October 6, 1981: Shots rang out at a military parade, and the Egyptian vice-president was rushed from the scene in an armored vehicle. "The president! The president!" onlookers cried as Egypt's fearsome, brazen leader was lifted away in a helicopter.
It was an inauspicious beginning to Hosni Mubarak's 30-year reign, and in the days following the assassination of Anwar el-Sadat, the world struggled to assess the compliant, enigmatic political figure who had assumed the mantle of power so abruptly in Egypt. News reports from the time reveal the depth of uncertainty surrounding Mubarak. Sadat had been assassinated just three years after the signing of the Camp David Accords, and the West had much to fear from the death of Egypt's president: the unraveling of the hard-won peace agreement; the fracturing of a nation bound together by a charismatic leader; the reversal of Egypt's political alignment with the United States and its allies.
Looking back from the close of Mubarak's 30-year tenure, the analyses that came with the news reporting in October 1981 seem both prescient ("He is believed to have little stomach for opposition or for the ideas about democracy professed by his predecessor") and flawed ("Mubarak is widely considered a pliant follower with few strong convictions of his own.") Examples of what the West expected from Hosni Mubarak's reign:
October 7, 1981. The Washington Post: "At this writing, it is not even known who will succeed Sadat. Speculation centers on Vice President Hosni Mubarak, of whom one authority said, 'Even those who know him don't know him.' He is an air force general, with strong military support. He is also described as 'Sadat's clone' by a student of Egyptian affairs, who quickly adds that 'this tells you nothing of how he might act alone.' So my advice is very simple: it is very nearly useless to speculate at all. There will be uncertainty, perhaps even a vigorous power struggle, lasting for months; first impressions are almost certain to deceive--if past history is any guide. On that score, the record is clear."
October 7, 1981. New York Times: "Those who know Mr. Mubarak describe him as cautiously ambitious, an efficient organizer and a voracious reader. His name has been free of the rumors of corruption that often surround high officials in Egypt. He lives modestly in small vice presidential villa in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis and enjoys playing squash and hockey .... Until now, Mr. Mubarak has been the butt of popular jokes in Egypt, pictured as a smiling and silent nonentity at the right hand of the President. But his taciturnity has been viewed by some as a survival tactic in a country where overly popular military figures are often quickly shuffled off to posts away from the centers of power."
October 9, 1981. Christian Science Monitor: "There is much speculation, for instance, about how capable and forceful a president Hosni Mubarak will prove to be, assuming public approval of his nomination in a referendum next week. Strange, or not so strange, this was the same kind of speculation that greeted Anwar Sadat's assumption to power after Nasser. By all accounts, Vice-President Mubarak is an intelligent, hard-working, politically shrewd man with every potential for growing into his job. Like his predecessor, he will learn."
October 10, 1981. The Economist: "Mr. Mubarak, who is 53, is Sadat's earmarked successor. He is a former air force commander who became vice-president in 1975. He was once nicknamed 'the laughing cow', after the label on a popular brand of processed cheese. He has no particular record either of military prowess or of outstanding administrative ability. His weakest point could be that he is an air force general rather than an army one; though he is said to have widened his authority lately. Mr. Mubarak is believed to hold the same pro-western views as his former leader. He has pledged to continue the peace process with Israel. But he is believed to have little stomach for opposition or for the ideas about democracy professed by his predecessor."
October 11, 1981. The New York Times: "The sudden aching shock and sense of foreboding Americans felt last week at the news that President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt had been assassinated have forcefully brought home the risks of pinning American policy and American hopes so heavily on a single foreign leader in so vital a region.... [P]rivately, Washington is uneasy. From here, Mr. Mubarak remains a question mark, competent but without the proven vision, charisma or force of Mr. Sadat. Not only must he assert personal authority but, American officials note, he must deal with the needs of diplomacy, the Egyptian economy and the political dissent in the country as well as the inevitable pull of pan-Arabism for the Egyptian body politic."
October 12, 1981. BBC: "Judging by the tone of American commentaries, politicians in Washington are feeling like people who have suddenly lost ground under their feet and who need someone to lean on not to fall. Hence the guess-work. Will Vice-President Mubarak, who will probably succeed Sadat, be able to play the role of the main support of American policy in the Middle East? Will he be able, even if he wants to?"
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Christina Koningisor is a writer based in New Haven.