CAIRO - Hosni Mubarak has been depicted as a war hero, savior of his nation, and an anchor of stability in a turbulent region. And in the twilight of his life, as a criminal convicted for his role in the deaths of those fighting to oust him.
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 was sentenced Saturday to life in prison after being convicted of complicity in the killing of protesters in the uprising that forced him from office.
He heard the verdict from a gurney in a defendant’s cage. The 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 80 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 US 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 US invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein, 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 Qaeda 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. 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.