from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Mubarak Speaks--Unfortunately

September 23, 2013

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Through a leaked recording of conversations with his doctor over the past year, we now have new insights into the mind of Hosni Mubarak. Of course, we can’t be sure everything is authentic--not yet, anyway--nor can we be sure that Mubarak was giving this doctor his bottom line. But the Mubarak who emerges in this New York Times account will sound familiar to anyone who spent time with him on behalf of the United States Government.

Two themes stood out to me. The first was his claim that the United States began to work against him in 2005.

He said in the recordings that American efforts to remove him began in 2005 when Washington pressed him to allow at least token rivals to run for president against him instead of holding a one-candidate plebiscite for another term in the office. He said that he had promised to “hand it over” in the next election, scheduled for 2011, but that the Americans had not trusted him. He said “the Americans” were “liars.” He accused them of spreading false rumors that Mr. Mubarak might try to hand the presidency to his son Gamal, who had taken up a senior position in the ruling party and begun shaping Egyptian policy. “And people believed them!” Mr. Mubarak complained. “I told them, ‘People, we are a democratic regime!’ but to no avail.”

It is true that in 2004 and 2005 the Bush administration ramped up pressure on Mubarak--but not to remove him. We genuinely thought his system was increasingly difficult for the United States to support, for human rights reasons, and increasingly unsustainable in Egypt. We thought Egyptians would not accept the absence of a presidential election for much longer. We thought Egyptians would not tolerate having his son Gamal foisted upon them as the next president. To allow Mubarak, already in his 80s, to finish his term as president was one thing; to have Mubaraks for thirty more years would be another. Mubarak may now say that was not his intention, and he appeared at the time to be uncertain about it. But his wife kept pushing for Gamal, and Gamal kept being promoted into more and more influential positions. Mubarak’s argument now, that this was impossible because he ran a democratic regime, is of course laughable.

But it is striking that he cannot distinguish between American efforts to push him toward reform and American efforts to remove him. That unwillingness to countenance reform, to permit liberal or secular or democratic parties to grow, left the Muslim Brotherhood as the only alternative to military rule when Mubarak left power after 30 years. That is his legacy to his people.

The second theme is his anti-Semitism.

At another point, Mr. Mubarak dismissed Mr. Morsi as overly reliant on Qatar, an oil-rich monarchy allied with the United States and supportive of the Brotherhood. “Qatar will bring American Jews” to Egypt, Mr. Mubarak said. “All will have American and Jewish passports, they will start projects and I don’t know what, and it will be worse.” He speculated that Jews might have played a role in a proposal to dam the Nile upstream from Egypt in Ethiopia, a major worry in Cairo. “The Jews work there,” Mr. Mubarak said. “Africa is full of Jews.” He said of a former chief of the International Monetary Fund, “He was a Jew, but skillful.”

By Middle Eastern standards these remarks are not surprising, but they do attest to Mubarak’s view that Jews are secretly behind all sorts of nefarious plots. They also show his inability to distinguish Jews from Israelis, for even in these quotes it is unclear when he means all Jews and when he actually is referring to Israelis only--for example when he uses the term "Jewish passports."

Perhaps there are more tapes and more revelations to come. In truth it would be interesting to have a historian interview Mubarak about the 1967 and 1973 wars, the peace treaty with Israel, the assassination of Sadat, and many other pieces of Egyptian and Middle Eastern history that he witnessed or in which he was a key player. A serious Mubarak oral history project would be worth having. But it would show, as these quotes do, that he was a man of limited insight. Fouad Ajami once described Mubarak as "a civil servant with the rank of president," and nothing he says in these tapes suggests otherwise.

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