Dispatch

The Egyptian Revolution Through Mubarak's Eyes

Insider accounts are shedding new light on the 18 days that brought down a pharaoh.

CAIRO - It was Jan. 19, 2011, and Hosni Mubarak's regime was strong and confident. The Egyptian president was playing host to an array of Arab presidents at his beachside resort in Sharm el-Sheikh. Hundreds of construction workers had been evacuated from the area, lest they mar the spectacle.

But those listening carefully could make out the first rumblings of discontent. The Tunisian foreign minister had to scramble back to Tunis hours before the summit's opening, as his country dealt with the fallout of a revolution that had already toppled its long-serving dictator. And Egyptian Facebook pages were spreading news of demonstrations on Jan. 25, which would seek to replicate the drama of the Tunisian revolution on the streets of Cairo.

As the summit drew to a close, Mubarak headed to the airport to see the foreign dignitaries off. Trailing closely behind him were Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's feared domestic enforcer. Aboul Gheit asked Suleiman if he had raised the potential protests with the president; the intelligence chief replied that he had left Mubarak alone during the summit, but that it was high time to discuss the issue.

When the last dignitary had left, Suleiman approached the president and told him that he had a very important topic to discuss. It was then that Mubarak learned of the uprising that would sweep him from power in a few short weeks.

At the time, however, Mubarak was nonplussed. "The president didn't show much interest," Aboul Gheit wrote in his recently published memoir, My Testimony. When Suleiman suggested a meeting with top officials to coordinate responses to potential protests, Mubarak "didn't respond, and didn't react in a way that we understood as suggesting he was worried."

Two years after the Jan. 25 protests, the small clique of officials around Mubarak is finally starting to go public about the debates within the Egyptian government as the revolution unfolded around them. In addition to Aboul Gheit's account, top Egyptian officials gave their account of the unrest in journalist Bradley Hope's Last Day of the Pharaoh. Both tales provide a glimpse into the tensions at the very top of the Mubarak regime and the reason it failed to crush the protest movement.

Mubarak, in all these former officials' stories, is portrayed as a largely passive figure -- a leader who was at the mercy of the last person to offer his advice. "The president is very old, and consequently he is dependent on the vision of Gamal Mubarak," Aboul Gheit wrote, referring to Mubarak's younger son, who had been conspicuously active in the presidential palace since the beginning of the uprising. Gamal, he added, "stays with [the president] all the time in the palace or in the house."

Such explanations could be an effort by high-ranking officials to deflect blame away from the Egyptian state and on to their bureaucratic rivals. But the accounts are remarkably consistent: Hossam Badrawi, then the top official of the ruling political party, told Hope he had convinced Mubarak to relinquish power on Feb. 9 -- but the president then reversed his decision after being confronted by Gamal and other members of his inner circle. He would relent two days later.

President Barack Obama's administration reached out to Aboul Gheit on several occasions to express its views on how the Mubarak regime should handle the crisis. The Egyptian foreign minister believed the U.S. government was attempting a good cop-bad cop approach: "The White House appears very strict against the government, while [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton and the State Department show some flexibility," he told Suleiman.

The intelligence chief replied, "It is the traditional distribution of roles."

As the revolution gained momentum, Aboul Gheit describes a regime paralyzed by infighting. On Jan. 31, he attended the swearing-in of the new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, a career military man brought in to restore order. Mubarak, he says, was bored and quiet: "He pretended to be very busy reading some papers."

Other players, however, were already maneuvering to protect their interests. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, then defense minister and the future head of the military junta that would replace Mubarak, informed Aboul Gheit at the ceremony that the military would not sacrifice its reputation to preserve Mubarak's rule. "Some told me that people are talking about using the army to control the situation by force," Tantawi said sternly, according to Aboul Gheit. "And I said from my side the army doesn't strike people at all, or else it will lose its legitimacy."

Gamal, meanwhile, was intent on protecting Mubarak's hold on power, whatever the cost. Gamal was widely believed to have designs on the presidency himself -- though the aging dictator denied that he would orchestrate Gamal's inheritance of power. "Do you think I'm crazy?" Aboul Gheit wrote that Mubarak told him. "To put my son ... my son ... in this jail? Impossible."

While Gamal indisputably played a powerful behind-the-scenes role, Mubarak resisted efforts to place him in the public eye. Aboul Gheit wrote that he suggested to the president in 2010 that Gamal run for a seat in parliament. At the time, the opposition Muslim Brotherhood held nearly 20 percent of parliament, though their presence would be decimated in the 2010 election, which was widely viewed as rigged.

"This is nonsense," Mubarak responded sharply. "They will cut him into pieces. Don't you know what is happening in parliament?"

On Feb. 1, with the police forces helpless to control the swelling protests, Mubarak delivered a late-night speech announcing that he would not run for another term in office. "[The speech] was late ... it was late ... and then I fell asleep," Aboul Gheit writes, mirroring the frustrations of many protesters. The foreign minister was awakened afterwards by a phone call from Gamal, who said that the speech had sparked a "new spirit" and popular sympathy for Mubarak.

Gamal, however, had overestimated the sea change. On Feb. 2, Aboul Gheit was ensconced in his office in the Foreign Ministry when he looked out the window to see a crowd, interspersed with horses and camels, moving toward Tahrir Square. His phone rang: "They are going to burn the country." shouted a relative. "The unity of Egypt will be gone!"

It was the beginning of the Battle of the Camel - a failed attempt by regime loyalists to clear the square by any means necessary. The cavalry charge with horses and camels, as well as attacks with stones and Molotov cocktails, left 11 Egyptians dead and more than 600 injured.

But the attack also marked the beginning of the end for the Mubarak regime. Aboul Gheit frantically called Suleiman to discuss the bloodshed in Tahrir: The two officials agreed that the president now had no choice but to step down. Suleiman, however, said that he could not say this publicly -- he would be accused of forcing Mubarak out in order to ascend to the presidency himself.

From this point, the fractures within Egyptian regime widened quickly. Aboul Gheit recounted a conversation with Suleiman, in which the intelligence chief said "there was a real plan" to make Gamal as president, but that "the national security apparatus will not agree on this" and that he would not work for Gamal. "They want to get rid of me, and they exerted a lot of effort in this respect," Suleiman added. Aboul Gheit added that he believed Suleiman was referring to Mubarak's wife, Suzanne.

This conversation may also contain a hint for understanding why Suleiman was shunted aside by the military establishment after Mubarak's fall. The intelligence chief suggested that there was a disagreement between him and Tantawi over Gamal, saying that in the event Mubarak's son became president, "it is only Tantawi who will work with him." In any event, Suleiman's bombastic statements blaming foreigners for the uprising and claiming that Egypt was not ready for democracy had made him extremely unpopular among the protesters - and a liability to any transitional government.

By Feb. 9, Mubarak's position was clearly untenable. At this point, Badrawi -- after receiving Suleiman's blessing -- was granted a one-on-one meeting with Mubarak. "Mr. President, I see in front of me an image of [Nicolae] Ceaucescu," Badrawi said, referring to the Romanian dictator, a former friend of Mubarak's, who had been executed by firing squad during the country's anti-Communist revolution.

"You mean they are going to kill me?" Mubarak asked.

"Probably, yes." Badrawi responded.

"I am ready to die for my country," the president said.

According to Badrawi, Mubarak soon opted for a better course: He agreed to delegate power to Suleiman and pave the way for early presidential elections. This path out of the crisis, however, was quickly undermined by Gamal and other loyalists in the president's inner circle.

Even as the regime crumbled, Gamal embarked on a last-ditch attempt to preserve his father's rule. On Feb. 10, Mubarak announced that he would give another speech, in which he was widely expected to announce his resignation.

"It was late ... it was late," Aboul Gheit wrote. "And then the statement came, but it did not have anything good in it. And I understood then that the son of the president was trying to shape the statement so that it pleased everyone."

Egyptian protesters, shocked that Mubarak was attempting to cling to power, took to the streets in huge numbers on Feb. 11, dubbed the "Friday of Departure." Aboul Gheit said that he spent the morning working the phones between Suleiman and Shafiq, trying to negotiate Mubarak's exit. Suleiman told him that the president would retreat to his home at Sharm el-Sheikh -- where he had first learned of the protest movement -- that day, before noon prayers.

In an attempt to salvage the situation, Suleiman summoned Aboul Gheit to a meeting at Cairo's Ittahadeya Palace at 1 pm. The palace, however, was besieged by protesters -- the army warned that it could be stormed at any moment, and the officials had to relocate to a nearby military base. "And finally I came to the logical conclusion: The world has changed," wrote Aboul Gheit.

A three-way conversation between Mubarak, Suleiman, and Tantawi laid bare the disagreements between the formerly tightly knit officials at the top of the Egyptian government. Suleiman first received a call from Mubarak, who had by then relocated to Sharm el-Sheikh, in which the president ordered him to tell Tantawi that he had been granted the power to oversee the administration of the country. When informed of the order, however, the defense minister balked: "I understood from the phone call that Tantawi doesn't want to put the army in office," Aboul Gheit wrote.

Suleiman then told Mubarak that he needed to appeal directly to Tantawi. In the end, he and Shafiq headed in person to the Defense Ministry to inform the military chief of his new role. His job done, Suleiman delivered the announcement that charted the first, tentative steps of Egypt's post-Mubarak future.

"In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate, citizens, during these very difficult circumstances Egypt is going through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down," the once all-powerful intelligence chief declared. "May God help everybody."

AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Brexit Blackmail

Has David Cameron gone too far in threatening to pull Britain from the EU?

LONDON — The late William F. Buckley once summed up the purpose of National Review, the magazine he founded, as to "[stand] athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." It was, he suggested, "out of place" not least because "there never was an age of conformity quite like this one." Something similar might be said of Britain's awkward relationship with the European Union.

Much of the continent has long favored an ever closer union. Britain, however, has stood alone, demanding opt-outs from the provisions of European treaties (on matters such as the euro and border currency) and stubbornly resisting anything that smacks of the creation of a European "superstate." Britain, proud and stubborn, was late to the European party and ever since has loitered on the fringes, never quite sure whether it was a good idea to come at all. The EU has proved a poor replacement for the long-lost glories of empire. If Europe was to be the future, it was still only a pale shadow of the past.

Until recently, however, the idea that Britain might actually leave the EU -- the so-called "Brexit" -- seemed most improbable. That is no longer the case. The previously impossible now seems quite possible. British Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Wednesday, Jan. 23, that his Conservative Party now favors a popular referendum on Britain's continuing membership in the European club. The "in or out" referendum, which Cameron considered unnecessary even two years ago, is, at least in part, a response to the eurozone's economic crisis and the resultant moves toward an even stronger political -- as well as fiscal -- union. Britain will have no part of that. And because polls show a majority of Britons favoring a referendum (and some showing more Britons want to leave the EU than remain in it), we may expect the opposition Labour Party to eventually endorse a plebiscite too.

Cameron says he does not want to leave the EU, but merely reform it. Britain, he says, must grasp the opportunity afforded by the eurozone's woes and fundamentally alter the terms of its membership. Sovereignty must be repatriated, and Europe's ability to impact British social and business policies sharply curtailed. (The only example Cameron cited, mind you, was the EU-inspired working conditions for doctors in Britain's hospitals. Would Britain really leave the EU over such an ostensibly trivial matter?)

If Cameron persuades his European colleagues to accept these reforms, then he promises to campaign "with heart and soul" for Britain to remain within the EU. But if he fails -- and "success" has not yet been defined -- then he, as well as his party, will presumably press for a British exit. In other words, the status quo will not be enough. It is not quite clear why a status quo that Britain can -- however unhappily -- live with now (otherwise, Cameron would favor leaving immediately) would become intolerable in 2017. This, however, does not appear to trouble the prime minister or his deeply Euroskeptic party.

By acceding to pressure to commit to a referendum -- assuming he wins the next general election, scheduled for 2015 -- Cameron has made the "Brexit" more likely. This Overton window has shifted. Cameron's own future is now inextricably tied to the European issue. If he thinks a single speech can solve his domestic problems, he is liable to be disappointed. But there's a bigger risk in this brinkmanship. There is a danger that other European leaders will conclude life with Britain is more exhausting and frustrating than it is worth. Should they do that, then Cameron may be forced to support a British exit after all.

Cameron, however, was at pains to try to present his ultimatum as a constructive contribution to the debate on Europe's future. As the prime minister reminded his European colleagues, thousands of British bodies lie in European cemeteries -- bodies of those who died fighting for peace on the continent. Britain, the none-too-subtle subtext was, will take no lectures from its European partners. Nor will the country be accused of being a "bad European." On the contrary, his suggestions for reform were meant constructively and should be shared by all EU members. Predictably, this proved an unpopular message. As Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister, warned in an op-ed in the Independent: Cameron is "playing with fire.... He can control neither the timing nor the outcome of the negotiations, and in so doing is raising false expectations that can never be met and jeopardising both Britain's long-term interests and the unity of the EU."

Cameron's message is that the EU should concentrate on boosting its international competitiveness, rather than on moving toward an ever more centralized union. The continent should make a virtue of its diversity. Any "one-size-fits-all" solution, he said, is a recipe for guaranteed failure. Most of all, Cameron stressed, the single European market -- which remains a work in progress -- needs to be protected and expanded (to include, for instance, a true single market in services). This, it should be noted, is a sensible message and one that might be approved by plenty of other European countries.

Yet pulling out isn't quite as easy as it seems. Britain is not always quite as isolated from Europe as it likes to think it is. Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and some of the newer members from Eastern Europe see Britain as a useful -- and free market -- bulwark against French influence in Europe. Nevertheless, despite German Chancellor Angela Merkel's kind suggestion that some "compromise" will have to be found, it is hard to envisage an outcome that can simultaneously satisfy Cameron, the British Conservative Party, and other European leaders.
Although Cameron was careful not to divulge the details of Britain's "shopping list" of powers that London believes should be repatriated to national capitals, he offered a clearer sense of his agenda at the weekly Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons: "I want Britain to reform the European Union.... We have been very clear about what we want to see changed. There is a whole series of areas -- social legislation, employment legislation, environmental legislation -- where Europe has gone far too far, and we need to properly safeguard the single market. We also want to make sure that ever-closer union does not apply to the United Kingdom."

In truth, Cameron's speech on Wednesday was an admission of defeat. For years, he preferred to avoid talking about Europe, mindful that divisions on the subject helped terminate Margaret Thatcher's career and crippled John Major's premiership. The Tory obsession with all things European has often damaged the party's standing, especially with nonaligned, centrist voters for whom Euro-mania is extremely off-putting.

However, the combination of the eurozone's crisis and increasing levels of Euroskepticism within his own party forced Cameron's hand. It did not help that the UK Independence Party -- a once minor group of obsessives who wish Britain to leave the EU immediately and fully -- has, according to recent opinion polls, supplanted the Liberal Democrats as the third force in British politics. That may be a temporary blip, but it's a telling indicator of the political winds in Britain: The country's most Euroskeptic party is now more popular than its most Europhile.

A poll commissioned by Conservative Home (an influential website for Tory members and activists) reported that 85 percent of Conservative members thought that Cameron was only giving his speech because he'd been forced to by the party's increasing distrust of the EU. That poll also showed the limitations of Cameron's approach: Some 38 percent of members want Britain to leave the EU now, while another 40 percent desire nothing more than a free trade agreement with the rest of the EU.

The "better off out" brigade at least has a position rooted in some measure of logic, even if it is not a position favored by the prime minister. Britain could doubtless survive quite comfortably outside the EU, but its international influence might very well be diminished and its businesses would still find themselves forced to abide by numerous EU-issued regulations.

The "free trade only" grouping, however, pine for an impossible pipe dream. Cameron gently attempted to tell them as much, pointing out that Norway -- a member of the European Economic Area but not of the EU -- must also abide by EU rules, but lacks the ability to shape or influence those rules. That's one reason Cameron still wants Britain to remain a member: Markets are governed by laws, and London would lose the ability to influence those laws and regulations if it left the EU. But Britain's European partners are unlikely to be impressed by this "cherry-picking" approach. Cameron hopes Merkel and other leaders need him more than Britain needs Europe -- but his bluff may well be called.

In truth, a large dollop of British disgruntlement with the EU often has little to do with Brussels and rather more to do with the European Court of Human Rights and its perceived interference in British affairs. For instance, one long-running and festering dispute concerns the court's ruling that Britain's blanket ban on prisoners voting in elections is in contravention of human rights. This, like similar cases -- notably those involving the deportation of terrorist suspects -- has aroused the ire of Britain's most ferocious tabloid newspapers, which love nothing more than denouncing any European infringement of British "sovereignty."

Such a distinction, however, seems to make little difference to Britain's endless Euro-argument. It is, in the end, a debate dominated by symbols rather than actual policy. Britain, for instance, already enjoys one of the most liberal labor markets in the world. Despite popular sentiment to the contrary, it has not been strangled by red tape from Brussels.

In the end, however, the British really are poor Europeans. They wish access to the single market but are wary of the rules and regulations that come with it. Most of all, they don't feel or consider themselves European. They are happy to lecture their neighbors -- one reason that many on the continent have lost patience with Britain's ceaseless grumbling -- but disinclined to take suggestions from anyone. They consider themselves different -- an island people apart -- and maintain a keen and lofty skepticism toward all things continental.

Ultimately, this is not simply a struggle to define Britain's national interest. In many ways, it's a battle for Britain's political identity -- which is another reason the prevailing wind is a Euroskeptic breeze. If Britain does remain a member of the EU, it is liable to do so with some reluctance. But for the prime minister, his bid to placate his own party has made it dramatically more likely Britain might actually leave. As legacies go, this isn't quite what David Cameron had in mind when he entered 10 Downing Street but, forced by his party and by events beyond Britain, it may prove the defining moment of his premiership.

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