Egypt turns the page on Mubarak era

Hosni Mubarak, forced from office during Arab Spring, forged lasting US partnership; his departure signaled new chapter for Egypt, region.

al-monitor Guards carry the coffin of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi Mosque, during his funeral east of Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 26, 2020.  Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.

Feb 28, 2020

Former president ‘gave it all before reality set in’

Hosni Mubarak, who died last week at the age of 91, was president of Egypt for three decades (1981-2011). That’s more than Gamal Abdul Nasser (who served for 14 years, from 1956-1970) and Anwar Sadat (1970-1981) combined.

Mubarak had nothing close to the charisma of either Nasser or Sadat — tough acts to follow. He came to power following Sadat’s assassination during a military parade in October 1981. Mubarak, injured in the attack, was seated next to Sadat.

Few thought Mubarak would hang on to become Egypt’s longest serving president. He kept the peace Sadat negotiated with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin under US President Jimmy Carter at Camp David in 1978, while at the same time rebuilding Egypt’s Arab relations. Saddam Hussein had choreographed Egypt’s expulsion from the Arab League in 1979 in response to the widespread Arab rejection of the Camp David Accords. Mubarak, leveraging Iraq’s desperation in the Iran-Iraq War, worked Egypt’s way back into the Arab fold under Mubarak. By 1989, the Arab League headquarters was back in Cairo.

Mubarak also deepened Egypt’s relationship with the United States. What is now accepted as a given was not always so. Prior to Sadat’s turnaround, Egypt was in the Soviet, or non-aligned, sphere. Under Mubarak, Egypt became a partner and consigliere for US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian and regional diplomacy. It’s not to say that the United States and Egypt were in sync on all issues at all times, such as with differences over the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it was indeed a partnership, which continues to this day.

Inside Egypt, Mubarak tolerated little political dissent. He was especially tough on the Muslim Brotherhood, and civil society and other activists noted that his decrees and security services often cast a wider net, as Muhammed Magdy reports. His response to terrorists, like the radical "Islamic Group," was an uncompromising iron fist. Human rights became an issue in ties with Washington, although it never undercut the foundation of the US-Egyptian partnership.

“He ruled Egypt like a Pharaoh with nearly absolute power,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of Mubarak in her book "Hard Choices," adding that “for three decades he tried harder than any other Arab leader to convince Yasser Arafat to accept the peace agreement negotiated by my husband in 2000.” 

By 2011, Mubarak seemed ill-prepared, even bewildered, by the popular demonstrations that called for his ouster. Clinton reveals that observers had noticed that Mubarak had been personally shattered by the loss of his 12-year-old grandson two years earlier, in 2009.

“The abdication of Hosni Mubarak had become inevitable,” wrote Fouad Ajami in 2011. “Deaf to the sounds of his own country, blind to the disaffection with him and his reign, Mr. Mubarak gave it all before reality set in.”

Mubarak was cleared of charges for killing over 800 protesters but was sentenced to three years in prison for corruption.

New fault lines on political Islam … in Libya

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt under Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, elected president in 2014, have refocused and aligned against the spread of political Islam in the region. They were right in their warnings about the Brotherhood. They would not allow "another Egypt."

This was not about Iran, whose policies the three also opposed. In this new score, Qatar, which has been accused of supporting the Brotherhood and related movements throughout the region, became the target. Qatar had cheered on Mubarak’s downfall and the rise of Mohammed Morsi. The three, along with Bahrain, imposed an embargo on Qatar in 2017. 

Turkey, a key ally of Qatar, has also became an antagonist by its shuttling of Syrian-based jihadis to Libya. As Samuel Ramani writes, “Although the UAE remains [Khalifa] Hifter’s primary ally in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia’s importance as a patron of the Libyan National Army and opponent of Turkish involvement in Libya has grown in recent weeks.”

“During the African Union (AU) Summit in Ethiopia Feb. 9,” writes George Mikhail, “Sisi put forward a proposal to hold an African summit aimed at establishing a joint African military force to combat terrorism. … Observers believe Egypt’s proposal aims to confront the Turkish military presence in some African countries such as Somalia and Libya."

Egyptian opposition cuts ties with Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood is also losing ground among other opposition and civil society groups in Egypt. 

“Egyptian opposition parties seem to have decided to sever any existing or potential relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood,” Amr Mostafa writes. “The Civil Democratic Movement, the largest coalition of the Egyptian opposition parties, announced Feb. 6 its intention to present the Egyptian regime with a proposal to amend the parliamentary elections law to guarantee the representation of opposition parties in parliament while also preventing the election of candidates who are linked to the Brotherhood.”

IMF praise for Sisi’s ‘ambitious home-grown reform’

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) report on Egypt in October praised Sisi’s “ambitious home-grown reform program” that has “been successful in achieving macroeconomic stabilization, a recovery in growth and employment, and putting public debt on a clearly declining trajectory.”

As we wrote here, “The numbers are impressive. Unemployment has dropped over the last four years from 12.3% to about 8% (projected to 7.5% by 2020); the budget deficit is down from 10.9% of gross domestic product (GDP) to a projected 5.6% by 2019-20; and real GDP growth increased from 4.1% to 5.9%, to a projected 6% by 2020.”

This progress is the start of a long road, and has come with some costs and hardships to lower-income families, who have been affected by aspects of austerity, leading to protests last fall.

But there is no denying the economic progress since Sisi came to office. Egypt’s foreign currency reserves have reached such a point that Egypt is turning down a $1 billion IMF loan,

Al-Monitor contributor David Awad “asked Uma Ramakrishnan, IMF's mission chief for Egypt, about potential IMF financing alternatives for Egypt, if and when needed. ‘Egypt’s foreign currency reserves exceeded their highest historical levels. Egypt has full access to international capital markets to meet its needs,’ she said via email.”

Trusted partner’

Egypt is still a go-to partner for US regional initiatives, including the Trump administration’s "Peace to Prosperity" plan.

From a US national security perspective, that, too, is Mubarak’s legacy. 

Under Sisi, US-Egyptian ties, as well as Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation, has never been better. 

As we wrote last month, Egypt’s mediation with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and between Israel and Hamas, “reveals the weight of Egypt in Israeli-Palestinian affairs, and in particular in Gaza. Egypt is a trusted broker. It has walked a careful line on the Trump plan, as Hagar Hosny explains, and by doing so has preserved its options and leverage.”

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