x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Wikileaks show US knew the mind of Mubarak

Diplomatic cables describe President Hosni Mubarak as viewing himself as a tough but fair 'father figure' who believes that he has the best interests of his country, and those of the wider Arab world, at heart.

Washington may have been disappointed but cannot have been surprised by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's insistence on seeing out his final term in office after three decades in power.

Through countless meetings with its officials and diplomats, the US government has come to know intimately the man who has ruled Egypt through the administrations of five US presidents.

More on the unrest in Egypt

Confidential diplomatic cables recently leaked by WikiLeaks provided a candid insight into the mindset of the leader of one of America's closest and most powerful Arab allies.

The population of Egypt has doubled to 80 million since he came to power in 1981, following the assassination of the president at the time, Anwar Sadat, who was gunned down by Islamist radicals for making peace with Israel. Mr Mubarak, who was sitting next to him, was lucky to escape the shots.

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The memos, from the US's ambassador in Cairo, portrayed Mr Mubarak, 82, as a self-confident ruler, determined to hold on to power, ready to quash dissent, and stubbornly resistant to change.

In one, the US ambassador to Cairo, Margaret Scobey wrote: "He is a tried and true realist, innately cautious and conservative, and has little time for unrealistic goals."

The Egyptian leader liked telling high-level American visitors that past US efforts to encourage political liberalisation in the region ended badly, such as the Shah of Iran, who was toppled in the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Security forces "keep the domestic beasts at bay, and Mubarak is not one to lose sleep over their tactics", the career US diplomat wrote in a May 19, 2009 cable.

The cables describe Mr Mubarak as clean-living, though "lacking in charisma", seemingly viewing himself as a tough but fair "father figure of the nation" who believes that he has the best interests of his country, and those of the wider Arab world, at heart.

He does not come across as a quitter in the WikiLeaks documents. Mr Mubarak, a former air force commander, reinforced that message on Tuesday night when he declared emotionally and theatrically on state television: "This is my country. This is where I lived, I fought and defended its land, sovereignty and interests, and I will die on its soil."

That was a pointed reference to Tunisia's ousted president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia last month. Mr Mubarak added that he was needed to ensure a peaceful transition of power to his successor in presidential elections scheduled for September.

In hindsight, the WikiLeaks cables show Mr Mubarak to have been unaware of the latent dissatisfaction of his people, suggesting he was unprepared for the sudden uprising.

The memos also make clear that the Egyptian leader resisted repeated, behind-the-scenes US appeals for increased democracy, seeing them as a threat to his leadership and a boost to internal rivals, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Mubarak now makes scant public pretence of advancing a vision for democratic change," Ms Scobey wrote in a December 12, 2008 memo. "An ongoing challenge remains balancing our security interests with our democracy promotion efforts."

Mr Mubarak also viewed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq as "an unmitigated disaster", which bolstered the regional influence of Iran, a country that he sees "as the greatest strategic threat to the Middle East".

In a February 2009 cable, Ms Scobey wrote: "President Mubarak enjoys recounting for visiting members of Congress how he warned former President Bush against invading Iraq, ending with, 'I told you so!' and a wag of the finger."

In another memo two months later, she wrote: "Mubarak continues to state that in his view, Iraq needs a 'tough, strong military officer who is fair' as leader. This telling observation, we believe, describes Mubarak's own view of himself as someone who is tough but fair, who ensures the basic needs of his people."

Washington was as probably taken by surprise as Mr Mubarak by the Egyptian uprising. He is one of the Arab world's hitherto most resilient political survivors, who for his entire period in office has kept his country under emergency law.

According to the leaked, classified documents, the American embassy in Cairo helped an unnamed young Egyptian dissident to attend a US-sponsored summit for activists in New York.

On his return to Cairo in December 2008, he told US diplomats that an alliance of opposition groups had drawn up a plan for replacing the current regime with a parliamentary democracy prior to autumn's presidential elections.

Ms Scobey, at the time, advised Washington that such a goal was "highly unrealistic".

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae