"When Ramses II was over eighty he celebrated his rejuvenation at the feast of Set, repeating it yearly until he was ninety and more, and displaying his power of rejuvenation to the Gods above in the Obelisks he regularly erected as a memorial, which the aged Pharaoh decorated with electrum at the top so that their brightness should pour over lands of Egypt when the sun was mirrored in them."
This is from a classic account of this ancient and ordered land, "The Nile in Egypt," by Emil Ludwig (1937). Hosni Mubarak, the military officer who became Pharaoh in his own right, is well over 80. His is the third-longest reign since Ramses, who ruled for 67 years. The second-longest had belonged to a remarkable soldier of fortune, Muhammad Ali, an Albanian by birth and the creator of modern Egypt, who conquered the country in the opening years of the 19th century and ruled for five decades. His dynasty was to govern Egypt until the middle years of the 20th century.
In the received image of it, Egypt is the most stable of nations, a place of continuity on the banks of a sanguine river. Egyptians, the chronicles tell us, never killed their pharaohs. Anwar al-Sadat had been the first. But this received image conceals a good deal of tumult. The submission to the will of Gods and rulers has been punctured by ferocious rebellions.
From Ludwig again: "Once the fellahin (the peasants) and the workers of Egypt revolted against their masters; once their resentment burst out: a revolution dispossessed the rich men and the priests of Egypt of their power." One such revolution at the end of the Old Kingdom raged intermittently for two centuries (2350 B.C. to 2150 B.C.).
In more recent times, in 1952, the Egyptians rose in rebellion and set much of modern Cairo to the torch, which would lead to the fall of the monarchy. The agile Sadat faced a big revolt of his own in 1977 when he attempted to reduce the subsidies on bread and sugar and cooking gas. It is said that he had been ready to quit this country in the face of that upheaval.
It is hard to know with precision when Hosni Mubarak, the son of middle peasantry, lost the warrant of his people. It had started out well for this most cautious of men. He had been there on the reviewing stand on Oct. 6, 1981 when a small band of young men from the army struck down Sadat as the flamboyant ruler was reviewing his troops and celebrating the eighth anniversary of the October War of 1973.
The new man had risen by grace of his predecessor's will. He had had no political past. The people of Egypt had not known of him. He was the antidote to two great and ambitious figures—Nasser and Sadat. His promise was modesty. He would tranquilize the realm after three decades of tumult and wars and heartbreaking bids to re-make the country.
A deceased friend of mine, an army general of Mr. Mubarak's class and generation, spoke of the man with familiarity: He was a civil servant with the rank of president, he said of his fellow officer. Mr. Mubarak put the word out that he would serve two six-year terms and be gone. But the appetite grew with the eating. The humble officer would undergo a transformation. A presidency-for-life announced itself. And in an astounding change, where Nasser and Sadat feared the will and the changing moods of their countrymen, Mr. Mubarak grew imperious and dismissive.
Fouad Ajami is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. To continue reading his column in The Wall Street Journal, on Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, click here.