Analysis: Mubarak, Obama and the US-Cairo thaw

The American president has been giving low priority to human rights in Egypt.

mubarak 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
mubarak 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
During Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's visit to the US capital earlier this month, comments and media reports focused on the possible restarting of the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians. Little was said on the other issues, which is what the two leaders intended. However, the main purpose of the visit had been to achieve a thaw between Egypt and the United States after an estrangement of some years which had become an embarrassment to both countries. It had started with former US president George W. Bush and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's well-meaning efforts to bring democracy to the Middle East. Intense pressure was brought to bear on the Egyptian president to convince him to do something about human rights and to hold free and transparent elections. Mubarak gave in against his better judgment. The November 2005 elections brought 88 opposition members - closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood - into the parliament. That was a fifth of the total number of representatives and it would have been more if the government had not taken some last minute (and highly undemocratic) measures to stop the trend. Even the Bush administration took fright at this undesirable result. It was too late: Congress had already cut American help to Egypt by $100 million and allotted $50m. to Egyptian NGOs fighting for human rights. Since then a deeply offended Mubarak had refrained from visiting the United States. The strategic dialogue between the two countries went on, however, since it is of paramount importance for both, and included such issues as containing Iran, fighting terror, and the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians. Then Obama was elected and everything changed. He came to Cairo in June to deliver his message of reconciliation to the Muslim world, had talks with Mubarak at the G-8 meeting in Italy last month and warmly invited him to a much publicized visit to Washington. The old leader met all the important players, from Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to National Security Adviser James Jones and CIA director Leon Panetta. Mubarak also found time for a meeting with representatives of Jewish organizations to explain his policy towards Israel, a time honored tradition. Following his talks with Obama, Mubarak declared that his Cairo speech had removed all doubts concerning the new American policy towards the Muslim world, thus giving Obama Egypt's seal of approval and putting an end to the coolness between the two countries. After all, in Cairo the American president had given low priority to human rights issues, and the message had been well received by Arab leaders and particularly by Mubarak. Arab media sources did report that the rais had discussed with his hosts in Washington some of the most pressing issues affecting the Middle East: Iran's aggressive policy and the situation in Sudan and in Somalia, which are perceived as a threat to the stability of the region as a whole, but more specifically of Egypt. Also discussed was the war on global terror and the latest developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Egypt was wary of Obama's stated intention of opening a dialogue with Iran, because it would weaken the position of the Gulf States and of the moderate Arabs. Cooperation between the intelligence services of Egypt and the United States was also emphasized, as a means to help Cairo since it is a prime target of terrorist organizations. However, the subject is all important to America as well since US and other countries's warships transit the Suez Canal on their way to the Persian Gulf. Much had been made of the fact that an Israeli submarine and two missile boats had gone through the Canal the month before, in a clear attempt to illustrate the ongoing dialogue among the US, Egypt and Israel concerning the Iranian threat. At the same time, in an effort to defuse potential negative reactions in Arab public opinion, Egypt was at pains to stress that it would not allow foreign troops or missiles on its soil. While clearly positioning itself at the head of the moderate Arab camp against Iran, Egypt still sends mixed signals. That's the way things are done in the Middle East. From Arab sources one can infer that the situation inside Egypt and the social and economic reforms needed were discussed at length, as well as the way the country is gearing itself towards the general elections in 2010 and the presidential election scheduled for 2011. According to the recently released findings of the United Nations Development Program, 41 percent of Egyptians live below a poverty line set at $2 a day, 12% suffer from Hepatitis C, and 40% are illiterate. Unemployment has reached 25%. These are the critical issues as far as Mubarak is concerned. He is well aware of the fact that holding elections as things stand could open the door to mass demonstrations. The past two years have seen a number of strikes - a previously unprecedented occurrence - and the government had to raise salaries. To fund that step, subsidies of basic foodstuffs were slashed and their price went up accordingly. Most badly hit was bread, and this led to a new crisis. Army bakeries had to be pressed into service to produce bread at government approved prices. Whatever reforms Mubarak promised Obama, it is therefore highly doubtful that he can deliver, and there is little hope for a bettering of the economic situation. To all intent and purposes, election campaigning has already started. Popular opposition movement "Kefaya" (Enough!) is already calling for a boycott of the forthcoming elections since, it says, "they can't possibly be free," and is trying to convince opposition parties to join. On the other hand, the Egyptian government is working hard to weaken the Muslim Brotherhood, which it sees as the main opposition force. Hundreds of its militants, including a number of leaders, have been arrested. Hosni Mubarak turned 81 this year. He has been in power for 28 years. Though he is not known as suffering from significant health problems, one can see that the man is tired. The untimely death of his favorite grandson has taken its toll. He is therefore unlikely to seek reelection in 2011. He might even resign earlier in order to hold presidential elections closely after the parliamentary elections. The seasoned leader wants to leave the country in safe hands and not risk an open election which might lead to the surprise victory of an untried politician or worse of a Muslim Brother. Such an outcome would probably provoke an army intervention and total chaos, not only in Egypt but throughout the Middle East. This is why Mubarak, while denying having such an intention, seems to be grooming his 47-year-old son Gamal for the job. He made him deputy secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party and the head of its political commission. In 2007, the elder Mubarak initiated an amendment to the constitution making it possible for Gamal to be the sole candidate of the party while making it more difficult for independent or opposition candidates to run. At the same time, the name of Omar Suleiman, head of the intelligence services who holds ministerial rank, is often put forward by the media as a possible successor. As things stand today there is no legal way he could be a candidate, since he does not have any position in the party institutions. The fact that Gamal Mubarak came with his father to Washington is worthy of notice. It was probably intended to give him some much needed experience as well as to get him to know and be known by policy=makers in the American capital. The younger Mubarak also launched an Internet dialogue with an Egyptian youth... as did Barak Obama at the beginning of his own campaign. By "coincidence," a well-known Egyptian singer launched a song asking, "Why should he not rule? Why should he not take the reins... Gamal Mubarak, president, son of president, don't listen to gossip on inheriting the power..." Protests organized by the Coptic minority and Muslim opposition elements in front of the White House under the aegis of Saad Eddin Ibrahim failed miserably and barely made it into the news. As we have seen, the media focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Prior to his arrival, Mubarak had stated time and time again that he was against normalization between Arab states and Israel as long as the peace negotiations had not been completed, adding that there should be a freeze on construction in the settlements, though he stressed that negotiations were the main point. He also said that Arabs were weary of the endless Palestinian issue but that without a solution more violence would occur. Obama took pain to praise Israel for taking down illegal outposts and eliminating a number of road blocks in the West Bank. He stressed the need for a courageous leadership not only in Israel and on the Palestinian side but also in Arab countries. The two presidents are in agreement on the urgency of the issue, though well aware of the impossibility of making progress as long as Hamas rules half of the Palestinian population. They are also aware of the fact that Israel will never accept an imposed solution, not from the American president nor from Arab countries in the guise of the "Arab initiative." Mubarak did say that Obama would present a new initiative at the UN General Assembly in September, but this was denied by a State Department spokesman. There is no doubt, however, that the American president will address the issue on that occasion. Mubarak has no illusions about the likelihood of Palestinians and Israelis reaching an agreement under present circumstances. Egypt has launched an all-out effort to bring about reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, but has little to show after a year. Still, demonstrating that it is a main player on issues affecting its own security is of paramount importance for Cairo. Egypt is also trying to mediate between Israel and Hamas on the issue of Gilad Schalit, but lack of results has led it to agree to let a German mediator have a go. The problem is that radical forces in the region, such as Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas, no long accept long-established understandings. They exhibit an irrational stubbornness even at the price of causing great suffering to civilian populations such as in Gaza. Egypt had to increase its control over the border, and indeed has managed to greatly diminish the flow of contraband weapons into the Strip. To sum up, it was indeed an important visit even if little has transpired of the contents of the talks. Egypt after all is not only the largest Arab country, with the largest Arab army; it is also a much needed US ally. Obama who now understands much better the difficult situation of his visitor, will probably tone down his criticism in order not to further destabilize the country. He also developed warmer relations with the aging leader. Altogether, a very positive development. The writer was Israel's ambassador to Egypt.