Veteran Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who faces his first contested election on Wednesday after a quarter of a century in power, is a longtime Western ally who crushed Islamic violence and saw through peace with Israel before coming under pressure for reform.
A military man like both his predecessors, the 77-year-old Mubarak has built up a reputation as a survivor, having escaped at least six assassination attempts since watching his predecessor Anwar Sadat gunned down before his eyes at a military parade in 1981.
The Middle East remains a region where heads of state tend to hold their jobs for life, but only Libya’s Moammar Gadaffi has been in power for longer than the Egyptian leader.
Mubarak was seated next to Sadat when the Nobel peace laureate was assassinated by Islamist soldiers and was lucky to escape with his life.
He responded with a state of emergency, which remains in force to this day, and a remorseless battle against all forms of political Islam.
Deadly bombings in the beach resorts of the Sinai peninsula in July and last October have shown that Islamic militancy still remains a threat, but the insurgent groups which operated widely in upper Egypt in the 1990s have all been crushed.
Born in 1928 in a small village north of Cairo, Mubarak joined the air force just two years after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, and rose through the ranks through successive Arab wars with Israel.
When the Egyptian air force was virtually destroyed by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967, Mubarak took charge of rebuilding it and was one of the main strategists behing the October War of 1973 in which the Arab states reversed some of their losses.
But as vice president from 1975, Mubarak was fully behind Sadat’s historic push for peace with Israel and saw through the Camp David accords which earned his predecessor the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize but proved his death warrant.
Mubarak himself has still only once visited Israel — in 1995 to attend the funeral of slain premier Yitzhak Rabin.
But Israeli media reported on Monday he was mulling another one later this year for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after Israel’s historic withdrawal from Gaza.
Sharon has long been seen as a virtual war criminal in the Arab world for his role in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon but Mubarak has openly extolled him as a peace partner, earning plaudits from Washington.
Despite past links to the Soviet Union, Mubarak also forged ahead with Sadat’s decisive Cold War tilt towards the United States.
In 1964, he had headed the Egyptian military delegation in Moscow overseeing the massive arms purchases of the period, but through the 1980s Mubarak forged ever closer ties with Washington.
Massive US aid, both military and civilian, has not come entirely without strings, particularly now that President George Bush’s adminstration has made Middle East reform a priority, and Washington was instrumental in securing Mubarak’s agreement in February to hold contested elections.
Mubarak won all four previous terms in elections in which he was the sole candidate. In none of them did the official results give him less than 96% of the vote.
With nine challengers, his margin of victory is bound to be lower but defeat is still seen as virtually inconceivable given his long dominance of his country’s affairs.
Most analysts assume it will be ill health or death rather the ballot box that finally sees someone else’s portrait replace Mubarak’s on government buildings.
The incument has always been said to lead a healthy life and was once known for enjoying an almost daily game of squash on the private court he had built at the palace.
But his reputation as a vigorous septuagenarian was dented when he underwent surgery for a slipped disc last year and suffered a small health scare while delivering a televised speech in 2003.
Mubarak has two sons by his half-British wife Suzanne — Gamal and Alaa — the first of whom played a prominent role in his unprecedented re-election camapign.
If and when the president does finally decide to call it day, many see Gamal as his likely successor. – AFP