EGYPT/ Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s Last Pharaoh (part 2)

A few weeks into Cairo’s Tahrir Square protests, President Obama, under pressure, decided to send an envoy to Egypt to talk Hosni Mubarak into stepping down gracefully and handing over power to a transitional government. The person he chose for this mission was Frank Wisner, a businessman and former seasoned diplomat, who was ambassador to Egypt from the mid- 1980s until the end of the 1990/91 Gulf War. Wisner, who has served during a critical time for American interests in the Middle East, became quite chummy with Mubarak during his posting and, according to rumor, often played squash with the President.

Frank Wisner

Obama’s decision to choose Wisner for this delicate mission was not such a bad move. The outcome, however, was another story. After meeting Mubarak, Wisner publicly announced that for the sake of “stability” Mubarak should remain in office. The State Department immediately distanced themselves from the former diplomat, saying that he was not speaking on behalf of the United States but rather expressing his own opinion.

One of the first photo ops I was assigned to cover in Egypt was when Wisner presented his credentials to Mubarak. The ceremony was held at the historic Abdine Palace in the center of Cairo. That assignment marked the beginning of my 20 years of covering Egypt and its leader. For the next two decades, I photographed Mubarak with numerous world leaders, and alone for exclusive interviews with various international publications. Sometimes I felt as though I were his personal photographer because it seemed like I was always at one of the presidential palaces

When Mubarak took office, he struggled to emerge from the shadows of his two predecessors, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Nasser was a giant with an unparalleled record of achievements, and blunders, on the Arab political scene. In 1952, Nasser orchestrated the overthrow of King Farouk which ended the 150 year rule of the Mohammed Ali dynasty. Four years later, he challenged then superpowers Britain and France by nationalizing the Suez Canal. In another defiant move, he waged war against Israel in 1967 hoping to become the supreme Arab hero. Although Arab forces, under Egypt’s leadership, were crushed within six days, Nasser still emerged unscathed. To this day he is venerated like no other Arab leader, and is considered the father of Arab Nationalism.

Sadat, on the other hand, sacrificed Egypt’s standing in the Arab world when he concluded a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Soon after the agreement was signed, Arab countries gradually severed diplomatic relations with Egypt, leaving the country virtually isolated in a region it once dominated. Sadat had traded Egypt’s political, cultural, and religious influence in return for the Sinai Peninsula, peace with Israel, and economic and military assistance from the United States.

When Mubarak took over he inherited a peace process that was already showing signs of wear. Even though Sadat had tried to promote his vision of peace among the population, the Egyptians were not convinced that peace with Israel and a new found friendship with America were worth the price of ostracism and humiliation. Egypt’s self-esteem was hit hardest when the other Arab League members decided to move the organization’s headquarters from its home in Cairo to Tunis. After all, Egypt was one of the six founding members of the league when it was formed in 1945 and the thought of losing that symbol of Arab unity must have been devastating to the Egyptian psyche.

Economically, peace with Israel was good for Egypt in the beginning as it brought in foreign investment. Satellite cities sprang up around Cairo and Alexandria to accommodate the influx of foreign companies. With a large labor pool, cheap wages, and tax incentives, Egypt was an ideal location for companies looking to expand in the region. While private companies set up joint venture projects, foreign governments forged trade agreements favoring Egyptian exports. Large projects were quickly grabbed by competing western economic powers. France offered to build a metro system modeled partly after the Paris underground and Japan offered to build a brand new opera house. Egypt had become the spoiled baby of the developing world as more projects were launched. The Americans, on their other hand, fulfilled their part of the treaty by providing Egypt with much needed financial aid and military assistance.

Egypt also started experiencing a rebirth of the tourism industry. As tourism projects were developed, visitors from the United States and Western Europe rediscovered the hidden charms of the Nile and beyond. New hotels and resorts sprang up in the traditional tourist hubs of Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan as well as on the Red Sea, Egypt’s hottest new destination. Sharm el Sheikh, on the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, was transformed almost overnight from a sleepy bedouin village to a luxury beach resort on par with the most prestigious resorts in Europe.

With the country moving in the right direction economically, Mubarak now had the task of bringing Egypt back into the Arab fold to fulfill the desire of his people. Even though Mubarak was gradually distancing himself from Israel and the peace treaty, he still had some unfinished business with the Jewish state. Taba, a small strip of land in the northern Gulf of Aqaba, was still occupied by Israel and he wanted it back. In 1986, both sides met numerous times to try and hash out a settlement over the disputed land. After many unsuccessful attempts, the two sides agreed that the Taba issue should be settled by international arbitration. Egypt eventually got Taba back, but not before another pressing issue was addressed. This was a matter that could restore Egypt’s standing in the Arab world.

In September of 1986, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Mubarak met for the very first time at a summit hosted by the Egyptians in the Mediterranean sea-side city of Alexandria to discuss Taba and the Palestinian Israeli peace settlement! If Mubarak could make headway on that track, he would score high with his Arab brothers. As it was, the Arab boycott had already been undermined by Jordan’s decision to resume ties with Egypt. King Hussein, who would also play a key role in future peace negotiations, was well aware that any deal made with Israel could not be done without Egypt.

Peres and Mubarak ended the Alexandria summit with a joint declaration affirming their desire to make 1987 “a year of negotiations for peace.” Israel had unofficially given Mubarak the task of finding peace partners; from now on anyone who wanted to make overtures towards Israel, including the Palestinians, would have to go through Mubarak. Who would believe that for the next 24 years, until his downfall, Mubarak would play the role as peace broker; a position he relished because it always put him at the center of attention.

Now as he awaits trial Mubarak is once again in the spotlight: this time not as a peace-maker, but accused of murder, for ordering the police to fire on peaceful protesters.

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