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Mubarak, Alone

While Israeli officials stay silent on Egypt, a former ambassador to Cairo tells Tablet Magazine about the embattled president he once knew and respected

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Hosni Mubarak in Paris last summer. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)
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Crisis in Cairo

Mubarak is an autocrat, but he’s also a pro-Israel U.S. ally. As his regime teeters, Tablet turns to experts for perspectives on a rapidly shifting landscape. The latest: foreign policy expert Leslie H. Gelb.

Eli Shaked has followed Egyptian affairs from either Jerusalem or Cairo for the last 40 years. He was Israel’s ambassador to Egypt from 2003 to 2005 and the deputy ambassador from 1983 to 1992, and he first joined the Egypt desk of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1974. Now retired, Shaked spoke to Tablet Magazine in a telephone interview.

What is Mubarak like?

I don’t know him as a father, grandfather, or husband. But Mubarak the president—this is the man I knew. Mubarak the president, at end of day, for all the time, was a man who radiated a heavy atmosphere, let’s say a tiredness. He creates a certain kind of atmosphere of slowly, slowly, shwayeh shwayeh [Arabic for slow]. He doesn’t speak fast. In all the years I had the chance to sit and hear him, I never once heard him have an original idea, an initiative to offer to advance any issue, be it in the Israeli-Egyptian relationship, or relations with the Palestinians or with the Arab world. He used to repeat slogans.

You told me he has a good sense of humor.

He liked more to hear jokes. He has a rolling laugh. He likes political jokes. All in all, in this aspect, he is a typical Egyptian. He is wide, a bit round. He’s a general, in short. He has the steps and posture and confidence of a general. But I didn’t get the impression that he is the man who can bring to Egypt something like a vision of a rosy future or solutions to the problems of the economy and society. I called him the major general of the status quo. He got some sort of inheritance from President Sadat, and after 30 years he didn’t change a thing.

What are his virtues?

He was loyal to his people, the people around him. Except for one instance: I remember that someone close to him said some unnecessary word and it got out in the press, something that was harmful to the president, and he was sacked. But the people around him, he was responsive to them. He was loyal to them. He wouldn’t kick people, you know, day in day out. He retained people, he knew how to keep them together as a staff.

How did he do it?

I think it’s his military background. He is a team person. Don’t forget, he wasn’t just a military man. He was the commander of the Egyptian Air Force in the Yom Kippur War. I am emphasizing this not because of the Yom Kippur War but because of the Air Force. He’s not just a general like in the artillery or Golani or even tanks, who could have just a high school education. No. A commander in the air force is a person who is educated in university and afterward in a military academy. In his time it was in the Soviet Union. He knows Russian, he studied in the Soviet Union at a military academy in Moscow. Let’s put it this way, it’s a class, it’s aristocracy.

But until today I think if I have to count his achievements, in 30 years I would say he has this issue of keeping Egypt alive over 30 years—this is an achievement. Here in Israel if I would say the fact that the prime minister of Israel manages to maintain us so we can eat pita and onion and fava beans for breakfast and at night cucumber, tomato and garlic, and that this was an achievement, they would kill me. But in Egypt there are 85 million people and more than 40 percent of the population makes less than $2 a day. I point to this as an achievement of Mubarak because somehow he managed to maintain this for 30 years.

The problems that the Egyptians are complaining about—poverty, a lack of employment, corruption—were these also complaints when Mubarak first took power?

The economic problems in Egypt are antique. Very old. Egypt, we know it from the Bible with Joseph, who came to the Pharaoh and told him about seven bad years and seven good years. There are ups and downs, but mainly downs, and if you don’t prepare for the downs you are in deep trouble.

Egypt has been in grave trouble economically and socially for many years. Keeping the Egyptian nose a little bit above sea level and being able to go on breathing is an achievement. There are almost 1.3 to 1.5 million new babies born every year. This means the population growth eats all economic achievements and social achievements. There are not enough schools. The universities are in bad shape. Egypt is not self-sufficient in any kind of foodstuff. Almost everything is imported, and Egypt pays a huge amount of money, especially for flour and grain. More than 70 percent of Egyptian flour is imported, and prices are going up because of the floods in Australia.

In the bottom line, whoever will be the next president from the left or right, whether it is a Muslim or a general, there is no solution in sight for Egypt and nobody is offering any solution. Take a look at the demonstrators, the various factions, the so-called liberals, lefties, Muslims, generals, the old government, the new government—nobody is talking about any solution to bring Egypt into an economic takeoff. A takeoff is an expression that means a trend that could take years, but at least you start the takeoff with a lot of effort in order to one day be able to fly easy.

We are on the verge of replacing one dictatorship, the regime of Mubarak—which is undemocratic—with another dictatorship that will be a theocracy led by the Muslim Brotherhood. It will be much worse, as far as democracy and liberal values in Egypt are concerned, than the rule of Mubarak. No less important, it will be very hostile to the U.S., to the West, and to Israel. What’s the point of replacing one despot with another who is going to be even worse?

Has Mubarak been a good ally to Israel?

We cannot talk about being an ally. Israel and Egypt have complicated relations. They are not simple, and they are not normal. There are components of peace between the two countries. There are diplomatic relations, with embassies in Tel Aviv and Cairo. There are trade relations that have reached over $150 million a year, and there is the academic center in Cairo for Israeli studies and Hebrew studies. There are very good relations on the level of the armies. The two armies have very good channels of dialogue. Whenever there is a problem, they get on the phone, they solve the problems, and they are very efficient on the military level. And many Israelis travel to Egypt as tourists.

What about Mubarak the man? Do you feel like at official meetings he would treat you differently because you were Israeli?

No, with Mubarak there was no problem. Whenever an Israeli official guest, a minister, came on an official visit to Egypt, he was accepted immediately by President Mubarak. Mubarak would see him, even if he was the minister of trade, or a minister from the Shas party.

We used to sit, two people from our side, and the same from the Egyptian side, the president of Egypt leading his small delegation, and the Israeli guest, I as ambassador was on his right. We used to sit and talk and discuss even when there were some tough issues. It was always polite. There was not any anger expressed or anything confrontational or insulting. It was very elegant, very gentlemanly.

And was he warm in these meetings?

There was nothing special on a personal basis. He wanted to listen to his guests’ ideas about the Middle East, about the Israelis and Palestinians. He would inquire of each Israeli minister—from the Labor party, from the Likud, from Shas, and later of course from Kadima—he would inquire about the position of each party regarding the Palestinian issue, the Syrians. He was very curious. He wanted to know, to understand the Israeli political map.

Do you think he did understand it?

I believe so. He wanted to know. Not only did he know that his guest was from a certain party with a particular position, but he knew also that within one party there could be various opinions.

What did the meeting room look like in the presidential palace?

This is a palace from days of the kings in Egypt. Huge, all marble, very elegant and very impressive. There were so many rooms and halls and reception halls. So many. And offices, and chambers and each was done in an oriental decoration style. But very elegant.

What about his house?

His house is not far from the presidential palace, in Heliopolis. It is a private villa. It’s modern, but relatively modest, there was nothing to write about, to report about. It was nice but not something extraordinary. I have seen in Egypt nicer villas that belong to the rich people. From this point of view, he wasn’t part of the nouveau riche.

Is he in touch with the poor?

I cannot tell you. If I had to think about why all this came now, this explosion, one of the reasons for this uprising is that he was disconnected from the people. He didn’t listen to their wishes. For example the fact that the Egyptian in the street did not want, and was very much against, the idea of his son succeeding him. For five or six years, I was following this fiasco of Mubarak preparing his son for the presidency. The people spoke carefully, but I could get their rejection of the idea that Egypt is like Syria and that a son can succeed his father in a republic. And they said in so many words: “We are not Syria.”

How do you feel toward Mubarak now?

I really pity him. It’s pathetic what’s happening, and I’m sorry. The man is very sick, and I really would not want what happened to the president of Tunisia to happen to him. I would want him to get up and abdicate in an elegant way. I don’t want him to be chased out of Egypt, or that people should do something bad to hurt him. He is already badly, badly hurt. He feels betrayed. The man, for 50 years and more, served the Egyptian people and all of the sudden the Egyptian people are tearing him to pieces.

At any rate, it’s pathetic and I pity him. But he’s either stubborn or stupid, and it’s impossible to convince him what to do. And there is also the problem of to whom do you pass the government, what do you do? How do you assure that the leadership will be passed in an orderly fashion? Let’s say to another general? Even among all the millions who are going wild there, they don’t have a leader who will replace Mubarak tomorrow morning.

Who do you think he is turning to?

I don’t know. I think he is sitting there in the palace, and consulting of course. I am not sure he is sleeping at night. He is closed up. The two times he gave a speech it was from the palace. I remember that hall for press conferences he used to hold. He has twice addressed the people in the last few days, and in those two times he didn’t leave the palace. He was in the presidential palace. I know the room.

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Frank Messmann says:

The unpleasant truth is that the US does not have a strategic interest in Egypt. Even the Canal, an important waterway, would stay open no matter who is in power because the income it brings in is desperately needed.

On the other hand, Egypt is quite important to Israel. Because of Mubarek’s friendship, Israel has not had to defend its border with Egypt.

Clearly, re Egypt, the strategic interests of the US and Israel differ. And the US has already paid a heavy price for the Arab anger stirred up by our support for the Egyptian dictator.

tillkan says:

It is stunning how people talk about this torturer as though he was not one. Like the IDF he is a pioneer of torture.

Shalom Freedman says:

The push toward Democracy when the Islamic world is now in an Islamist frenzy means the displacing of authoritarian pro- Western regimes with radical Islamic ones. The President of the United States does not seem to understand the realistic alternatives. The situation is a very difficult one for Israel. The likelihood is of an Egyptian regime which no longer cooperates on Security matters. The worst case scenario is that it turns out to be a front- line- belligerent again.
I would also add as an Israeli the prospect of seeing all the gains of Sadat’s visit erased is extremely distressing.

Guys, have some faith in the Egyptian people. They will realize that that it’s beneficial to be on good terms with both Israel and the Palestinians. Regarding the latter, Egypt hasn’t been too kind either, as I’m sure you know.

George One says:

Tilkan calls Pr Mubarak a torturer – do you not remember that his predecessor Nasser was a torturer – an even worse torturer? People accused the Shah of Iran of being a torturer – after his departure the Iranian people got even worse torturers – Khomeiny and Ahmadinejad. Pr Mubarak deserves an honorable departure from the Presidency and Egypt deserves that its President and future former president is treated with dignity.

Michael N says:

Nobody knows what will emerge in Egypt (or the other Arab countries). But inevitably, people will rise against dictatorships and autocratic police states. We may support regimes for pragmatic reasons but we will reap the consequences of that support. The U.S. should be reaching out to all opposition parties if it has any chance of changing the negative perceptions in the Arab world. We should not assume that civil society cannot take root in the region, and that that development might not eventually transition into a more equitable and descent society.

A.L. Bell says:

Maybe the fact that the anti-Mubarak protesters are relatively peaceful is a credit to Mubarak and to Egypt. Whatever Mubarak’s faults, he runs a country that has produced protesters who have the commonsense to protect the power grid and help ambulances get through crowds.

The fundamental problem Israel has with the Palestinians isn’t territorial demands. If Palestinians wanted to return to Israel, they acted like Swedish people, why would that be such a big deal?

Even if sane, honest, efficient Palestinians were democratically elected to run Israel, and turned it into an officially secular state, that would be a little sad from a Jewish perspective, but why, really, would that be a serious problem for anyone other than the ultra-Orthodox? Maybe a sensitive, honest Palestinian government of Israel would even be kinder to the haredi in some ways than an ambivalently secular Jewish government is.

The real problem Israel has with the Palestinians is that, especially in Gaza, the Palestinians act like violent loons who can’t run a public swimming pool without taking bribes or setting opponents on fire.

The governments in other nearby Middle Eastern countries also seem to be weak. Religion aside, no one who had a choice would move from Tel Aviv to Cairo, Amman or Beirut to get better public schools or polite, efficient planning departments.

If, though, through some kind of miracle granted by the G-d of Joseph (an Egyptian vizier!), the Egyptian protesters could put together a really good, peaceful government, and they could pass on an ability to govern and communicate well to the Palestinians, think of what a wonderful change that could make.

If the Palestinians, the Egyptians and Jordanians could just say sane things like, “Well, if a lot of Palestinians returned to Israel, that would increase population density in Israel; let’s ease the density pressure by creating a large, well-run, pleasant, border-crossing-free Children of Abraham Prosperity Zone that would include Israel, Palestine and chunks of Jordan and Egypt,” think of how different that would be from negotiations conducted through belt bombings and based on the idea that Jews should be pushed into the sea.

Of course, the most likely outcome is that Egypt will end up with a terrible new government that will make things worse, but, if the Egyptian people could run the country as well they’ve been running their protests, there might be a little hope. And maybe a sudden “sanity dividend” would do enough good for the economy in the Middle East to help offset the effects of the weather on wheat prices.

Maybe more thought about the long term implications of pushing around Obama when he asked for a DELAY would stand Israel in good stead with Obama. Better treatment of the Palestinians might have helped to forge a connection between Israel and the Egyptian people. But no. If for the moment Israel can gain a step then let’s take it and hopefully tomorrow another step can be taken at whatever cost of good will. Now is the time, for Israel to forge a settlement with the Palestinians and co opt the Egyptian people. Show them how to create a garden in the dessert, Show them how to become a powerful commercial force. Partner with them. Try to reduce the number of enemies of Israel.

Mubarek allowed the distribution of Mein Kampf,Protocols of the Elders of Zion, anti-Jew TV series and the education of millions of schoolchildren into hating Jews and Israel. Egyptians hate Jews and hate Israel. I would hope they all get a fatal disease and die. The Egyptian people are not our allies or our friends. Egypt attacked Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 and LOST and still they survived because of the US and Russia. Israel only has to lose one war and is DEAD. Every last Jew man, woman, and child will be massacred. Dyan should have destroyed the Third Army surrounded by Sharon because it would have delayed their build up again. The army controls Egypt, not Mubarek and not the people and they all hate Israel. Gosh, do I sound paronoid? It’s because its true. Israel is surrounded by 300 million hostile Arabs not counting the almost 2 million Arabs in Israel. Peace? Give me a break. As Kissinger, a man I hate, stated about the N. Vietanamese leadership: “We wanted a compromise. They wanted victory.” Who won?

Bill Levy

“I would hope they (Egyptians) all get a fatal disease and die.” Hitler redux?

For a great article on democracy, Egypt, Israel and Sharkansky see:

Democracy’s Tribune on the Arab Awakening

victor treschan says:

I am shocked by the patronizing attitude of Mr. Shaked toward the country and the Egyptian people. I am afraid that this attitude characterizes the Israeli political elite.In addition, Mr. Natanyau call to support Mubarak represents an insult to the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people.

to paraphrase another despot torturer: Lenin said “a concerned minority will accomplish more than an unconcerned minority”. The concerned minority in Egypt is the Brotherhood of Muslims they are organized as compared to the majority of young well meaning protesters and sure as night follows day the Brotherhood will takeover and make Egypt into another Iran. Then the fun will begin they will attack Israel and don’t think for one moment a desperate Israel with their backs up against the wall use nuclear power and to hell what the rest of the world thinks about Israel. Why does most of the world hate Jews? Did they ever attack another country, have crusades? No! They are feared by leaders in other countries who want to keep their people in tow, how can anyone be creative if they have to pray 5 times a day or fed lies that Jews use the blood of Christian children to make Matzo. Why, because the vast majority of Jews in Israel believe in education and being creative, they took the desert and made it bloom. Can any country outside of the USA created so many products to help ALL mankind. Did any Christian ever stop to think why did God chose Mary a Jew to give birth to Jesus? Then again when Jesus died because he was a Jew, yes Jesus never converted. To sum it up it’s better to be alive and hated than dead and still be hated. Be careful what you wish for.

James from Philadelphia says:

There was a rich man I knew that said of the poor people “the less they know, the better it is”. He paid his workers meager salaries although he lived in luxury. He had become rich the hard way. He profited from the unjust laws of the land where he had come as a poor immigrant, and then succeeded becoming rich.

In 2000 and then again in 2010, there were two comprehensive United Nations reports prepared by Muslim scholars about the conditions in the Muslim countries. They presented the dire poor economics of their populations. The 2010 report indicated that conditions had become worst than in 2000. These reports were banned by the rulers from being published in their countries. Apparently the USA, the Europeans, Israel ignored this information. Apparently the Israeli Ambassador in this interview puts it this way: “Good thing Mubarak did to keep the large part of the Egyptian population at two dollars a day”. Then our leaders keep saying that they are totally surprised at this kind of public demonstrations in Tunis and in Egypt.

As a Yid will say what can you do? Their tsores is their tsores. I have my own tsores. Like the father of Woody Allen says in one of his movies after Woody asks him to explain God, what do you want from me if even I do not know how the refrigerator operates. To tell you the truth I think this is more complicated than the refrigerator, I am baffled, sad, but really it is the economy stupid. Which after all I also do not understand.

Maybe that rich man, he was my uncle who came from Poland to Mexico, the less people know the better.
No pun intended.
Shalom and be gesunt.


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Mubarak, Alone

While Israeli officials stay silent on Egypt, a former ambassador to Cairo tells Tablet Magazine about the embattled president he once knew and respected

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