by M.A. Shaikh (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 1, Muharram, 1425)
President Husni Mubarak of Egypt has stepped up his role as ‘mediator’ in disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims – such as the Palestine-Israeli war and the Bush administration’s confrontation with Syria and Libya – to take the side of the non-Muslim party in each case. The 75-year-old despot, lately not in good health and apparently running out of time, is using Egypt’s supposed position as "one of the most influential countries in the Muslim world" to ingratiate himself with the "only superpower in the world".
Even Muslims living outside their countries of origin – in France, for instance – are reeling from the effects of Mubarak’s mission, as he exploits Egypt’s religious institutions, like al-Azhar, to ‘re-interpret’ Islamic principles in the light of the US-led ‘war on terrorism’. The recent declarations by Shaikh al-Azhar Muhammad Tantawi, to the effect that France has the right to ban the headscarf in its schools, are a result of this outrageous new approach; the harassment of Islamic activists in Europe and America as ‘Islamic extremists’, and indeed ‘terrorists’, derives at least indirect justification and backing from them.
A quick glance at Mubarak’s public speeches and contacts with Arab and Israeli leaders, including Ariel Sharon, since last October, when he began to step up his ‘mediation role’, readily shows the extent of his shameful mission. There is no need to interpret his words to realise the gravity of his deeds. Mubarak has not only told the Palestinians to submit to negotiations with Israel without ‘prior conditions’, but has also described the Israeli position as reasonable, sending his foreign minister to see his Israeli counterpart and Ariel Sharon but not Yasser Arafat, never mind the leaders of Hamas or Islamic Jihad. He has also defended president George W. Bush against criticism (particularly in Syria), saying that Bush is "a friend who is helpful to us", and that Bush will not use the recent American anti-Syria law against Damascus. He has also made it clear that he had a hand in Colonel Qaddafi’s recent capitulation to US pressures.
It was during a telephone conversation with Radio Cairo, broadcast on October 29 last year, that Mubarak boasted that Egypt was "the largest country" endeavouring (in cooperation with the US) to resolve the Palestinian issue and to secure "peaceful coexistence among nations". Egypt was determined to continue playing its "effective Arab role in an honest support of the various Arab causes on all international platforms," he said. He even said that Cairo gave strong support to Sudan, adding that he was in touch by telephone with presidents Bush and Omar al-Bashir and colonel John Garang, the leader of the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army). He predicted that the Sudanese problem would be resolved in the near future. On that very day Mubarak was in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, to hold talks with Colonel Mu’ammar Qaddafi, saying during one interview that he was there to exchange ideas with Qaddafi in a "direct and honest manner". But, perhaps conscious of the fact that the Arab people were not aware of anything useful he was doing for them, he added that "there are certain things that must be dealt with confidentially and away from the media."
In fact, before his decision to raise his profile, Mubarak performed most of his service to Uncle Sam and his allies behind the scenes. He advised Washington (and presumably continues to do so) on how to deal with Arab leaders and with issues that Washington finds difficult, and on the degree of dictation acceptable to them, thus damaging their bargaining powers and position. His admission during the interview that he was in touch with Bush, Bashir and Garang might throw light on why Khartoum caved in to US pressure and gave the south the right to secede from the north. Bashir is not the only leader Mubarak has exerted pressure on to elicit concessions demanded by Washington. What is astonishing is that he is now publicly calling on Arab leaders to make even more ‘concessions’.
Mubarak’s widely reported statement of December 14 can only be regarded as a gross intervention in the recent Syrian-US confrontation over the Israeli-Arab problem, and other issues, on behalf of Washington. Mubarak said that his contacts with Bush "were excellent" and that he "is very helpful, despite the media attacks on him", adding that in view of his readiness to help "we should be responsible and refrain from attacking him". He said that the new US law on sanctions against Syria was merely part of US legislation which the president might or might not use, and that he did not believe that Bush would apply it against Syria. He added that he had informed the US president that Syria is perfectly prepared to negotiate in good faith. On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict he said that contacts were in progress, citing his meeting with Silvan Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister, in Geneva on December 10, and his previous contacts with prime minister Sharon. Equating the two parties in the conflict, he said both sides should act responsibly and work together to reach a solution; "one hand alone cannot clap," he quipped.
Signs of the Palestinians’ anger at Mubarak’s behaviour showed when Ahmed Mahir, the Egyptian foreign minister, turned up in occupied al-Quds, saw Shalom and Sharon on December 22, and then went to pray at al-Aqsa mosque. He was attacked by tens of furious Palestinians in the mosque: they pelted him with shoes; he had to withdraw shaken, and leave Palestine in shame. But a few hours later a more serious blow to his ‘peace policy’ came when Sharon attacked a Palestinian refugee-camp, killing many of its inhabitants. He also sent bulldozers in to destroy Palestinian homes both in the West Bank and Ghazzah. Egyptian officials and media reacted to these outrageous acts by expressing Cairo’s determination to persist in its pursuit of peace. But non-Egyptian, particularly Palestinian, media reacted strongly to these unacceptable developments. The London-based al-Quds al-Arabi, for instance, saw the attack on Mahir as a warning to all corrupt Arab leaders who are trying so hard to please Uncle Sam and Israel.
Not that Mubarak was deterred by the incidents and the adverse reaction to them, as he began a tour of Arab and non-Arab countries, to display his determination to "serve Arab and Muslim causes" and Egypt’s influence and ability to deliver. He also invited other leaders, like the Yemeni president and even the prime minister of Singapore, to Cairo. This pretentious activity continued throughout January and February and is set to continue this month. Mubarak is particularly anxious to counter the strong criticism of his policies inside Egypt itself. His economic policies have failed and there is considerable poverty and unemployment in the country – public proof that the $2 billion he receives each year for his services to Uncle Sam are not worth having. Another proof of the failure of his economic policies, and of his "Arab role" as well, has come in a recent UN report, which documents how poor and illiterate people in Arab countries are, lacking even adequate nutrition, and predicts that they will continue so until 2015 (at least). The report calls on their governments to fight poverty and illiteracy (but did not add "instead of fighting terrorism", as it could have done).
Another source of anxiety for Mubarak is the preoccupation of the Egyptian press and public with the succession to the presidency, triggered by rumours about his health, since his recent failure to complete a speech to parliament. His failure to appoint a vice-president is also feeding the speculation, with most people believing that he will be succeeded by his younger son, Gamal. But many analysts appear to believe that he will be succeeded by an officer from the ranks of the military instead. The names bandied about in this connection are those of General Hamdi Wahiba, army chief of staff, and General Omar Sulaiman, the head of the intelligence service. General Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, the minister of defence, the most senior serving officer, is old and apparently lacks political ambition. It is thought that whoever is appointed vice-president before Mubarak decides to step down, or to stand for a fifth six-year term, will be Egypt’s next president. Mubarak denies that that he not grooming his son Gamal for the presidency, as "Egypt is not a hereditary Arab state".
There is, of course, very little to choose between the candidates. Indeed, who succeeds Mubarak to the presidency of the secular government in Egypt has no real bearing on the most pressing concerns of Egyptian Muslim society. However, until Egypt’s Islamic movement realises the need for a total – even revolutionary – transformation in Egyptian society and state, there is little prospect of more meaningful change of government in the country.