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February 11, 2013 | Wall Street Journal

The Pharaoh Fell, but His Poisonous Legacy Lingers

Two years ago, on Feb. 11, 2011, the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak stepped aside, overwhelmed by 18 days of protests. Silent and remote, he had ruled for three decades. He had offered his countrymen—and powers beyond—the sole gift of stability. He was a gendarme on the banks of the Nile. Now his country was done with him, and the vaunted stability of his near 30-year reign was torn asunder.

Yet it is only against the backdrop of the sordid political landscape of today's Egypt—the hooliganism of the young, the lawlessness, the fault line between a feeble secular camp and a cynical Muslim Brotherhood bent on monopolizing political power—that the true work of the Mubarak tyranny can be fully appreciated. The "deep state" he presided over—a Ministry of Interior with nearly two million functionaries, a police force that ran amok—is Mubarak's true legacy.

The disorder today in Egypt's streets is taken by some as proof that the despot knew what he was doing, and that Egyptians are innately given to tyranny. But that view misses the damage that this man and his greedy family and retainers inflicted on a nation of more than 80 million people that once had nobler ideas of its place in the world.

Grant the Egyptian people credit for their mercy and forbearance. The Pharaoh was deposed and his two sons, who sat astride the country's economy and politics, were hauled off to prison, but they were spared the gruesome end that was meted out next door to Moammar Gadhafi. A sickly Mubarak was humbled, wheeled into court on a gurney. But he was not sent to the gallows. True, some of the families of victims struck down during the upheaval howled for his blood. But the day of his reckoning was deferred as the judiciary let the matter run in the hope that the aged former ruler would succumb to a natural death.

It was odd, this tale of Hosni Mubarak. He had started out as a modest officer who had risen to power through the patronage and will of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. Mubarak had not been imaginative or brave—and that was what recommended him to the flamboyant Sadat. Where Sadat had been unabashedly open in his identification with American power, the new man would be more discreet. Where Sadat had been a trailblazer who had made that celebrated journey to Jerusalem, Mubarak would keep the peace with the Israelis, but keep them at arm's length.

Throughout his reign, a toxic brew poisoned the life of Egypt—a mix of anti-modernism, anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. That trinity ran rampant in the universities and the professional syndicates and the official media. As pillage had become the obsession of the ruling family and its retainers, the underclass was left to the rule of darkness and to a culture of conspiracy. The middle class was tentative and timid, unsure of itself. It knew the defects of the regime but could not contest its power.

More important, with the Muslim Brotherhood quietly toiling in the shadows, broad segments of the middle class succumbed to the theocratic temptation. Wealth accumulated in the Arab states and the Gulf had remade the Brotherhood. Its members were sly: They accepted the subtle accommodation offered them by the regime.

The historical role of the centralized state in Egypt as the principal agent of social change was abandoned. No wonder the Brotherhood sat out the early and decisive phase of the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square. Courage was not the hallmark of the Brotherhood. Its theorists were still maintaining that the ruler was due deference and obedience while a new generation of activists was battling the security forces.

Yet the Brotherhood had no scruples about "hijacking" a revolution that was not theirs. The annals of revolutions the world over bear testimony to the truth that the rule of the moderates in times of revolutions is always undone by the ascendancy of the extremists. (Think of the liberals who rode with Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979—so many of them were cut down by firing squads.)

It was no surprise that the Egyptian liberals and secularists quarreled among themselves and were feckless and divided. The dictatorship had not allowed them political space and experience. In hindsight, the tipping point in the ruin of Egypt came in 2005. The dictator rigged yet another presidential election, his fifth in a row, and he ordered a decent young rival, Ayman Nour, to prison on trumped up charges. The administration of George W. Bush grasped the importance of the moment, but Mubarak brushed their entreaties aside.

President Obama and his advisers had two years on their watch before the upheaval. But they lacked the interest and the determination—and the knowledge of matters Egyptian. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Mubarak as a friend of her family, and Vice President Joe Biden opined that the regime was stable even as millions of Egyptians had gone out to push it into its grave.

Today, a stalemate paralyzes Egypt: The Brotherhood won a plurality in parliamentary elections that began in 2011, but an activist judiciary declared the elections unconstitutional and ordered parliament dissolved in June 2012. The Brotherhood drafted and secured the passage of a new constitution by referendum in December, but those unreconciled to the reign of the Brotherhood wanted nothing to do with it.

Two years ago, on Feb. 11, 2011, the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak stepped aside, overwhelmed by 18 days of protests. Silent and remote, he had ruled for three decades. He had offered his countrymen—and powers beyond—the sole gift of stability. He was a gendarme on the banks of the Nile. Now his country was done with him, and the vaunted stability of his near 30-year reign was torn asunder.

Yet it is only against the backdrop of the sordid political landscape of today's Egypt—the hooliganism of the young, the lawlessness, the fault line between a feeble secular camp and a cynical Muslim Brotherhood bent on monopolizing political power—that the true work of the Mubarak tyranny can be fully appreciated. The "deep state" he presided over—a Ministry of Interior with nearly two million functionaries, a police force that ran amok—is Mubarak's true legacy.

The disorder today in Egypt's streets is taken by some as proof that the despot knew what he was doing, and that Egyptians are innately given to tyranny. But that view misses the damage that this man and his greedy family and retainers inflicted on a nation of more than 80 million people that once had nobler ideas of its place in the world.

Grant the Egyptian people credit for their mercy and forbearance. The Pharaoh was deposed and his two sons, who sat astride the country's economy and politics, were hauled off to prison, but they were spared the gruesome end that was meted out next door to Moammar Gadhafi. A sickly Mubarak was humbled, wheeled into court on a gurney. But he was not sent to the gallows. True, some of the families of victims struck down during the upheaval howled for his blood. But the day of his reckoning was deferred as the judiciary let the matter run in the hope that the aged former ruler would succumb to a natural death.

It was odd, this tale of Hosni Mubarak. He had started out as a modest officer who had risen to power through the patronage and will of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. Mubarak had not been imaginative or brave—and that was what recommended him to the flamboyant Sadat. Where Sadat had been unabashedly open in his identification with American power, the new man would be more discreet. Where Sadat had been a trailblazer who had made that celebrated journey to Jerusalem, Mubarak would keep the peace with the Israelis, but keep them at arm's length.

Throughout his reign, a toxic brew poisoned the life of Egypt—a mix of anti-modernism, anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. That trinity ran rampant in the universities and the professional syndicates and the official media. As pillage had become the obsession of the ruling family and its retainers, the underclass was left to the rule of darkness and to a culture of conspiracy. The middle class was tentative and timid, unsure of itself. It knew the defects of the regime but could not contest its power.

More important, with the Muslim Brotherhood quietly toiling in the shadows, broad segments of the middle class succumbed to the theocratic temptation. Wealth accumulated in the Arab states and the Gulf had remade the Brotherhood. Its members were sly: They accepted the subtle accommodation offered them by the regime.

The historical role of the centralized state in Egypt as the principal agent of social change was abandoned. No wonder the Brotherhood sat out the early and decisive phase of the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square. Courage was not the hallmark of the Brotherhood. Its theorists were still maintaining that the ruler was due deference and obedience while a new generation of activists was battling the security forces.

Yet the Brotherhood had no scruples about "hijacking" a revolution that was not theirs. The annals of revolutions the world over bear testimony to the truth that the rule of the moderates in times of revolutions is always undone by the ascendancy of the extremists. (Think of the liberals who rode with Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979—so many of them were cut down by firing squads.)

It was no surprise that the Egyptian liberals and secularists quarreled among themselves and were feckless and divided. The dictatorship had not allowed them political space and experience. In hindsight, the tipping point in the ruin of Egypt came in 2005. The dictator rigged yet another presidential election, his fifth in a row, and he ordered a decent young rival, Ayman Nour, to prison on trumped up charges. The administration of George W. Bush grasped the importance of the moment, but Mubarak brushed their entreaties aside.

President Obama and his advisers had two years on their watch before the upheaval. But they lacked the interest and the determination—and the knowledge of matters Egyptian. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Mubarak as a friend of her family, and Vice President Joe Biden opined that the regime was stable even as millions of Egyptians had gone out to push it into its grave.

Today, a stalemate paralyzes Egypt: The Brotherhood won a plurality in parliamentary elections that began in 2011, but an activist judiciary declared the elections unconstitutional and ordered parliament dissolved in June 2012. The Brotherhood drafted and secured the passage of a new constitution by referendum in December, but those unreconciled to the reign of the Brotherhood wanted nothing to do with it.

Mohammed Morsi has the presidency, but he was defied some days ago when he ordered a curfew in the cities of Ismailia, Suez and Port Said. Thousands went into the streets to sing and dance and play soccer in the night. From afar, those with a superficial knowledge of Egypt think of it as a country willing to slip under the yoke of the Brotherhood. But Egypt is a skeptical, weary country; it wears its faith lightly, and its people have an innate suspicion of those who overdo their religious zeal.Two years ago, on Feb. 11, 2011, the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak stepped aside, overwhelmed by 18 days of protests. Silent and remote, he had ruled for three decades. He had offered his countrymen—and powers beyond—the sole gift of stability. He was a gendarme on the banks of the Nile. Now his country was done with him, and the vaunted stability of his near 30-year reign was torn asunder.

Yet it is only against the backdrop of the sordid political landscape of today's Egypt—the hooliganism of the young, the lawlessness, the fault line between a feeble secular camp and a cynical Muslim Brotherhood bent on monopolizing political power—that the true work of the Mubarak tyranny can be fully appreciated. The "deep state" he presided over—a Ministry of Interior with nearly two million functionaries, a police force that ran amok—is Mubarak's true legacy.

The disorder today in Egypt's streets is taken by some as proof that the despot knew what he was doing, and that Egyptians are innately given to tyranny. But that view misses the damage that this man and his greedy family and retainers inflicted on a nation of more than 80 million people that once had nobler ideas of its place in the world.

Grant the Egyptian people credit for their mercy and forbearance. The Pharaoh was deposed and his two sons, who sat astride the country's economy and politics, were hauled off to prison, but they were spared the gruesome end that was meted out next door to Moammar Gadhafi. A sickly Mubarak was humbled, wheeled into court on a gurney. But he was not sent to the gallows. True, some of the families of victims struck down during the upheaval howled for his blood. But the day of his reckoning was deferred as the judiciary let the matter run in the hope that the aged former ruler would succumb to a natural death.

It was odd, this tale of Hosni Mubarak. He had started out as a modest officer who had risen to power through the patronage and will of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. Mubarak had not been imaginative or brave—and that was what recommended him to the flamboyant Sadat. Where Sadat had been unabashedly open in his identification with American power, the new man would be more discreet. Where Sadat had been a trailblazer who had made that celebrated journey to Jerusalem, Mubarak would keep the peace with the Israelis, but keep them at arm's length.

Throughout his reign, a toxic brew poisoned the life of Egypt—a mix of anti-modernism, anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. That trinity ran rampant in the universities and the professional syndicates and the official media. As pillage had become the obsession of the ruling family and its retainers, the underclass was left to the rule of darkness and to a culture of conspiracy. The middle class was tentative and timid, unsure of itself. It knew the defects of the regime but could not contest its power.

More important, with the Muslim Brotherhood quietly toiling in the shadows, broad segments of the middle class succumbed to the theocratic temptation. Wealth accumulated in the Arab states and the Gulf had remade the Brotherhood. Its members were sly: They accepted the subtle accommodation offered them by the regime.

The historical role of the centralized state in Egypt as the principal agent of social change was abandoned. No wonder the Brotherhood sat out the early and decisive phase of the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square. Courage was not the hallmark of the Brotherhood. Its theorists were still maintaining that the ruler was due deference and obedience while a new generation of activists was battling the security forces.

Yet the Brotherhood had no scruples about "hijacking" a revolution that was not theirs. The annals of revolutions the world over bear testimony to the truth that the rule of the moderates in times of revolutions is always undone by the ascendancy of the extremists. (Think of the liberals who rode with Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979—so many of them were cut down by firing squads.)

It was no surprise that the Egyptian liberals and secularists quarreled among themselves and were feckless and divided. The dictatorship had not allowed them political space and experience. In hindsight, the tipping point in the ruin of Egypt came in 2005. The dictator rigged yet another presidential election, his fifth in a row, and he ordered a decent young rival, Ayman Nour, to prison on trumped up charges. The administration of George W. Bush grasped the importance of the moment, but Mubarak brushed their entreaties aside.

President Obama and his advisers had two years on their watch before the upheaval. But they lacked the interest and the determination—and the knowledge of matters Egyptian. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Mubarak as a friend of her family, and Vice President Joe Biden opined that the regime was stable even as millions of Egyptians had gone out to push it into its grave.

Today, a stalemate paralyzes Egypt: The Brotherhood won a plurality in parliamentary elections that began in 2011, but an activist judiciary declared the elections unconstitutional and ordered parliament dissolved in June 2012. The Brotherhood drafted and secured the passage of a new constitution by referendum in December, but those unreconciled to the reign of the Brotherhood wanted nothing to do with it.

The economy is wrecked and the government has run down its foreign reserves as it attempts to maintain a system of costly subsidies. A $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan was tentatively agreed on, but the government was unwilling to put through the austerity measures required by the loan. Only the remittances of Egyptians abroad, an impressive total of $19 billion in 2012, averted catastrophe. The ruling bargain that had the Egyptians give up their freedom for bread, and for the handouts of the state, still obtains. The old regime fell, but its ways endure.

Nowadays freedom is out of fashion in American official thinking, and the tumult in Arab lands serves as an alibi for abdication. But we should know that the bargain with the Arab dictatorships brought our way the jihadists. Two products of Mubarak's Egypt must be figured into an audit of that regime: the Cairene al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the psychopath Mohammad Atta, who led the death pilots of 9/11. It was folly and naiveté to think that we really knew and could befriend the tyrants.

Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and the author of "The Syrian Rebellion" (Hoover Institution Press, 2012).