Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Hosni Mubarak will not go away. Even as Egyptians go to the polls to elect a new president this weekend, the old one is allegedly flirting with death in a prison hospital, capturing the country's attention with conflicting reports that he has slipped into a coma, or that doctors had to revive him twice after cardiac arrest, or that he is "drinking juice."
Last year's uprising, Mubarak's flight to his home in Sharm el-Sheikh, his trial, fresh elections, and the hope of a new constitution were supposed to set Egypt on a path toward a brighter future. It has not been that easy, however. Mubarak and the institutions he put in place continue to linger like an unwanted houseguest, making a mockery of Egypt's ostensible transition to democracy.
Mubarak made an indelible mark on Egypt during the 29 years, 3 months, 28 days, and 6 hours he ruled Egypt. Even with the man behind bars, his legacy has somehow persevered, and the revolution has failed to conclusively wipe out the old order. Whether Mubarak's demise is imminent or not, he has escaped the grasp of the revolutionaries, only deepening the frustrations that have pervaded Egypt's transition. The June 2 verdict of the three-judge panel — which acquitted his sons, Gamal and Alaa, on charges of corruption and did not actually find him guilty on charges of ordering the killings of protesters (despite his former vice president's testimony that Mubarak knew of "every bullet fired") — puts him beyond the reach of Egyptians who were seeking some combination of justice and revenge. Many Egyptians not only wanted to see Mubarak convicted for the crimes committed during the uprising — they wanted the verdict to reflect his regime's three decades of corruption, abuse of power, and repression.
It should not be about Mubarak any longer, yet Egypt's present drama remains a prisoner of the former president and his legacy. Mubarak is not only still making headlines, but the political, economic, and social pathologies that he spawned are pulling Egyptians back to the bad old days. An anti-Christian pogrom last October, when 28 people lost their lives after the Egyptian Army attacked a predominantly Coptic protest near downtown Cairo, was the manipulations of the previous era coming back to haunt Egyptians. In a replay of a dynamic that prevailed during the Mubarak era, that incident has driven many Copts either out of Egypt or into the arms of presidential contender Ahmed Shafiq, who served as Mubarak's last prime minister. It is the same old story: Egypt's dungeons remain filled with revolutionaries and activists who seek a just and free political system, while the people who have brutalized them sleep comfortably in their own beds.
Even the dismal choice between Egypt's two presidential candidates is evocative of the Mubarak era. Shafiq's candidacy revives the old calculation that Egyptians prefer authoritarianism over theocracy. As every profile of him notes, he was an air force commander like Mubarak. Yet that similarity is superficial, an accidental factoid. Shafiq could have been an artilleryman — his presidential run would still represent a replay of the army's struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood that was a central theme of the Mubarak era.
How to explain that Shafiq — a man driven from office in March 2011 by the power of Tahrir protesters — garnered 24.2 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential vote? The revival of the old ruling National Democratic Party's patronage networks likely played a role, but there is an even bleaker explanation: The revolutionary narrative about the Mubarak era may be weaker than previously believed. The polls show that Egyptians want democracy and will sacrifice much to get it, but the same polls also show that Egyptians want security and stability above all else. Consider Egypt strictly by the numbers, and the Mubarak era may have begun to look better to Egyptians — and not just to the felool, or remnants of the previous power structure.
The Egypt that Mubarak officially inherited from Anwar Sadat on Oct. 14, 1981, was very different from the country that slipped from his grasp on Feb. 11, 2011. On the eve of the uprising, many of Egypt's critical macroeconomic indicators were pointing in the right direction: GDP growth was healthy, the debt-to-GDP ratio was manageable, foreign reserves were up, and foreign direct investment was flowing. To be sure, not all Egyptians were benefiting from this state of affairs. However, if one surveys the daunting economic, social, and political problems they confront now, it seems that millions of Egyptians are thinking the unthinkable — that someone who represents the Mubarak period is the appropriate person to lead the country into what would most likely be a not-so-new era.
Regardless of who prevails, Shafiq or the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, the revolutionary promise of Tahrir Square has in many respects faded away. Egypt will never be the same, but it will not likely be what the activists imagined during the uprising. Even if Morsi does win — propelled to the presidency by an "anyone but Shafiq" effort by revolutionaries and liberals — his invocation of the revolution cannot hide the fact that the Brothers were slow to join the uprising and their democratic credentials are questionable.
In what seems like another time, Wael Ghonim, a celebrated figure in the uprising, laid out the foundational beliefs of the revolution: "We have to restore dignity to all Egyptians. We have to end corruption. No more theft. Egyptians are good people." Those sentiments still exist, but making them a reality is far more complex than Ghonim or anyone else had imagined. Even lying semi-comatose on a gurney in Tora prison hospital, Hosni Mubarak has found a way to haunt Egypt's political future.