Mubarak Stubbornly Clings to Power

Monday, 07 Feb 2011 08:17 AM

By Judith Miller

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It was painful to watch. A thinner, graver Hosni Mubarak, his shoe-polish-black dyed hair still cropped short and slicked back in military fashion, took to the podium for the second time in four days to make yet another concession to the million people who had taken to the streets in Egypt that day demanding his immediate resignation.

He would leave, he said, but only in the fall and after assuring a "peaceful transition" to a new, freer political system.

Even as he acknowledged defeat and subtly pleaded for a dignified departure from the job he had held for almost 30 years, he could not resist the temptation to lecture Egyptians on the need for "security and stability" — his regime's twin gods, before which he had sacrificed civility and all serious political dissent.

How Mubarak had changed since I first met him in 1981, just after Anwar Sadat, his boss, an earlier self-styled pharaoh, had been assassinated in 1981 by Islamic radicals for having made peace with Israel.

I could not forget the photograph that my newspaper's office manager had taken immediately after the murder.

In the grainy black-and-white photo, a blood-spattered Mubarak, the dull, loyal vice president who had been at Sadat's side when the reviewing stand was riddled with bullets, was hunched over in the back of a covered military jeep, a look of utter bewilderment and terror on his large, square face.

He had once been a humble president, a man I had described in my dispatches as "timid," "unsure" and "modest." He had initially liberalized the country and increased political participation.

He had vowed to end the corruption and nepotism that had flourished under Sadat. I liked him and considered him a patriot, a man who wanted what was best for Egypt.

But that soon changed. By the mid '80s, he had become determined and supremely confident in his judgment, overly so.

No one would tell him how to rule, he would lecture, stabbing his index finger at me. Syria's Hafez el-Assad had told him to be tougher on the Islamists who challenged his rule. Assad had told him that he was "too soft," Mubarak complained.

After Assad had killed tens of thousands of Islamist challengers in 1982 in the Syrian city of Hama, the Muslim Brotherhood had never troubled him again, Assad had boasted.

The Americans, too, were quick to give him advice about how he should govern and handle the Islamist radicals, he complained. President Bill Clinton wanted him to open up the political system. But democracy as the cure-all for his country's political plight could not come instantly in a country like Egypt. "If you have a dam and keep the water in until it begins to overflow and then suddenly you open the gates," he told me, using a metaphor that came naturally to custodians of the Nile, "you will drown many people."

Instead, he cracked down, hard. His jails filled with tens of thousands of "radicals" who were tortured and abused, often with their families.

It is easy to forget now the Islamist peril that Mubarak faced. He had watched vicious jihadists kill his boss; they had targeted him many times.

They had nearly killed his interior minister and attacked other ministers, judges and liberal writers — among them, Nobel laureate Naguib Mafouz.

They had gunned down tourists in the Sinai and thrown acid at unveiled women in an effort to topple Egypt by striking at one of its economic pillars, tourism. These new Islamists considered Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood compromised and too soft.

Among these hardliners was a young Egyptian pediatrician named Ayman al-Zawahiri, who would become al-Qaida's chief operations officer and strategic brain, Osama bin Laden's No. 2. Had he been radicalized by being tortured in an Egyptian jail?

Over time, the definition of a dangerous element expanded to include secular or religious challengers who dared to speak out against Mubarak and young men in Internet cafes who refused to produce their identification cards.

Many were jailed or beaten to death.

In lieu of welcoming secular alternatives to the Brotherhood, he peddled a state-sponsored Islam that gave political life in Egypt an Islamic cast and framework. He knew that if the choice were between radical Islamists and his repressive, increasingly autocratic rule, the Americans would stick with him.

And many of us initially did look the other way. Mubarak, after all, was modernizing Egypt. He was building desperately needed infrastructure — roads, telephone lines, water treatment plants.

He had tasked his son to help privatize Egypt's inefficient state industries and open up the economy. He had created jobs and more than respectable growth, with a vibrant middle class. And Egypt, after all, was a linchpin of American foreign policy in the Middle East — the first country to have made peace with Israel, a true partner in our counterterrorism campaign, a bulwark against Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions.

How could we abandon him?

Last week, a young generation of Egyptians answered the question for us. In numbers and with a fervor that astonished even many of their own compatriots, they poured into Tahrir (or "Liberation") Square, determined to make the square's name more than a sick joke.

The Muslim Brotherhood, as hesitant as Mubarak himself had once been, demurred, until it was obvious even to that weakened but still disciplined organization that a moment of change had come.

Tone deaf, Mubarak made his first concession in a speech Friday night, firing a third of his Cabinet. The pharaoh would stay; his flunkies would go. But even he quickly saw that was not enough.

President Barack Obama sent a wise veteran diplomat, Frank Wisner, who knew Mubarak well, to goad him into doing the right thing. But Mubarak dug in. He would leave, but only after several months — a departure that would enable him to live out what remained of his life in Egypt.

At his press conference, he spoke of himself in the third person. History would judge Hosni Mubarak.

President Obama publicly chided him after Mubarak had called him to plead for a dignified exit. The transition had to begin now, the young American president declared. "Yesterday," his press spokesman, Robert Gibbs said unhelpfully the next day, mocking the man who for so long had been such a staunch American ally and friend.

More private cajoling combined with public silence would have been a more seemly approach — and perhaps a more effective one.

Mubarak, ever unyielding, did what came naturally: He instructed his police to bring out the usual suspects to demonstrate for him. Confrontations were inevitable. More people would be killed and wounded. But then Egyptians would have to choose between "kifayah!" — "enough" — and their deep-seated fear of chaos. Perhaps he would win the time he sought.

Why has Mubarak done this? Why did he ensure that his rule would end in bloodshed? Because he couldn't resist staying too long in the job, some of us who have known and admired him for so long now say. Because he came to equate the political fate of Egypt with his own personal fortunes. Because he lost touch long ago with his people. Because the small coterie of men around him warned visitors that Mubarak hated to be given bad news. And because he was and remains, famously, proudly stubborn.

In a meeting with Egyptian-American scholars nearly a decade ago, Mubarak asked them to tell him where they taught and what they specialized in. He then introduced himself. "I am Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt and I have a Ph.D. in stubbornness," he boasted.

My hope is that he will remember what he once told me. What he has done was done for Egypt. He loved his country and would never leave it.

I believed him then and trust that he has remained sincere in that conviction.

He repeated it on Thursday to ABC's Christiane Amanpour: He would die in Egypt; he wanted only to avoid deadly "chaos."

He may win the right to set his exit date: Protesters may tire; support among Egyptians for his deadly stability may grow. But delay is likely to exact a price — a decline in the legitimacy of the men he has designated to help guide the country through a perilous transition.

They need him to sacrifice himself for the good of the regime. So I hope he will step aside and let Vice President Omar Suleiman and his military establishment rescue the hope of an orderly transition to a new Egypt, however risky that may be.

For after 30 years, it is, finally, as his young countrymen have now told him in blood, "enough."

Read all of Judith Miller's columns on Pundicity.com



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