2009 cable tells of Mubarak resisting U.S. calls for reform

February 7, 2011

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak "seeks to avoid conflict and spare his people from the violence he predicts would emerge from unleashed personal and civil liberties. In Mubarak's mind, it is far better to let a few individuals suffer than risk chaos for society as a whole."

That insight into Mubarak's thinking may describe his mind-set today, as he watches the protests that eventually will lead to the end of his 30-year presidency. But those words were written almost two years ago in a May 19, 2009, cable - classified "secret" - from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

Among additional State Department cables released over the past week and a half by the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks, the handful from Cairo show that U.S. diplomats for years have been aware of Mubarak's views and Egypt's problems. They also show the limited impact that U.S. diplomacy can have on a country when its leader, even a close ally, refuses to deal with what Washington perceives as legitimate failures of its government.

"No issue demonstrates Mubarak's worldview more than his reaction to [U.S.] demands that he open Egypt to genuine political competition and loosen the pervasive control of the security services," the cable said.

It cites the decision by the George W. Bush administration to publicly press Egypt to accept democratic reforms, which "strengthened [Mubarak's] determination not to accommodate our views," according to the cable.

Mubarak often reminded Americans of "the results of earlier U.S. efforts to encourage reform in the Islamic world," the cable said. He recalled that the shah of Iran was one leader whom the United States encouraged to accept reforms, "only to watch the country fall into the hands of revolutionary religious extremists," and that the Palestinian elections in 2006, which he had warned against, "brought Hamas and Iran to his doorstep."

He also lamented the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, where he noted that at least Saddam Hussein "held the country together and countered Iran."

Personally, the cable described Mubarak as "a classic Egyptian secularist who hates religious extremism and interference in politics." As a result, he has seen the Muslim Brotherhood (the banned Islamic party that now must be dealt with) as representing "the worst, as they challenge not only Mubarak's power, but his view of Egyptian interests."

Face to face, according to the cable, the Egyptian leader is "not swayed by personal flattery," but is someone who "peppers his observations with anecdotes that demonstrate both his long experience and his sense of humor."

In lines with implications for today, the cable reports, "When asked about succession, he states that the process will follow the Egyptian constitution. . . . Indeed, he seems to be trusting to God and the ubiquitous military and civilian security services to ensure an orderly transition."

A second cable, this one from January 2010, shows that many of the reforms being called for by today's demonstrators are the same reforms that U.S. diplomats were pressing a year ago or more.

At the time, the U.S. Embassy said it was urging Egypt to lift its emergency law, which was put in place in 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. It permits the government, even today, to arrest people without charges and detain them indefinitely. It also limits freedom of speech and assembly and allows a special security court.

U.S. diplomats were backing a draft counterterrorism law guaranteeing civil liberties that had been pending in Egypt's parliament for more than a year and still remains to be acted upon.

And the embassy was pressing for election reforms - because "the 2011 presidential elections and the question of succession" were "the focus of most domestic political discussions," according to this cable.

As the cable put it, "We have urged the GOE [government of Egypt] to expand the space provided to political actors, including allowing for the registration of new parties."

The cable reported that "frustrated political activists" were perceptive enough a year ago to "have suggested that a post-Mubarak landscape offers the best prospect for increased political openness, and some are advocating for a transitional caretaker government to install more democratic institutions." Still, the embassy cable described such a scenario as "unlikely."

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
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