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Wisner Lauds Pro-Democracy Moves in Middle East, but Urges Caution

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Frank G. Wisner, External Affairs, AIG Inc.
March 1, 2005


Frank G. Wisner, a veteran U.S. ambassador who served in Cairo from 1986-91, says Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s decision to open up presidential elections to competition evolved from a number of factors, including an “international environment which is arguing for greater democratic participation.” But he adds that it is important to move cautiously toward political change in Egypt, for years the staunchest U.S. friend in the Arab world, and in Lebanon, which hangs in a fragile ethnic and religious balance. “The last thing any American would want is domestic circumstances in any Arab state to spin out of control and have the very people who have profound differences with the United States on top of the heap,” he says. “We certainly don’t want fundamentalist, Islamic-controlled, radical-controlled regimes.”

Wisner, who is vice chairman for external affairs at American International Group (AIG), was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on March 1, 2005.

Were you surprised by President Mubarak’s speech over the weekend calling for a constitutional change to open up the presidential election process for the first time?

Yes, I was surprised, as I think many people were. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a very active political debate inside Egypt in recent weeks after the president announced he was going to stand for a fresh term in office. My own personal assumption was that any constitutional changes would occur after, not before, the election. So the timing of this revision of the constitution to provide for multi-candidate presidential polling came as somewhat of a surprise to me, but as I said, the ground was churning. We were headed in new directions for Egyptian politics.

What do you think is behind Mubarak’s decision? Internal unrest over the political system in Egypt? Democracy movements in other Arab countries?

I believe it’s a mixture of factors. Certainly one can’t discount the general move in the region towards freer elections, or the international environment which is arguing for greater democratic participation in Arab countries, or President Bush’s specific call for Egypt to take the lead in democracy in the region. Egypt, after all, has a political past that provided for substantial democratic participation. All of these are factors, plus the fact that this is clearly the last time President Mubarak will stand for re-election. His age is such that [Egypt] is clearly in a transition period, with something else to follow.

Let’s talk a bit about the impact of events in other countries. I would assume the situation in Lebanon is of most interest right now to the Arab states. Would you agree?

Oh, I certainly do. The events in Lebanon are unbelievably important. The assassination of [former Prime Minister] Rafik Hariri is a very consequential event. But it, too, comes within a context. Beginning at about the time of the American intervention in Iraq, there was coalescence in Lebanese politics around the idea that maybe the time was coming to call for, and obtain, an end to the Syrian presence that had dated from the late 1970’s in Lebanon. It was led, in the first instance, by the Druze- Walid Jumblat’s people [the Druze are a religious sect; Jumblat is a Lebanese politician of the Druze faith]--and was increasingly gaining traction among Maronite Christian elements, and picking up support among Sunnis. It now has all come together in a considerable turnout of Lebanese sentiment, not only to respond to the assassination of Hariri, but to carry it forward politically and get the Syrians to withdraw. What we haven’t heard yet, which I personally believe is material, is where the Shiites will come out. They are, after all, the majority in Lebanon, and their political institutions, Hezbollah and [the] Amal [party] are very consequential, and I have not yet heard where they stand.

I thought Hezbollah was supporting the existing government.

It has been. But it hasn’t been strident in its defense of that government and, therefore, of the Syrian presence. Looking at Lebanon, the Arab world, in general, recognizes that there is a time for change, and they’re trying to signal to the Syrians that this is the time to adapt policies to the new circumstances. The Arab consensus is such a fragile commodity, so they’re doing it more by nudges and hints than by strident demand.

Have you been watching the Syrian situation? They’re under attack from all quarters, it seems.

Syrians are under a great deal of pressure on many fronts. Their economy has stalled, the Iraq matter has made the United States Syria’s direct neighbor, the Palestinians and the Israelis are moving toward finding some common ground, and the situation in Lebanon, have all produced a number of pressures. Syria is an important state, but it is not a state of overwhelming power. Therefore, all of these external signals have an effect on Syrian thinking.

Nonetheless, I think we all have to be very careful. When you look at Lebanon, it’s important to think about the Syrian departure- what does that mean? What maintains the balances in Lebanon thereafter? Will Syria cease to be a factor in Lebanese politics, or in what way will it be a factor? It has always been a key player, whether there have been troops on the ground or not. These are all open questions. It’s not simply about the restoration of Lebanese democracy as a cure-all solution for the nation’s problems.

Are you worried about another civil war in Lebanon?

Personally, not at this stage. I don’t see those signs; I believe the Lebanese have had quite enough of civil war. They had an atrocious bloodletting, a particularly destructive civil war that turned Christians against Palestinians; Sunnis against Christians; Shiites, Druze, and Israelis got involved; the Christians turned on one another- it was a horrific decade of unbelievable destructiveness and violence. And I don’t think Lebanese, as I understand them, are particularly keen on walking down that road again. Yet it remains a very, very divided community ethnically and religiously, and a very fragile compromise keeps all of these Lebanese forces in balance.

Did you happen to know Hariri well?

I did not know him well. I admired him- he was a man of considerable business acumen and competence. He led the effort for the reconstruction of Lebanon and overhauled the ruins of Beirut into a functioning city. He maintained a very artful balance between the various Lebanese factions, and for many, many years, was close to the Syrians, who had consequential power. He began to split with them, and the split became open and significant at the time of the Syrian decision to force the re-election last year of Lebanese President [Emile] Lahoud in an extra-constitutional manner. The decision of the United States and France to combine in the U.N. Security Council and produce Resolution 1559, which called for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon, added more fuel to the fires of Lebanon and was one of the contributing factors in the situation of today.

Going back to Egypt, you know President Mubarak very well. Could you describe his personality and how this may have factored into this discussion of political change?

I believe that the starting point in understanding Egypt under Mubarak for the past quarter of a century has been the extraordinarily important relationship that Mubarak has forged with the United States. He took the base that [former President Anwar] Sadat had built with us and built on it. Egypt has become a major friend of the United States, contributing to the single most important guarantor of peace in the region, peace between Israel and Egypt.

Mubarak has never wavered in that, he’s never wavered in his friendship with the United States, and he’s never wavered, also, on the critical issue of taking no chances with Egypt’s internal stability. This has meant stagnation politically and economically. Mubarak is a man who picks a course and sticks with it. He stuck with the United States despite many moments of disagreement. He has been supported by the United States with a huge assistance program, political gestures, and relationships with successive presidents. He has been a very steady factor in a very troubled region and a major triumph in sustaining American diplomacy.

Therefore, when I hear people talking about, “Well, you know, this day is over, and let’s get beyond the Mubarak period and see Egypt return to democracy,” I always want to send a note of caution. The move is right, the direction is right. But be careful, because Egypt’s stability is really important to the United States, and a gradual, careful evolution is in our interest.

What do you think Mubarak’s reaction was to President Bush’s State of the Union call for Egypt to lead the region toward democracy?

The speech, I thought, was valid. There was no finger-pointing at Egypt in those remarks that Egypt was undemocratic and had to change its ways if the American relationship was to be preserved. But rather, it was a positive message, looking to Egypt, her sophistication, her assets, her influence in the Arab world, to take the lead in this, as in other Arab matters, to help the region move towards a more open, participatory political future, and strong institutions that make up a functioning democracy. The press and judiciary have strong foundations in Egypt, but there is a ways to go before they are functioning and able to provide the cadre, if you will, of a democratic society.

Bush has talked about democracy in the Middle East in a very idealistic way now for a couple of years. He’s been ridiculed a bit in the United States about this being sort of an impossible dream. And now, all of a sudden, he’s either on a very lucky streak or has had some impact. What do you think?

I believe that the president took a principled stand. The actions of the United States are consequential in the Middle East, and they have had some serious effects. They have also been clouded in accusations that the Middle East [is] not going to give into American pressure, and democracy can’t be built at the point of a gun. But a debate has been stimulated by a clear American stand; one that all of us should welcome, provided that the pursuit of that objective is very, very carefully pursued. Because these are very fragile societies in a dangerous region, and the last thing any American would want are domestic circumstances in any Arab state to spin out of control and have the very people who have profound differences with the United States on top of the heap. We certainly don’t want fundamentalist, Islamic-controlled, radical-controlled regimes.

I noticed also over the weekend- it didn’t get any real publicity in the United States- that in Saudi Arabia, Foreign Minister Prince Saud [al-Faisal] announced that, for the first time, they’re going to allow women to become political officers in the foreign service.

Yes, I saw that. There was an extremely good interview that Lally Weymouth had with the Saudi foreign minister, in which he pointed to the opening of the doors of the Saudi foreign ministry to women officers who would be arriving shortly. That caught my attention as it did yours. There are changes, very important changes, underway in Saudi Arabia. And the Saudis are in their own race against time: the preservation of stability and order, at the same time evolution, at the same time trying to swat down the radical elements in Saudi society that have resorted to violence and have taken people’s lives.

In Egypt, people have said that there hasn’t been democracy in Egypt in 5,000 years. Wasn’t there a functioning parliament there under the king, or am I mistaken?

If you look at democracy, or modern democratic governments, as systems with a free press, a strong judiciary, a sensible code of law, civil society institutions, parliaments, parties, and oppositions, and elections as a system for changing governments, then yes, that existed in Egypt through the 1920s, the 1930s, and the 1940s. The Egyptian system in those years, however, was locked in a self-destructive battle over politics, the monarchy, and the British presence.

In a rising tide of Arab nationalism, the defeat of Arabs at the hands of the new state of Israel brought matters to an end, and the army moved in 1952 to put an end to the structures of a participatory or democratic system. The king’s ouster was broadly welcomed by Egyptian society at the time, and he left, much unlamented, and the political parties, perceived as being corrupt and oligarchical, were swept aside. But there was a functioning political system, a political life, and varieties of political leaders in Egypt. One has to remember that Mubarak will run in this election after many, many decades of military or quasi-military rule. I can’t imagine today- and I know few Egyptians who can tell me- who the other candidates will be. There hasn’t been a culture to produce other strong political voices.

I believed, before Mubarak’s announcement, that in a totally open, free, contested presidential election, Mubarak would win by 65 percent of the vote. The political culture of Egypt is to vote for stability.