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EGYPT/ Hosni Mubarak and Iraqi invasion (part 4)

Egyptian President Hosni Mabarak and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker speaking at a joint press conference in Cairo shortly after the Iraqi military invades Kuwait in August 1990. Ph. Norbert Schiller

At 03:30 in the morning of 2nd of August 1990, while my wife and I were on vacation in England, I received a call from the London office of the news agency I was working for. “Did you get a Kuwaiti visa?”, I was asked by an editor. I was previously asked to get one just in case I was needed to go and cover possible talks between Kuwait and Iraq over their disputed oil fields. “Yes!” I answered, trying to wake up. “What time is it?”

By then it didn’t matter the time because it was already too late. The airport in Kuwait had been captured by the Iraqi army and Kuwait’s borders with the rest of the world were sealed off. And if that was not enough, by the end of the first day, Iraqi troops were regrouping along Kuwait’s border with Saudi Arabia.

That short exchange I had with the editor marked the beginning of my Gulf War journey. Since Kuwait was out of the question and Iraq was not giving out visas the editor decided to send me to Egypt, a country I knew well, but I hadn’t covered in a few years.

It didn’t take long to realize that the situation in the regions was dire. Egypt’s most easterly border is over 1.200 kilometers from Kuwait, but the phone calls I received from family and friends from around the world made it sound like I was in the middle of a war zone. Travelers were abandoning package tours and expatriates residing in Egypt were heading for home. In no time the usually bustling hotels in the center of Cairo were empty, and neighborhoods housing expatriate families looked like ghost-towns. As I was trying to check into my hotel, throngs of mostly western tourists were crowded into the lobby desperate to leave by any means.

Economically for Egypt, the invasion could not have happened at a worse time. After years of stagnation the tourist industry was just beginning to grow along with foreign investments. However, for President Hosni Mubarak, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was a blessing in disguise and could not have come at a better time. Within days of Iraq’s invasion the United Nations imposed a trade embargo on Iraq and the Arab League convened an emergency summit. For the first time in over a decade Arab Leaders flocked back to Egypt’s capital and suddenly Mubarak found himself in the center and the main power broker in this crisis. Besides Arab leaders, dignitaries from all over the world were coming to Egypt thrusting Mubarak into the world’s spotlight. Second only to Saddam Hussein, Mubarak was the man every print journalist and TV station wanted to interview.

Within days of the Iraqi invasion the U.S. began deploying troops to Saudi Arabia and warships to the region, as part of an operation dubbed “Desert Shield. ” America counted on Egypt and a secure Suez Canal to get warships and troops into position. The last thing the Americans wanted was an over Zealous Saddam Hussein on a land-grab.

After a series of United Nations and Arab League mandates demanding that Iraqi forces withdraw from Kuwait, the U.N. finally passed its final ultimatum on 29th of November: if Saddam Hussein did not withdraw his troops from Kuwait by 15th of January 1991 the U.N. had the right to use military force.

Even though numerous countries contributed troops to the United Nation backed mandate, many were reluctant sighting the conflict was an Arab affair.  In the end 29 Countries joined the coalition including a number of Arab nations.  Whether this was a calculated decision, on Mubarak’s part, or not, is anyone’s guess, but Egypt’s troop contribution put them in fourth place behind the U.S. Saudi Arabia and Britain.

By war’s end Mubarak’s decision paid off as Kuwait needed a workforce to rebuild. Traditionally Kuwait and the other Arab Gulf Countries had relied heavily on Palestinian expertise and workers, but that all changed early on in the conflict when PLO chairman Yasser Arafat made the stupid mistake of siding with Saddam Hussein. Almost overnight hundreds of thousands of innocent Palestinians were kicked out of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States. With nowhere to go, the Palestinians fled to Jordan, the only Country that would accept them. The Palestinians loss was Mubarak and Egypt’s gain. With the war over Kuwait and the other GCC member Countries needed workers and where better to turn than Egypt, a country that had rallied behind Kuwait all the way to the finish line.

By the time the war ended and the rebuilding of Kuwait had begun it felt as though Egypt had never left the Arab League. Mubarak weathered the crises and in the end came out ahead; just like in the old day Cairo was once again the undisputed center of the Arab world.

On the domestic front, things were not so rosy for Mubarak. Even though the GCC had opened its doors to Egyptian workers, there were still a lot of underlying problems at home; namely the lack of jobs for educated Egyptians; adequate housing and a sluggish economy. It didn’t take long for radical preachers to stir discontent among Egypt’s poor.

On 12th of October 1992 afternoon, a little over two years since Saddam Hussein shook the Middle East, another tremor rocked Egypt, but this time it was a real earthquake, a magnitude 5.8 centered just north of Cairo. As the ground shook, poorly constructed buildings collapsed killing close to 600 people and rendering another 50,000 homeless. For Mubarak the aftershocks came in the form of a reoccurring threat, the militant  group, Gama’a al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) who immediately came to the aid of the earthquake victims living in the poor outlying areas. While the Iraqi invasion could not have come at a better time for Egypt’s Last Pharaoh, the unpredictable force of nature could not have struck at a worse time. The coming years would prove to be more challenging to Mubarak’s reign than any other obstacles he had encountered thus far.

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