Given the political sensitivity, as Egypt gears up for the decisive second round in mid-June of its first freely contested presidential election, the court could have decided to exercise its discretion and postponed the verdict on Hosni Mubarak. Instead, he was sentenced to life in prison, following the guilty verdict in his trial for complicity in the deaths of some 850 protesters in last year’s uprising.

However, the trial and the presidential election mark a watershed in the Egyptian revolution, and a moment to reflect on the impact that Mubarak has had on the country he ruled for nearly 30 years.

The success of Ahmed Shafiq, one of his most loyal supporters, in the first round of the election has hinted at a reassessment of Mubarak among a significant portion of the Egyptian public and an appreciation of his claim to have fostered security, stability and robust economic growth.

Yet even among the remnants of the former regime—derided as felool (a term used for those who served under Mubarak)—there is no great affection for Hosni Mubarak and history will probably judge him as a man promoted above his station whose refusal to embrace political change has left corrosive scars on the body of Egyptian society.

Mubarak spent the first half of his career in the air force, earning a reputation for competence and hard work. He became commander of the air force in 1972 and performed with credit in the war with Israel the following October, although he was subsequently accused of exaggerating his contribution to the early successes of the Egyptian campaign before Israel’s devastating counter-offensive.

In 1975, President Anwar Sadat picked Mubarak as his vice-president. He was not an obvious choice, but it was understood at the time that Sadat was concerned to have a deputy who could be relied upon not to pose any political threat. This perception of being a second-rater dogged Mubarak after he became president in October 1981, following Sadat’s assassination by Islamist extremists and may partly explain his own refusal to appoint a vice-president until the final days of his regime.

Mubarak’s challenges in office

Mubarak faced three immediate challenges on assuming office: suppressing the armed Islamist groups that had killed his predecessor as part of a campaign against Egypt’s alignment with the West and its peace treaty with Israel; repairing the rift between Egypt and the rest of the Arab world; and dealing with a looming economic crisis, as Egypt struggled to cope with its increasing burden of external debt.

The war with the Islamist underground groups rumbled on until the late 1990s. The regime ultimately prevailed, but at a high cost. Mubarak sought to confront the Islamist groups by a mixture of repression and political guile. Hardcore Islamist fighters of the secretive Jihad movement were tracked down and killed or arrested and police fought a low-level civil war for much of the 1980s and 1990s with the more populist Islamic groups.

The surviving leaders of Jihad and some of the more extreme figures in the Islamic groups were forced into exile and in the late 1990s forged an alliance with Osama bin Laden, creating Al-Qaida. Among this group was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who now heads Al-Qaida.

The political prong of Mubarak’s strategy entailed opening up some space for the banned to Muslim Brotherhood to operate, through allowing them to take part in elections to parliament and to professional associations.

He thus succeeded in displacing the Islamist terrorist threat, but at the cost of contributing to the emergence of Al-Qaida, and in co-opting the non-violent elements of the Islamist movement, it increased the appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood and raised expectations that they could ultimately win power.

Mubarak and his security officials resorted to heavy repression and gross electoral fraud in their vain attempt to roll back the Muslim Brothers’ advance. It took Mubarak until 2005 before he enacted any constitutional reform, allowing the direct election of a president, subject to tight restrictions on eligibility.

The Muslim Brotherhood

After the Muslim Brotherhood made their strongest performance to date in the parliamentary election of the same year, the Mubarak regime devoted much of its political attention to preventing a repeat performance in 2010, as this could have opened the way to the Brotherhood fielding a candidate in the presidential election in 2011. The December 2010 election was arguably the most fraudulent of the entire Mubarak era and this was an important factor in the revolutionary uprising that started the following month.

Restoring Egypt’s relations with fellow Arab states, which had severed ties after the 1978 Camp David Accords, can be counted as one of Mubarak’s successes. Egypt was readmitted as a full member of the Arab League in 1989, two years after Arab states decided to restore diplomatic ties with Cairo. This provided economic benefits, in the form of development aid and investment, and gave Egypt an opportunity to try to restore its position as the focal point of the Arab politics and culture.

Mubarak and his closest policy advisers, Usama el-Baz and Omar Suleiman, managed to make Egypt the main point of reference for the US and Israel in tackling the Palestinian issue, and Mubarak showed strong resolve in pushing through a majority decision at the Arab League for joining US-led military intervention against Iraqi forces after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.

However, Egypt failed to deliver any substantive progress on the Palestinian front, and in the latter part of Mubarak’s rule he was increasingly perceived as a willing partner with Israel in enforcing a blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Mubarak lacked the charisma to project himself as a world statesman and Egypt’s regional leadership role was challenged by the rise of the Gulf Arab states.

Egypt’s economy

Egypt’s decline as a political force was closely linked to the trouble that the economy was in when Mubarak took over. Sadat had started the process of opening up the economic system, but one of the side effects had been the build-up of external debt. These included loans from the US for military supplies at high, fixed interest rates, of up to 14 per cent, and with stiff penalties for missing repayments.

Egypt was forced to go to the IMF in the mid-1980s, and negotiated the first of two debt-rescheduling deals with the Paris Club in 1987. The second was in 1991 and was underpinned by a decision by the US and Gulf Arab states to forgive some $13bn of debts, including the US military loans.

The pace of economic reform quickened in the 1990s with the passage of a capital market law and the launch of privatisation. Mubarak was criticised for taking an overly cautious approach to the economy and Egypt did not enjoy sustained periods of high economic growth until the latter period of his rule.

However, the achievements of his final government, headed by Ahmed Nazif, were overshadowed by complaints of gross corruption, whose beneficiaries were alleged to include members of Mubarak’s family and their close acquaintances, and by the failure of the reforms to improve the standard of living for the impoverished majority of the population.

In the last five years of the Mubarak regime, the Egyptian economy grew at an average rate of over 5 per cent, Egypt pulled in more than $30bn of foreign direct investment, and more than 5 million jobs were created in the private sector. Yet few Egyptians felt the benefits of this and investors often cited uncertainty about Egypt’s political outlook as one of the central risks for their future business plans.

The prospect of his son Gamal in effect inheriting power made many business people uneasy, and there was a sense towards the end of the regime that Mubarak had compromised political stability by his inability to conceive of any scenario other than prolonging the status quo. He hung on to power for far too long, whether because of his vanity or in order to protect the illicit gains of his family and cronies, and suffered the ignominy of mass rejection in January and February last year.

Aside from Ahmed Shafiq, few of his former colleagues have shown much sympathy for him, and in a damning put-down one of his long-serving ministers recently said: “The most depressing thing about Mubarak was his sheer mediocrity.”

The Mubarak timeline

1928 – born in Minufiya province in the Egyptian Delta

1950 – gains his commission as an air force pilot

1969 – appointed air force chief of staff

1972 – appointed commander of the air force

1975 – appointed vice president

1981 – becomes president after Anwar Sadat is assassinated

1987 – start of second term

1990 – chairs emergency Arab League summit after Iraqi invasion of Kuwait

1993 – start of third term

1999 – start of fourth term

2005 – changes constitution to allow direct election of president; wins mandate for fifth term

2011 – hands over power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on 11 February

2012 – on 2 June a Cairo court finds him guilty of complicity and sentences him to life in prison