Egypt had such high hopes when Vice President Hosni Mubarak took over as president of Egypt in 1981. I interviewed him in 1982 and can remember the optimism.
Mubarak was catapulted into the office after Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists in 1981. Sadat had been the one who, following a brave and historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977, accepted President Jimmy Carter’s invitation to join him and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the presidential retreat to talk peace. This led first to the Camp David Accords in 1978 and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty the following year. That treaty set the terms for return of the Sinai (captured by Israel in the 1967 war) to be returned to Egypt.
In 1982 I was part of a group of about 30 Catholic press reporters organized by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and funded by Our Sunday Visitor Foundation. Journalists’ tours are very intensive looks at a country’s political, social, economic and religious landscape. Egypt was our third and final stop after being in Jordan and Israel. In Egypt we had a private press conference with President Mubarak, who went on to be elected to four six-year terms.
I remember being exhausted because the previous day we had driven 14 hours from Jerusalem to Cairo across the Sinai, newly returned to Egypt that month. Armed guards in jeeps accompanied our bus. I did not know it at the time, but we later learned that a couple days before shots had been fired at a vehicle on the same route. What I do recall is being worried that our bus sported a big sign, “Catholic press”—like a big X shouting, “Shoot here.” Inside the bus, we just prayed the rosary. It must have worked—we arrived safe.
Our time with President Mubarak was scheduled for early in the morning. I think we left our hotel about 5:30 a.m. Cairo traffic was then—probably is still—brutal. Four lanes of traffic in each direction crawled along, with camels and donkeys in the far right lane.
We arrived early and were served sweet tea, a common Egyptian hospitality. My first impression of Mubarak was that he was incredibly handsome. He had the same self-possession and savoir-faire of the actor Omar Sharif, genes handed down from the pharaohs and 4,000 years of pride at having created the world’s first major civilization.
It was obvious Mubarak, a Sunni Muslim, didn’t know what to expect from this Catholic group. I now think he was afraid we were going to ask him to allow political parties based on religion, race or ethnicity. This is something some European countries have figured out how to accommodate, but Egypt has more to fear from sectarian violence.
Our group leader, Jack Fink, who was then the publisher of Our Sunday Visitor and later editor of The Criterion in Indianapolis, recalls that at first we were going to be allowed to ask only three questions. As a group we had settled on the Egyptian government’s relations with Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Egyptian-Israeli relations and Egyptian-PLO relations.
Mubarak didn’t dodge any of those questions, but took pains to reminded us that it was Egypt, under Sadat’s leadership, that had initiated the peace processs. He was also very frank in expressing his frustrations with then-President Assad of Syria (the father of the present ruler) and of Khadafi of Libya.
Then Mubarak surprised us by agreeing to take more questions from the group. At first there was a very awkward silence. In truth, I think we journalists were a bit awed by being in Mubarak’s presence and didn’t know what else to ask.
Then I decided to softball him a question: “Mr. Mubarak, what has been the benefit to Egypt of making peace with Israel?”
Mubarak blinked a couple of times, then smiled. That smile lit up his whole face, and he plunged in readily. He talked about having resources to move from military outlay into social and economic reform programs. Sadat had introduced greater political freedom and relaxed government controls over the economy, and what we heard was Mubarak planning to bring those back.
Afterwards, he jokingly offered me a job on his staff. Now I wonder what would have happened had I taken him up on his offer!
In the end our meeting lasted an hour and 10 minutes. Our meeting was featured on the front pages of the two French-language newspapers in Cairo that night. Both stories were above the fold—despite the death of U.S.S.R.’s General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev that day.
It was Mubarak’s “sincerity in trying to find peace in the Middle East” that impressed Jack and me.
Apparently, those internal reforms Mubarak talked to us about never materialized. And peace in the Middle East is still a quest. Don’t ask me to explain what happened. How did this charming man end up in a list of the Top Twenty dictators in the world? Maybe it’s attributable to “Power corrupts.” Maybe it’s more insidious like, “It’s easier just to let things go along and not rock the boat—as long as my friends benefit.” Maybe it’s too hard for an old military man to change the way he does things.
When the protests took to the Cairo streets in January 2011, the world learned how stunted Egypt’s domestic progress has been in recent years. After my trip there, Egypt had rather slipped off my radar, so I was shocked by what has—and hasn’t—been happening. Egypt has remained such a staunch ally of the United States that I guess I took it for granted that the country’s scorecard on human and political rights was improving.
Now with Mubarak’s resignation, hopes again have been raised in Egypt. This time, the military is charge of a transition to a new government. That’s usually a situation fraught with danger.
As I watched on TV as the Egyptian people cheered the news that Mubarak was resigning, I could only worry more about this country’s future. Hope alone won’t improve things; only real reform will.