Remembering Mubarak: Hopes Dashed

Remembering Mubarak: Hopes Dashed

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.

An Impressive Man

Hosni Mubarak was commander of the Egyptian Air Force before becoming vice president in 1975.

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.

Was His Sincerity a Facade?

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.

Empty Promises

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.


About the Author

Barbara Beckwith is the managing editor of "St. Anthony Messenger" magazine. A graduate of Marquette University’s College of Journalism, she is a former president of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and former vice president of the International Catholic Union of the Press.
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  • Cdimarino

    Thank you for writing such an interesting article! I am guilty of being an American who has no idea what is happening outside of her own backyard. Watching the turmoil on TV and in the newspaper was very disturbing. I too worry about the future of the Egyptian people and how much more pain there will be before peace and growth begins.
    I remember the talks between Anwar el-Sadat and Menachem Begin. I was so proud of our President for making that possible. It was such a leap forward. At home we spoke about the possibility of that peace spreading further in the Middle East. It is too bad that it didn’t.I was in 7th grade at the time, but this left a lasting impression on me.
    As far as whether Mr. Mubarak was corrupt, I believe that certain personalities gain power because they crave power. They place themselves in positions in which they can influence the most amount of people around them.Of course he would have been charming to a group of reporters, so was Hilter. Hilter mesmerized Germany with his charisma and speech. That is the gift that Sociopaths have.
    I am very thankful that we live in a country with so many checks and balances. Despite all our rules, taxes and other bothers, we live in a land where most of us have never had to live through such atrocities and turmoil. Plato said that one must seek a person who does not want to be in power and is humble in order to have a honest ruler.

    • Carole

      Love the quote from Plato!

  • Deacon William Hynes

    Your article brought back memories. On a Fulbright-Hayes visit to Egypt five years ago, our bus too was “escorted” by the Egyptian army. While we did not meet Mr. Mubarek, we did spend time with Arab League and government officials. It was interesting to hear the views of the role of Copts in Egypt. Of course, the Orthodox Monastery of St. Catherines in Sinai was a highlight for me. Thank you for reminding Christians of our presence and roots in Egypt.

    • Barbara Beckwith

      Dear Deacon Hynes–
      Thank you for responding to my blog on Mubarak. You know the country, then. I wish I could have gotten to St. Catherine’s–I understand it’s really something to see. I think we’ll just have to keep raying for Egypt.

  • Carole

    Barbara – great post! I have been told by someone from the country that Saddam Hussein also began political life as a charismatic, handsome man upholding the Ba’ath party’s proclamation of civil liberties and rights for women. A story told over and over again, these ideals rot rapidly under the reign of absolute power.

    • Barbara Beckwith

      Dear Carole,
      Thank you for your comments. As others are saying, Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler were both charming also. I just can’t help feeling that this was a man who just somehow lost his way.