Mubarak with Sadat 311.
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Like a defensive soccer team sustaining its only and fatal goal in the last
seconds of injury time, Hosni Mubarak watched helplessly as his three decades in
power went up in smoke.
Time and again, this poor-man’s pharaoh
progressed in life thanks to his passivity. No one is belittling his
well-deserved rise to the command of his country’s air force, a feat that
followed several years’ training in Moscow during which he had to demonstrate
not only loyalty but also ability. However, in terms of Egypt’s success during
the ’73 war, his role was limited, as what downed more than 100 IAF planes was
not Mubarak’s pilots, but Soviet-made missiles, which he neither created nor
Still, like Chauncey, the gardener who became president in
Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, Mubarak was there, and emerged from that presence
a major symbol of Egypt’s relative success in that war. And as the lucky often
have it, this happenstance was followed by yet more luck when Anwar Sadat,
seeking an unpretentious deputy, picked the young general while passing over the
much more senior and successful Abdul Ghani Gamassi, the architect of Egypt’s
crossing of the canal.
Mubarak was also there to witness from close range
Sadat’s daring diplomacy, at one point joining him for a visit in Beersheba.
Alas, though he loved hosting antagonists and playing mediator whenever
possible, Mubarak never actually brokered a dramatic diplomatic deal, and never
personally relinquished anything for the sake of a diplomatic
Mubarak was also wise enough to avoid the fanaticism he witnessed
firsthand while being there as bullets pierced Sadat’s chest. And Mubarak was
also careful to avoid the kind of adventurism he saw Saddam Hussein practice
repeatedly, or the kind of charlatanism he saw Yasser Arafat display while
refusing to ceremonially sign one of the interim deals with Israel, with Mubarak
at his side.
In all these, Mubarak’s political caution, mental poise and
disdain for change paid off.
Alas, there was one moment when history
called, and he was deaf. It didn’t happen this week, but in 1989.
THEN, he remained unperturbed the morning after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and
even after the violent removal of his friend Nicolae Ceausescu in live
broadcast. The entire world understood that freedom was marching globally. Not
only the East Bloc, but also Latin America soon shed despotism, and much of
sub-Saharan Africa was also parting with its dictatorial past. History,
therefore, begged an Arab choice, and more than anyone else’s the choice was to
be Mubarak’s, as the leader of the largest and strongest Arab
Mubarak didn’t flinch. He chose despotism, running repeatedly in
fake elections, muzzling opponents, distributing political booty, controlling
the media and abandoning the masses to the destitution that the whole world has
now finally come to discuss. And what Mubarak chose, the rest of the Arabs
That is how the Arab world emerged from the Cold War as the
entire world’s political black hole. At a time when leaders in the second and
third worlds were seeking new ways to deliver at least one of man’s two most
fundamental political demands, freedom and prosperity, Arab leaders rejected
Mubarak could have prevented all this and earned a place in history
on the scale of Nelson Mandela’s had he seen where the world is headed and set
out to break the Arab world’s path to freedom. History would have forgiven him
had he done it gradually or piecemeal.
Alas, being the overly cautious
and hopelessly unimaginative soldier they made of him back in Moscow, he failed
his career’s main test, which came in 1989. The bill he received this week was
THE US had pampered Egypt since Sadat bolted Moscow’s orbit and
defected to Washington’s in the 1970s. Cairo received from six successive
American presidents an annual $1.5 billion in foreign aid, most of which went to
In fact, the already dwarfed civilian aid of $400 million a
year was halved two years ago.
Now this might have made sense so long as
the Egyptians were part of the defensive line America built opposite the Soviet
bloc, which in Egypt’s neighborhood included Libya, Ethiopia and South Yemen. By
this logic, aid to Egypt should have been reassessed once its main cause, the
Soviet Union, had fallen. It wasn’t.
Instead, the US continued to line
the regime’s pockets and pump the military while the population swelled from 40
million on the day Sadat died to at least 75 million today, half of whom are
illiterate and live on a monthly $60.
Had Washington understood 1989, it
would have acknowledged that the Egyptian people, just like any other, will
someday realize they are being abused and demand a life. To preempt this,
Washington should have focused its aid not on the military but on the economy.
Now what’s done is done, but as for tomorrow, America will have to tell Egypt
that its aim is not to make this or that regime survive, but to help the
Egyptian people thrive. And this will be accomplished not by shipping yet more
F-16s, howitzers and Abrams tanks to the Nile, but by building schools,
hospitals, kindergartens, infirmaries, training centers, assembly lines and
anything else that will foster the dignity that the Egyptian people have now
demanded in a way that resounded the world over.
ONE OF THE most absurd
statements made anywhere this week was Syrian President Bashar Assad’s
suggestion that he fears no Egyptian-style upheaval because he, unlike Mubarak,
has been “resisting Israel.” For decades, the same Arab leaders who abused their
citizens were the ones who nurtured the dictum that what plagues the Middle East
is the Arab-Israeli conflict. If only the Jews’ land would shrink to a pinpoint,
then the world’s most volatile region would be happy, went the logic to which so
many gullible Europeans and Americans lent an ear.
Who, Mr. Assad, made
Mohamed Bouazizi, torch himself to death, and thus touch the current Arab
awakening? Did he give a damn about Israelis and Palestinians? He said what he
wanted: He wanted a job. He was an educated man who watched helplessly while his
land was being robbed by its own unelected leaders.
That’s what his
problem was, as is the problem of some 500,000 jobless Egyptian university
graduates, and a million Syrians who must flock to Lebanon to eke out a
Now you come and play the old trick of telling them that their
problem is not your leadership, but the Jews’ presence. Chances are high that a
post-Mubarak Egypt, rather than get down to the business of economic creation
and moral cleansing, will quickly follow your time-honored pattern. It’s been
tried before, and was indeed successful – but only for so long. Eventually, the
leaders who stole their people’s freedom and wealth while systematically
slandering Israel were removed – by the people, who then made friends with
Israel, and began improving their lives. That is what happened in 1989 in
Europe, and that is what someday will happen in the Middle