A troublesome ally (& “What Bush learned about Egyptian democratization”)

February 02, 2011

* Mubarak was far from being an ally the West could admire. Although he did try to advance Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and he crushed Gamaa al Islamiya (the Islamist group responsible for murdering hundreds), he also turned a blind eye to the rabid anti-Semitism that pollutes Egypt’s state-controlled news media and mosques.

* Last year Egyptian cleric Hussam Fawzi Jabar said “Hitler was right to do what he did to the Jews.” This is one of many such examples by Egypt government-employed clerics.

* Reuters admits some Egyptians have reservations about ElBaradei for his overly warm approach to Ahmadinejad’s regime, when he worked as a UN nuclear inspector. Reuters quotes one as saying: “ElBaradei’s positions toward Iran and North Korea were not neutral. So I don’t find him very acceptable.”

* This is a follow-up to the two dispatches earlier this week on Egypt. Today’s dispatch is again divided into two for space reasons. The other part can be read here: The woman who helped start a revolution (& Video of rocket attack on Israeli wedding)



1. Western TV stations forced to admit some prefer Mubarak to other alternatives
2. Well fancy that
3. “We don’t care about Israel”
4. Demonstrators prepare for mass rally in Syria
5. Synagogue set ablaze in Tunisia
6. Muslim leaders make historic visit to Auschwitz
7. Holocaust Memorial Day in Turkey, with official participation
8. “Hosni Mubarak, troublesome ally” (By Max Boot, Wall St. Journal, Feb. 1, 2011)
9. “What Pres. Bush learned about Egyptian democratization” (By Eli Lake, TNR, Feb. 1, 2011)
10. “Egyptians have reservations about ElBaradei” (By Jonathan Wright, Reuters, Jan. 31, 2011)
11. “Hoenlein: ElBaradei a ‘stooge’ for Iran” (By Ron Kampeas, JTA, Jan. 30, 2011)

[Notes below by Tom Gross]


I noted in the dispatch written on Sunday:

“I am told that a considerable number of Egyptians support the Mubarak government, especially older ones who remember how much worse things were under Nasser. But Western TV journalists don’t seem particularly interested in interviewing Mubarak’s supporters.”

With the clashes today in Cairo between pro- and anti-Mubarak supporters, the international media has finally been forced to suddenly admit that many Egyptians support Mubarak. After all, he may be bad, but he is no Saddam or Nasser or Assad or Ahmadinejad, and the leadership that follows him may be much worse.

Other broadcasters have in the last hour criticized the BBC for saying that “all the pro-Mubarak supporters” were merely police in plain clothes. “This is simply not true,” said one leading British journalist who has been in the square speaking to a broad range of Mubarak supporters all day.

It seems that contrary to the expectations of some pundits, Mubarak and other senior figures in his regime are not going to go that easily. (For more, see Mubarak’s regime may prove more brittle than Tunisia’s.)



One of the headlines in today’s Ha’aretz:

Hamas worried upheaval in Arab world will spill into Gaza


Ha’aretz notes that “Several thousand people in Gaza have joined the Facebook group calling for a protest against Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip. Another Facebook group is calling for protests against the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.”

Contrary to the false impression given by most of the international media over the last two years, Gaza is not nearly as poor as many other places in the world, and among other things has a relatively high percentage of people using computers and the internet.

For example, I noted in a dispatch last July that one Arab expert commented that “Gaza’s Internet services are vastly superior to the pitiful Internet services in Syria.”



Heard at 1.10 pm Cairo time February 1, 2011:

Senior Sky News foreign affairs correspondent Stuart Ramsay, located in Cairo’s central square, was asked by the studio anchor in London if he had heard any anti-Israeli slogans

He replied: “A few anti-American and anti-British slogans. Nothing anti-Israel.”

(For more on this, please see So Israel wasn’t the central source of Arab concern after all?)

(Tom Gross adds: of course, the situation can change…)



Syrians are preparing to rally on Saturday against the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Assad presides over one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships (but in spite of this is frequently treated with the utmost respect by West European governments, most notably France). Syria has been under “emergency law” since 1963, and has suspended a wide range of rights, including freedom of assembly.

The last political demonstration in Damascus of any size was four years ago when 200 people gathered to protest the emergency law. They were brutally attacked by plain clothes police.

Saturday is the 29th anniversary of the Hama Massacre, in which Syrian forces killed tens of thousands of civilians while quelling a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Syrian regime has been considerably more repressive than the Egyptian or Tunisian ones. Most Syrian dissidents are held as political prisoners or have been killed.

Yet the situation in Syria has been largely ignored by both the Western and pan-Arabic media. One dissident, Ahed al-Hendi, noted this week: “For Al Jazeera, there are two types of dictatorships – pro-American ones and pro-Iranian ones. If you’re a pro-American dictatorship, they go after you. They leave the pro-Iranian ones, like Syria, alone.”


And here are three notes not directly connected to Egypt…


Arsonists have set fire to a synagogue in the southern Gabes region of Tunisia.

“Someone set fire to the synagogue on Monday night and the Torah scrolls were burned,” the synagogue’s caretaker Trabelsi Perez told Agence France Presse.

Perez criticized the lack of action by the security services to stop the attack. “What astonished me was that there were police not far from the synagogue,” said Perez, who also looks after the Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba, the oldest synagogue in Africa.



Muslim representatives from Morocco, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, yesterday joined rabbis, Holocaust survivors and Christian representatives in a historic first trip to Auschwitz by Muslim dignitaries to pay tribute to the millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust.

“Muslims have to stand up with Jewish friends because in Europe, anti-Semitism is rising – and where there is anti-Semitism, Islamophobia is not far away,” said British Mufti Abduljalil Sajid.

Sajid said he knew of the Holocaust from books and movies but that it was his first visit to Auschwitz. “I wanted to see it with my own eyes – and teach others about the evil of hate,” he told the Associated Press. “This should never happen again, to anybody.”

Among those attending was Karim Lahidji, the head of the Iranian League of Human Rights and a former top lawyer in Tehran, who noted that he wanted to show that not all Iranians supported the ugly anti-Semitism of the regime.

Among the Jews accompanying them was the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Meir Lau, who is himself a Holocaust survivor.



Despite the government in Turkey cozying up to the Holocaust-denying government of Iran, and despite the fact that the Turkish government has helped fund a number of anti-Semitic TV programs recently, the government sent officials to participate in Holocaust Memorial Day last week:



I attach four articles below. The authors of the first two are subscribers to this list.

-- Tom Gross



Hosni Mubarak, Troublesome Ally
It is no coincidence that al Qaeda started essentially as an Egyptian-Saudi organization run by citizens of two of our closest and most repressive allies.
By Max Boot
Wall Street Journal
February 1, 2011

As Hosni Mubarak teeters on the brink, a lot of wishful thinking is emanating from the West – both from those who want him gone and those who don’t. But it does scant justice to the complexity of the situation to claim that Mr. Mubarak was a superb ally, or to imagine that we can manage an easy transition to a post-Mubarak regime.

The best that can be said for Mr. Mubarak is that he has been easy for the West to deal with. He is always ready to spur along Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and to stage military exercises with the United States. He is certainly a dedicated foe of Gamaa al Islamiya and other Islamist terrorist organizations that threatened his rule. Above all, he did not renounce the peace treaty with Israel that had gotten his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, killed. Behind the scenes, Mr. Mubarak and Omar Suleiman, formerly his intelligence chief and now his vice president, have had close relations with a succession of Israeli prime ministers and American presidents.

But let’s not romanticize the soon-to-be-departed dictator. He presided over a very cold peace with Israel. Even as he was negotiating with Israeli leaders, he was turning a blind eye to the rabid anti-Semitism and anti-Westernism that polluted Egypt’s state-controlled news media and mosques. The Middle East Media Research Institute has an invaluable archive of these revolting statements. Last year an Egyptian cleric, Hussam Fawzi Jabar, was quoted as saying, “Hitler was right to say what he said and to do what he did to the Jews.” Keep in mind that in Egypt most clerics are state employees whose pronouncements are carefully monitored by the secret police. That Mr. Jabar is able to say such things in public means that Mr. Mubarak doesn’t object.

Consider the two-part essay, “The Lie About the Burning of the Jews,” that appeared in 2004 in Al Liwaa Al-Islami (The Islamic Banner), an official journal of Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. The article is a statement of Holocaust denial, claiming that Hitler’s genocide was invented by the Zionists to justify the creation of the Jewish state. At least the editor-in-chief of Al Liwaa Al-Islami was fired after that incident, under heavy American pressure.

By contrast, no one in Egyptian state television has been disciplined for its 41-part series “A Knight Without a Horse,” which ran in 2002 and dramatized that old canard of anti-Semitism, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” That cinematic masterpiece was produced in cooperation with Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television, which suggests that Mr. Mubarak is hardly an inveterate foe of all things Islamist.

Indeed he often did little to stop the massive smuggling of supplies into Hamas-controlled Gaza. His attitude has seemed to be that Hamas can arm itself against Israel as long as it doesn’t cooperate with its Egyptian Islamist brethren against him.

Like other secular Middle Eastern dictators (e.g., the Assads in Syria or Saddam Hussein in Iraq), Mr. Mubarak played a canny double game with the Islamists, ruthlessly repressing their domestic attacks but turning a blind eye to their organizing and export of jihadism abroad.

Thus while Egypt’s security services cracked down hard on Islamist terrorism in the 1990s when it was threatening the lucrative tourist trade, Mr. Mubarak has allowed the Muslim Brotherhood – the mother of all Islamist organizations – to become the main opposition party. This has made him, as he well knows, the indispensable man to the West – the only thing supposedly standing in the way of an Islamist power grab.

Yet Mr. Mubarak’s police state actually drove many Egyptians into the arms of the radicals. It is no coincidence that al Qaeda started as primarily an Egyptian-Saudi organization run by citizens of two of our closest and most repressive allies. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s No. 2, was radicalized as a boy in Egypt and then all the more so after spending three years being tortured in Mr. Mubarak’s dungeons in the 1980s.

Mr. Mubarak’s downfall could well be a good thing in the long run if it opens up Egypt’s closed political and economic systems to greater dynamism and debate, so that in the future frustrated young Egyptians can find peaceful expression rather than strapping on a suicide vest. Yet we should be realistic about the short-term costs of a new regime in a country that has been subjected to decades of anti-Western and anti-Israeli propaganda by Mr. Mubarak – and where many blame us (with some justification) for inflicting Mr. Mubarak on them. A government that better reflects the will of the people will be less willing to cut deals with the U.S. or Israel.

Mohammed ElBaradei, the former U.N. atomic agency head who has emerged as the leader of the opposition, made clear his anti-Israel sentiments in an interview last summer with the German magazine Der Spiegel. He called the Gaza Strip “the world’s largest prison” and declared that it was imperative to “open the borders, end the blockade.”

Mr. ElBaradei also spoke glowingly of Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has assailed Israel in harsh terms and voted against United Nations sanctions on Iran. Mr. ElBaradei said: “Turkey is a member of NATO and partner of the West and Israel. And yet Prime Minister Erdogan has no qualms about supporting an aid flotilla for Gaza that was supposed to breach Israel’s sea blockade. The people of the Arab world are celebrating him. Erdogan’s photo can be seen everywhere.”

That is probably what we can expect from a post-Mubarak Egypt. It is doubtful that Mr. ElBaradei would terminate Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel – a move that would cost Egypt more than a billion dollars annually in American aid. But it is probable that, like Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey, Mr. ElBaradei’s Egypt would be less cooperative with Israel and more friendly to its enemies. In the Muslim world, this is actually a moderate position compared to the jihadism of the Islamists. But from the standpoint of the U.S. or Israel it is obviously far from ideal.

Yet what choice have we? Mr. Mubarak’s day is done. It’s only a question of time before he slinks out of office. The best the U.S. and our allies can do at this point is try to make the transition as fast and painless as possible.



Déjà Vu in Cairo
What President Bush learned about Egyptian democratization.
By Eli Lake
The New Republic
February 1, 2011

Everyone now understands that President Obama faces a set of difficult choices in Egypt. Cut Mubarak loose, and risk a revolt from the other American clients in the region while potentially empowering the Muslim Brotherhood. Support Mubarak, and earn the enmity of Arabs and Muslims across the Middle East who correctly see the United States working in tandem with the autocrats who repress them.

What has largely gone undiscussed, however, is that the United States faced a very similar dilemma in Egypt once before. Back in 2005, the Bush administration had to make more or less the same calculation. It’s worth revisiting that episode now, if only because it illustrates how difficult a time America has had arriving at an Egypt policy that is coherent, wise, and principled.

In his second inaugural address in January 2005, President Bush declared that America would no longer “tolerate oppression for the sake of stability.” Mubarak responded nine days later by charging the country’s leading opposition figure, Ayman Nour, with forgery. But, at least initially, the Bush administration did not blink. On June 30, Condoleezza Rice traveled to the American University in Cairo and delivered a speech outlining Bush’s freedom agenda. “The Egyptian Government must fulfill the promise it has made to its people – and to the entire world – by giving its citizens the freedom to choose,” she said. “Egypt’s elections, including the parliamentary elections, must meet objective standards that define every free election.”

A few months later, in September, Mubarak waltzed to victory over Nour in a sham presidential election. But everyone had known, and accepted, that the presidential election was going to be a sham. Instead, it was the parliamentary elections, scheduled for November, that both Egyptian reformers and American democracy promoters pinned their hopes to. Because these elections would not result in Mubarak’s ouster, they offered a low-risk way for Egypt to begin to cultivate a civil and competitive politics.

During the run-up to these elections, Egypt’s constellation of opposition parties took the promise that had been made by the United States seriously – and a culture of democratic politics began to develop where none had existed before. I lived in Cairo in 2005 and 2006 and attended political rallies where socialists, Islamists, and more democratic reformers distributed leaflets and gave speeches. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, not exactly a pro-western organization, was grateful to America. “When Secretary Rice delivered her speech saying it was for too long they have been helping dictators, well, that was a good thing,” Mohammed Habib, the organization’s political director, told me at the time. “This recognition was good for us.” Not surprisingly, the Brotherhood fared well once the voting got underway.

The first round of the elections was relatively free, but in the second and third rounds, the national police ambushed ballot stations and used tear gas on crowds of voters. Some supporters of opposition candidates took to climbing on ladders to the second floor of polling stations because the police had blocked the entrance on the first floor. In the face of this repression, the response from Washington was muted. The State Department spokesman at the time, Sean McCormack, said he had “seen the reports” of voter intimidation, but did not condemn the regime directly.

Meanwhile, Ayman Nour – who had run against Mubarak and lost in the bogus presidential election in September – was jailed on December 5 and later convicted. To get a sense of how craven the Bush administration was becoming on the issue of Egyptian democratization, consider a March 2006 event attended by Frank Ricciardone, then the U.S. ambassador to Cairo. The event was a “model American Congress,” where Egyptian students pretended to participate in the kind of meaningful legislature that was not offered in their own country.

At the end of the event, Ricciardone was asked for his and the administration’s opinion of the imprisonment of Ayman Nour. His rambling response shows just how unwilling the administration was, by this point, to criticize Mubarak in any way: “Do you know I would actually like to ask all of you in this room that question? Because I bet if there are a hundred people, I bet I’d get a hundred different answers,” he said.

“And I am genuinely interested in what Egyptians think, because at the end of the day, I think the important question is not what do Americans think about this and what it means for Egyptian democracy, but what do Egyptians think? What do Egyptians think that this means for the independence of the judiciary? When someone with a controversial personal history in politics and in journalism runs for public office, comes in second, and then is tried on charges and gets five years for forgery of documents. You know, if Egyptians are not sure what to make of this, then I hope you will forgive Americans for not understanding the complexity of this case.” (Ricciardone, by the way, was later appointed by Obama to become ambassador to Turkey.)

Meanwhile, when some independent judges tried to conduct an audit and write a report about charges of voter fraud and intimidation in the elections, the two judges leading the effort – Hisham Bastawisi and Mahmoud Mekki – were disbarred. The plight of the judges stirred protests in Cairo in May 2006. “All the people have lost trust in the intentions of the American administration,” Bastawisi told me that month, adding, “They give long speeches on reform in the region; they are backing the very regimes that are standing in the way of these reforms. Mainly we are depending on the Egyptian people.”

This past weekend, I spoke to two former Bush officials who were involved in setting Middle East policy at the time. Scott Carpenter, who in 2005 and 2006 was a deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of President Bush’s freedom agenda for the Middle East, said that, after the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the first round of voting, “a combination of factors led us to blink” in the later rounds.

Elliott Abrams, who oversaw the Middle East portfolio at the National Security Council, put it this way: “I do agree that, after the high water mark in 2005, the Bush administration backed away from pressing Mubarak hard enough on democratic reforms and human rights. I think this was mostly due to the mirage of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Once you fixate on that, the nation of Egypt disappears and all that matters is Mubarak and his diplomacy.”

Mubarak would go on to cancel local elections scheduled for 2006. In 2007, he amended Egypt’s constitution in such a way that the only viable candidate for the presidential elections scheduled this year would be either himself or his son. When Mubarak did these things, the response from the United States was again muted.

“Mubarak knew where we stood on his regime and it’s no accident that he did not visit the U.S. in the Bush second term, not once – for Bush’s backing of democracy in Egypt offended him,” says Abrams. “But we did not use the public pressure we should have once we started thinking about what became Annapolis” – that is, the Bush administration’s attempt to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, for which it needed Mubarak as an ally.

Of course, it’s understandable why the Bush administration had second thoughts about pushing forward with democratization in Egypt. Like Obama now, Bush was relying on despots across the Middle East to fight a war on terror. How could Bush simultaneously ask for favors from these leaders in the fight against Al Qaeda while also undermining them with his freedom agenda?

What’s more, in January 2006, Hamas won parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories, with disastrous results. What if free and fair elections in Egypt had ended with the Muslim Brotherhood in control of parliament? This would not exactly been a welcome outcome. And yet, has six more years of completely authoritarian rule by Mubarak benefited either average Egyptians or, for that matter, the United States? Clearly not.



Egyptians have reservations about ElBaradei
By Jonathan Wright
Reuters news wire
January 31, 2011

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians on the streets of Cairo said on Monday they had reservations about opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, who has offered to act as transitional leader to prepare Egypt for democratic elections.

ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), returned to Egypt on the eve of the protests which swept the country on Friday, when tens of thousands of people called for the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the IAEA, ElBaradei and the powerful Muslim Brotherhood said on Sunday he had a mandate from opposition groups to make contact with the army and negotiate a government of national unity.

At least one opposition party, the Arab nationalist Karama Party of Hamdin Sabahi, has rejected ElBaradei outright as a transitional figure, saying he was trying to jump on the bandwagon of the popular uprising.

ElBaradei joined protesters at the hub of anti-Mubarak protests in central Cairo on Sunday.

ElBaradei, 68, began overt opposition to Mubarak on his return to Egypt in February 2010 and won a widespread following among the young and the middle classes.

But the Egyptian authorities harassed his supporters and ElBaradei lost much credibility through his long absences abroad. The official media tried to ridicule him, saying he knew nothing about Egypt and had no political experience.

Some elements of the government’s campaign appear to have stuck. “ElBaradei won’t do. He doesn’t have the experience here and he’s a little weak,” said Khaled Ezzat, 34, an information technology engineer who had joined the evening vigil in Tahrir Square.


Omar Mahdi, a sales manager, said: “I’m not convinced by ElBaradei, even as a transitional figure, he hasn’t really been present in the country.”

Some of the protesters objected to ElBaradei on the grounds that he was too close to the United States, despite the frictions between him and the U.S. administration over the Iranian and Israeli nuclear programs when he was head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog body.

“ElBaradei’s positions toward other Arab countries, and toward Iran and North Korea, were not neutral... So I don’t find him very acceptable,” said Walid Abdel-Mit’aal, 36, who works for a public sector company.

“He would follow Mubarak in the same policies and would take U.S. aid,” he added, reflecting an anti-American strand which was largely absent in the first four days of protests.

ElBaradei’s cosmopolitanism – he lived abroad for years and speaks fluent English – may be an advantage among some Egyptians but it is also a source of suspicion among others.

The protesters in Tahrir Square suggested several alternatives to ElBaradei as transitional leader, including Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, a popular former foreign minister, the president of the constitutional court or the president of the supreme administrative court.

Others said they were open-minded and what mattered was changing the constitution to ensure that no one man clings to power as long as Mubarak, who took office in 1981.

“ElBaradei is a very acceptable option because he will not stay,” said Islam Ashraf, 24, a quality operations coordinator. “But we’re not really interested in faces. What matters to us is having another system,” he said.



Hoenlein: ElBaradei a “stooge’ for Iran
By Ron Kampeas
January 30, 2011

WASHINGTON (JTA) -- The director of the U.S. Jewish foreign policy umbrella called Mohammed ElBaradei, the opposition leader emerging from the Egyptian ferment, a “stooge of Iran.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice-president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, accused ElBaradei of covering up Iran’s true nuclear weaponization capacities while he directed the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

“He is a stooge of Iran, and I don’t use the term lightly,” Hoenlein said in an online recorded interview with Yeshiva World News on the Egyptian crisis. “He fronted for them, he distorted the reports.”

ElBaradei, who directed the IAEA from 1997 to 2009, returned to Egypt following his third term. Soon he was touted as a possible challenger to the 30-year autocracy led by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Since protests were launched last week, ElBaradei has emerged as a consensus candidate of various opposition groups for transitional leader.

In addition to slamming ElBaradei, Hoenlein criticized the successive U.S. administrations for failing to achieve an orderly transition to democracy in Egypt. The Bush administration’s democracy initiative was ineffective and then the Obama administration essentially abandoned the cause, Hoenlein said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has adopted a policy of not commenting on the breaking developments, not wanting to be seen as siding with any player in the Egyptian unrest. Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt is the cornerstone of its defense and foreign policies.

During his term as IAEA chief, ElBaradei said Iran was further away from a nuclear weapon than many in the West claimed and castigated Western powers, including Israel, for suggesting that a military option against Iran was increasingly possible.

ElBaradei made it clear in those statements that his posture stemmed from the U.S. failure to heed warnings from him and other weapons experts that Iraq did not have a nuclear weapons capacity. Despite the warnings, the United States attacked Iraq.

He criticized Iran for not cooperating with IAEA inspectors, but also argued that the likeliest means of increasing inspections was to engage with Iran.

His outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq and increased pressure on Iran earned him the enmity of some Bush administration officials. U.S. agencies reportedly monitored his communications to see if he was colluding with Iran but came up with nothing.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.