Egypt's Mubarak: From poverty to the presidency

President Hosni Mubarak came to power amid crisis three decades ago, a reassuring symbol of stability for many Egyptians as well as for Western leaders seeking a solid ally in the Middle East. Today, crisis again envelops Egypt, and Mubarak is widely seen as the root of the problem.

In the span of his presidency, Mubarak, a former pilot and air force general with a combative, stubborn streak, took tentative steps toward democratic reform but then pulled back toward the authoritarianism that, coupled with poverty and a culture of corruption, helped drive Egyptian protesters into the streets.

The prospect that Mubarak was grooming his son, Gamal, to succeed him left many Egyptians feeling that they were trapped in the past, deprived of the opportunity for change and renewal. Then, the uprising in Tunisia delivered an electrifying message: an old order can be ousted.

Mubarak, 82, announced in a televised address Tuesday that he will not seek another term, but rejected demands that he step down immediately. The halfway concession — an end to his rule months down the road — was derided by protesters massed in Cairo's main downtown square.

It was a stark departure from the praise Mubarak had once won for keeping Egypt free of the grip of Islamic extremism, and solidly allying with the West amid wave after wave of Mideast crises.

His ascent to power — he was sitting on a military viewing stand next to his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, when he was assassinated by Islamic militants — recalls the welcome legacy of his early years.

On the whole, his serious, cautious image reassured many Egyptians, including some of those who shout for his downfall in street protests. Even after looters roamed major Egyptian cities following deadly clashes between protesters and security forces, Mubarak sought to portray himself, and the military forces at his command, as the only obstacle to outright anarchy.

His political credibility, however, suffered irreparable damage. And that vulnerability, at least in hindsight, goes back decades. He lacked the charisma of his two legendary predecessors — the peacemaker Sadat and the great Arab nationalist, Gamal Abdel Nasser — and constantly served in their shadows.

He also struggled constantly with the problems that have bedeviled much of the Arab world through modern history: economic stagnation, choking corruption, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and fighting Islamic militancy at the expense of personal freedoms.

As the years went by, Mubarak also became more aloof, carefully choreographing his public appearances, and his authoritarian governing style appeared increasingly out of sync with a world focused on economic and political openness.

Resentment toward his regime built especially in recent years, as new press freedoms exposed brutal police tactics, and a spate of economic reforms trickled down to only a handful of Egyptians. He moved toward democratic reform in 2005 by launching the country's first contested presidential election, but retrenched sharply when opponents made gains — jailing both his main secular opponent, Ayman Nour, and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet it was his young son's quick rise through the ruling party that caused the most domestic anxiety in recent years, in a country scornful of the prospect of a hereditary succession.

More seriously for the West, Mubarak oversaw the wane of Egypt's regional influence in recent years as the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah and their patron, Iran, gained momentum and followers.

Yet throughout, Mubarak remained a strong ally of the United States, carving out a niche as a key negotiator on the Palestinian crisis, and bolstered by billions in U.S. aid because of his country's ties to Israel.

"It is a very tough job," Mubarak once told a television interviewer. "All you seem to do is wake up to trouble and sleep to trouble."

Mubarak was serving as Sadat's vice president when Muslim extremists gunned down the president in 1981, killing the world's best hope for Arab moderation.

Egypt's parliament designated Mubarak the sole presidential candidate the next day and he was elected head of state on Oct. 13, 1981, with 98.5 percent of the vote.

Early on, Mubarak strongly put down the Muslim militant insurgency whose strength had been underestimated, and whose ranks had produced Sadat's assassins and some of the future leaders of al-Qaida.

Later in the 1990s, he fought back hard again against another resurgence of Muslim militants who attacked both foreign tourists and ordinary Egyptians.

Mubarak engineered Egypt's return to the Arab fold after nearly a decade out in the cold over its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and carved himself a role as a major mediator in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

He also made moves that promised he would open up society and that won him considerable popularity at home — including freeing 1,500 politicians, journalists and clerics jailed during Sadat's last months in office.

But hopes for broader reform dimmed as, over the years, Mubarak was re-elected in staged, one-man referendums in which he routinely won more than 90 percent approval.

Mubarak had never appointed a vice president as the constitution required, though he did so last week in an effort to appease protesters demanding his ouster.

In early 2005, the Egyptian president — under pressure both at home and by the George W. Bush administration — surprised his country by saying he would change the constitution to allow Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential elections.

The vote was held that September and Mubarak defeated 10 other candidates amid charges of voter fraud and intimidation. In follow-up parliamentary elections, however, the Muslim Brotherhood — the country's main opposition group — stunned the government with a strong showing.

Perhaps because of that, Mubarak's regime began sharply pulling back: postponing planned local elections; jailing the activist Nour; and launching its harshest campaign of arrests in a decade against the Brotherhood.

Throughout, Mubarak remained uniformly hostile to the Brotherhood, contending it had no place in Egypt's secular government. But the group retains broad support among the poor and has vowed to continue fighting for change.

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 then in leadership positions. He earned nationwide fame as commander of the air force during the 1973 Middle East war.

Mubarak, in military uniform and sitting on Sadat's right, escaped with only a minor hand injury on Oct. 6, 1981, when the group of Muslim extremists charged a Cairo reviewing stand during a military parade, killing Sadat and seven others. Seven days later, Mubarak was president.