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Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak dies at 91

Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has died at the age of 91 in a Cairo hospital, his family said.

Mubarak rose to power after Islamic extremists assassinated his predecessor Anwar Sadat and then steered the nation through the turmoil that buffeted the Middle East with wars, terrorism and religious extremism.

Mubarak, who served as president 1981-2011, maintained a cool peace with Israel and kept Egypt relatively free of the grip of Islamic extremism. He engineered Egypt’s return to the Arab fold after nearly a decade in the cold over its 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

Eli Shaked, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Egypt in 2003-2005, described Mubarak in 2012 as “a strong presence, not charismatic but with a heavy body like a fighter bomber, and very levelheaded.”

Shaked said Mubarak would meet visiting Israeli officials with at least three top advisers by his side, often consulting with them and demonstrating a detailed knowledge of Israeli politics. The Israeli said Mubarak liked “political jokes and witticisms,” but was short on creativity: “The man is completely status quo.”

A former pilot and air force commander with a combative, stubborn streak, Mubarak took tentative steps toward democratic reform early in his presidency but pulled back toward the dictatorial style that eventually propelled the protests against him beginning on January 25, 2011.

He was arrested later that year after he was accused of inciting the deaths of protesters during the 18-day revolt that toppled him, in which about 850 people were killed as police clashed with demonstrators.

Mubarak was sentenced to life in 2012, but an appeals court ordered a retrial, which dismissed the charges two years later.

He was born on May 4, 1928, in the village of Kafr el-Moseilha in the Nile delta province of Menoufia. His family, like that of Sadat, and Gamal Abdel Nasser before him, was lower middle class.

After joining the air force in 1950, Mubarak moved up the ranks as a bomber pilot and instructor and rose to leadership positions.

He earned nationwide acclaim as commander of the air force during the 1973 Yom Kippur War — a conflict that many Egyptians see as a victory — and was vice president when Sadat was assassinated. Mubarak, who was sitting beside Sadat in the reviewing stand, escaped with a minor hand injury.

In his early days, Mubarak made popular moves that held up promise of a more open society, including freeing 1,500 politicians, journalists and clerics jailed during Sadat’s last months in office.

But hopes for broader reform dimmed. Mubarak was reelected in staged, one-man referendums in which he routinely won more than 90 percent approval. He became more aloof, carefully choreographing his public appearances, and his authoritarian governance, buttressed by harsh emergency laws, fueled resentment.

Age took its toll on the president, who was once an avid squash player with a consistent style that matched his personality. He became hard of hearing, and was so devastated by the death of a 12-year-old grandson in 2009 that he canceled a trip to the United States.

Egypt’s influence in the Middle East, meanwhile, waned as the terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah, and their patron Iran, gained momentum and followers.

The oil-rich countries of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates seized the mantle of regional leadership. The growing profile of Turkey, a democracy led by an Islam-inspired government, also chipped away at Egypt’s heavyweight stature in the region.

There was no immediate word on the cause of Mubarak’s death.

Header: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, second from right, meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, at Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, Sept. 14, 2010. (Moshe Milner/GPO)