalling human rights record rarely troubled his many allies in the global north.
The same is true of Sisi, under whose watch an estimated 60,000 political prisoners have been jailed and state torture is so rife that Human Rights Watch calls it a potential crime against humanity. Meanwhile, Europe and the US provide Egypt with billions of dollars’ worth of arms sales, and corporate news platform Bloomberg – following another round of IMF reforms – has labelled the country an “emergent market darling”. In 2018, after Sisi “won” 97% of the vote in a presidential election, Theresa May congratulated him on his victory and the chance to take Egypt “further down the road of democratic transition”; last month Boris Johnson posed with him on a red carpet in Downing Street.
Another underreported dimension of Mubarak’s reign was the extent of ground-level resistance to it: protests, occupations and clashes with the gendarmes of the interior ministry that long predated the anti-Mubarak uprising in 2011, but rarely made the international headlines. From strike waves in industrial towns such as Kafr el-Dawwar and Mahalla el-Kubra to battles against land reform and forced eviction in communities such as Sarandu and Qursaya Island, Mubarakism was always contested, although dissent never – until the end – coalesced into a meaningful, countrywide challenge to the regime. By contrast, Sisi’s Egypt is utterly intolerant of even the mildest criticism. Unlike Mubarak, under whom enough pressure-release valves were kept open to maintain a degree of political stability – elements of an independent judiciary, for example, and the beginnings of an autonomous media – Sisi cannot abide a cheeky meme, or a child with the wrong sort of content on their phone. As the writer Wael Eskandar puts it, the aim now is no longer just to win the political battlefield: it is to eliminate the battlefield altogether.
That level of mass suffocation, no matter how stubbornly western leaders turn a blind eye to it, is unsustainable in the long-term within a country of 100 million people. Its intensity is not a matter of choice, and stems ultimately not from overwhelming strength at the top, but weakness. For all that today’s Egypt appears on the surface to be a throwback to the worst excesses of the Mubarak period, in reality the terrain over which his successor now presides is very different – precisely because it is suffused with the ineradicable memory of a different type of power once becoming possible, however fleetingly. The panic felt by people like Suzanne Mubarak – at the thought of ordinary Egyptians refusing to heed the language of paternal, unassailable authority, of metro stations crowned with a ruler’s name being left in ruins – runs as fiercely through the presidential palace today as it did in those heady days of 2011. Hosni Mubarak is dead; among his replacements, fear of his fate lives on.
• Jack Shenker is a former Egypt correspondent for the Guardian