The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The Trilogy - Episode 3

The third installment, as reported previously, ended anti-climatically with Mubarak saying he has not decided if he was running for a fifth six-year presidential term. Mubarak said that the people should have their voice be heard. If they want him and his experiences to serve as a guide into the next part of Egyptian history then so it shall be. Or should we say, if he decides that he is running and the people want him, then it shall be. If not, then he has spent 56 years in the service of the state (1949-1975, Air-force, 1975-1981 VP, 1981-present as president) and is satisfied with all he has done.

Yet there was some symbolism and statements on important issues. While these statements cannot be classified as a "surprise" (because he has made them before), they should be laid out. In the last segment of the interview with Amad al-Din Adib, about 85 minutes were devoted to the his service as VP, peace negotiations, the September 1981 arrests, the assassination of Sadat, the circumstances behind his coming to power, and oath of office. If this implies it was heavy on details and procedural matters, you are correct.

Nevertheless, here were the highlights from this part:

How peace negotiations with Israel would have been easier had Egypt only went after getting its land returned. Instead, the Egyptian side worked tirelessly on behalf of the Palestinians and their rights so it complicated the peace process. The Egyptian delegates spent the effort and hence peace was achieved with honor (without talking about what happened to the Palestinians).

Adib, still tossing questions lightly, asked if he disagreed with Sadat's decision to arrest "opposition" figures in September 1981. He said he did not disagree with Sadat but more because Sadat was president. I don't think it would be a stretch to say that he insinuated he had moral objections about September 1981. Later in the interview they talk about Mubarak's first act as president, which was releasing the September 1981 detainees. The president said that Sadat had wanted to set up special committees of governmental figures to determine if these figures were guilty or not. Mubarak said that he advised Sadat to use the courts. One of my fellow watchers immediately chimed in, "Did he just say that he advised Sadat against taking extra-judicial measures against citizens?" It also was the first strong reference that Mubarak is a rule of law president.

They spoke of Sadat's assassination on 6 October 1981. Mubarak had tried to convince Sadat not to hold the parade because he was worried that day. He said Sadat was a hero and did not deserve to be killed in such a manner. Adib asked about his family on that day. Mubarak recalled that they were in the crowd on the platform. So Suzanne, Alaa, and Gamal were present (away from the central leadership figures) but in the same place. The cut to footage that scanned the platform's crowd and stopped on a young Gamal Mubarak looking almost directly at the camera. They encircled his face with a red designator to really point out Gamal out. This was the first and only time we see anyone of his family in the footage that periodically cut away during the entire interview. How important is that I don't know but it seems symbolic.

Adib and Mubarak spoke about his ascension to power. The latter spoke about PM Fouad Mohy al-Din explaining and pushing Mubarak to be the country's president. Mubarak recalled that the country was in danger and it was a big burden. He know he could shoulder the responsibility and was always confident. Ultimately, he decided to do it because "if I am in a position to save the country, I will."

It spent some time with footage showing his taking the oath of office. Then the footage cut to a women warmingy shaking the the new president's hand. The caption read Dr. Nawal al-Saadawi, the Egyptian feminist. Al-Saadawi has recently declared her intent to run as an opposition presidential candidate to Mubarak. So, the message was 1) Women approved of his candidacy, 2) Nawal al-Saadawi was not always an opposition figure. Then the footage shot to a 50s-something Mohamad Hassanian Heikel (Abd al-Nasir's journalist and confident), who spoke that Mubarak was a great choice for president and Egypt was turning a new page. After he finished the quote, Heikel shot the camera an uncertain look like it was somehow a PR stunt rather than genuine support.
The remainder of this episode dealt with his presidency (24 years in 35 minutes):

Adib asked Mubarak if he had ever made a mistake as president. Mubarak said he was human and mistakes happen but he carried no embarrassment for decisions taken. He noted that if something wrong happened, he apologized but he takes decisions with the responsibility of the citizens in mind.

The next section of the interview was about economic reform and the 1991 war against Iraq. He stressed as in the previous episode that he took parliament's consent before sending Egypt's sons into war against Iraq. There was talk about Egypt's debts being halved but my attention was waning.

The next issue was the assassination attempt on Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995. He said he had taken the decision to take his own armored-plated car to Addis (which was not usual protocol). They were 200 meters for the airport when shots rang out. Mubarak noticed the problem and he (himself) ordered the car to get out of there. The Egyptian delegation continued their work at the meeting while he returned to Cairo. The interesting point about this is that existing accounts of the 1995 assassination attempt suggest that it was Omar Sulayman's suggestion to take an armored-car and also who made the quick decision to turn the car around. One written account that stressed Sulayman's instincts during the event can be found in Mubarak family friend Mary Anne Weaver's "Pharoahs-in-waiting" Atlantic Monthly, (October 2003). In the president's six-hour interview, Omar Sulayman's name is not mentioned once for those of you interested in "Gamal-Omar" debates.

Mubarak and Adib moved on to economic and political reform. Mubarak stressed both projects started in the time of Sadat and he was just strengthening and deepening the course. Mubarak took credit for expanding press freedom and becoming more tolerant of "logical" criticism. He noted that political and economic reforms go hand in hand (which contradicts some of the talk coming out of the NDP's policies secretariat -headed by Gamal - which stresses economic before political reform).

In this section Adib turned on Mubarak briefly asking him that people are poor and want dignity and that want to be able to buy the necessary essentials for their children and families (bread, shoes, education, etc.). Mubarak did not get impatient. He said that he was following developments and that he ensures that subsidies remain. He focused on the potential of Egypt and how Egyptians need to persist now for gains later. Adib, seemingly unhappy with the response, pressed him further. How would he feel as Honsi Mubarak, the Egyptian citizen (as opposed to president), he asked. Mubarak explained that as a citizen, he would demand things from the government but it is a bit unfair because as an ordinary citizen, he would not have the full picture.

Mubarak then was asked about his presidency to which he responded that Egypt was in a tough place with difficult circumstance but that he was working to keep Egypt progressing. To tell you the truth, the economic reform part about taxes, privatization, and customs was a bit difficult and unclear to follow.
The remaining 15 minutes of the interview was one big question after another:

He said in relation to freedom of expression that people can criticize the government but that opposition have to be credible because the Egyptian people are smart and disregard nonsensical criticism.

He noted that he does not interfere with the the Prime Minister's work or the PM's cabinet. Mubarak noted that he basically has a big say on the appointment of the Foreign, Defense, and Interior ministers (but I am also guessing Justice even though he did not say it) but the PM chooses the rest of the selections. This is because the PM needs a team and he has full responsibility. The parliament naturally is important and helps in the process in government. Mubarak then argued that the role of the president is largely consultative.

He was asked about the amendment of article 76 to allow multi-candidacy, direct presidential elections. Mubarak said this was to encourage Egyptians to give their voice and participate (this is also something the policies secretariat is big in pushing for rhetorically).
I am not quite sure what happened but then I heard him say, "Look, there will be 2 candidates, it won't just be me." I did not know if I believed my ears. Later, I checked this with others watching elsewhere and they confirmed that they heard the same thing.

Party Politics:

Mubarak said that if the NDP is not the majority party in parliament that this was fine. He stressed though that without a majority party in parliament, the country would be in chaos. Coalition government are no good. So he does not care which party has the majority but it must be led by a majority party in parliament.

Emergency Laws:

He said that Emergency laws are better than if they repealed Emergency laws and replaced it with an Anti-Terrorism Law. The reasoning is because if they enact an Anti-Terrorism law it would be permanent while Emergency laws can be pulled. He then argued that Emergency laws should not be repealed because most of the world is facing the emergency threat of terrorism.

US Pressure for Political Reform:

Mubarak explicitly said that he has NEVER been approached at any time or place by any US government official (including State Dept?) in person or by written correspondence about politically reforming Egypt.

Muslim Brotherhood:

He cited the parties law (law 40/1977) that does not allow for parties to be formed on religious foundations. He pointed out that France, German, Australia, and Italy also have laws that prohibit religious parties. He then said that there are no restrictions on individuals. Egyptian citizens - MB or not - can join existing, legal parties in order to participate politically.
The last five minutes deal with the future presidential race.

Mubarak argued that he had three months off in his entire life and that since he became a 2nd Lt in the air-force, he has served in positions of leadership. Fifty-six years in the service and for the sake of Egypt. He said that he could accept not getting a high percentage win in a presidential election (i.e. 90+%). He said he did not care what the percentage is, as long as there are 2 or 3 candidates he would be happy. It was sort of awkward, did this mean he was running? It is hard to believe something this staged and edited could have put something out so clumsily.

Adib then asked him the money question - "Are you running?"

Mubarak noted correctly that the amendment is still in parliament and then there needs to be a referendum by the people accepting or rejecting parliament's suggested change. We have to see what the people want, he said.

Adib pushed gently again.

Mubarak said that he did not want to be hasty and he had not decided if he is running or not. He said if he runs he would tell the people of his achievements and what he plans to do in the next stage. Then he will wait to see what the people think.

Adib, in one last fainthearted attempt, asked "so you have not decided if you are running yet?"

Mubarak said "Not yet"

So that was it - six hours of waiting to arrive at a rather anti-climatic conclusion. I don't why Mubarak felt the need to do such a media spectacle. I also don't know to what extent this will reach and play in the homes and streets of Egypt. Sure, the opposition is going to rally and yell but what about those who don't say anything or act at all?. The opposition likes to say that they are Egypt's silent majority. Yet, this classification of a silent majority is more applicable to the non-opposition circles of supporters of the status quo - be they included in participation, getting benefits, or simply the worn-down apolitical trying to survive.
By-the-way, after a relatively short discussion at a cafe yesterday, a group of us decided that the trilogy's "surprise" was being taken into the special operations room on nights one and two. As there needed to be a post-review analysis of it, you can guess that some were not all that surprised.

Lastly, the Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy has an article in today's edition that reviews and examines the implications of the Mubarak TV Event.