Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hit big at the National Press Club luncheon yesterday. In fact, he was told that if he decided not to remain president of Egypt, he could surely make it as a comedian on the cocktail circuit.
"But there's not much money in that," the president shot back from the podium to press club president Vivian Vahlberg, who made the assessment. The otherwise somber crowd of pin stripes, assembled in the smoke-filled room amid clattering plates and low murmurs, laughed knowingly.
Mubarak addressed an audience of several hundred there on the last day of his first U.S. trip as Egypt's president. Lunch was basic convention-hall chicken, mixed vegetables and rice. His speech was one final plea for an American dialogue with the Palestinians, a plea he has made on nearly every stop this week. But the good-humored delivery and quick-witted response to questions seemed to be a pleasant reprieve from the usually serious lunches.
When Mubarak was asked, for instance, who instigated his second meeting with President Reagan, he smiled and paused for effect.
"You're counting everything," he said, shaking his finger at the crowd. "Would it be strange if I asked to meet him again now? . . . I'm afraid to ask for a third meeting, you'll make a big fuss." Everyone laughed a guilty laugh.
Does he believe a lasting peace with Israel will be achieved in his lifetime, someone asked, and if not, why not? "The answer is," said Mubarak, taking a deep breath, "I'd like to forget the last part of the question." He went on to express hope for lasting peace, not temporary peace.
Mubarak was also asked about the recent return of some Soviet technical experts to Egypt. He blamed the press for "making a fuss" over nothing, and went on to explain that Soviet technicians were invited back to finish the installation of equipment in Soviet-built factories. "We needed to finish, so I asked these people to come, and when they finish -- well," he said, again pausing for effect, "well . . . we certainly don't need any more people in our country." Everyone laughed again.
In his prepared speech Mubarak told the audience:
* "If the Israelis were able to mend their fences with the Egyptians, there is no reason why they should fail to do so with the Palestinians . . . We accept the idea of establishing a system of full autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza as a transitional formula . . . but it must be acceptable to the Palestinians."
* "We are vigorously advocating the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East."
* "We welcome any help our friends can give us to enhance our ability to cope with economic problems. The United States has agreed to introduce more flexibility to its aid to Egypt."
Dessert was all-American apple pie -- sweet and wholesome. But the Egyptian president left his slice.
And as any good comedian, he left his audience wanting at least one more answer. When asked how he liked the National Press Club's china, he shrugged, laughed and left.