The vision of Egypt's presidential son and possible successor

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Gamal Mubarak, son of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, was educated at the American University in Cairo and worked as an investment banker in Cairo and London for Bank of America before founding a private equity fund, MedInvest Associates, Ltd. In 1998, he created the Future Generation Foundation, a nongovernmental organization to train young entrepreneurs in Egypt. His political career began in 2000, when his father appointed him to the General Secretariat of the National Democratic Party. Two years later, he became head of the new Policy Secretariat. In 2003, he introduced and passed legislation to abolish Egypt's state security courts, remove the penal code's labor penalty, and create a National Council for Human Rights. Both Egyptian and outside observers believe 80-year-old Hosni Mubarak to be positioning Gamal to succeed him as president.[1]

This interview, conducted by Brigitte Adès and Pascal Drouhaud, was first published in Politique Internationale, on July 10, 2008. It was translated from French by Sophie Fernandez de Bellemanière, a Politique Internationale correspondent in the United States and a former intern at Le Figaro and The Weekly Standard. — The Editors

Growing Up Mubarak

 

Gamal Mubarak

Politique Internationale/Middle East Quarterly: In what state of mind did you grow up?

Gamal Mubarak: Just like many of my compatriots, I became aware very early, as a child, of what it meant to be the son of a member of the military. My father was an Egyptian army officer. I learned what "honor" means and, today, I understand it more than ever. I would like to add that my generation is made of thousands of Egyptians on whom war has left its mark: Our fathers, uncles, and brothers participated in the different conflicts that took place in the recent history of Egypt, during the 1960s and the 1970s. This experience helps us appreciate peace for its true worth.

MEQ: Was it hard to make a name for yourself while having such an eminent father?

Mubarak: In reality, this type of consideration is secondary. What really matters to me is to work and follow up with the reforms that we have launched. It remains with the Egyptian people and the members of the National Democratic Party to answer that question: Did I succeed because my father is the president or thanks to my competences? When I went into politics, seven years ago, I wanted to prove that I was able to participate in the reform process.

MEQ: What political leaders, current or past, do you consider your models?

Mubarak: The models that I am thinking about are all related to a particular time in history: Winston Churchill, who resisted Nazi Germany at a time when everyone was surrendering to its brutal force; and Margaret Thatcher, who radically transformed Great Britain. I was living in London during these years, and I was able to witness the incredible metamorphosis of this country. But both are the products of certain circumstances, and I am not sure that policies that proved to be right in the 1970s and 1980s can be transposed today.

Today, as well, we need audacious leaders who are able to prepare their country for the future and implement some reforms even when they are unpopular. Such a leader must be brave enough to remain faithful to his convictions, despite all opposition. He must not let public opinion or those who favor shortsighted opinions dictate his choices. Finally, he must take the time to explain what he is doing and have good persuasion skills.

In politics as in many other fields, it is always easier to yield to pressure and accept failure. It is obviously more difficult to draw lessons from mistakes, never lose faith, and do everything you can to reach your objectives—but so much more motivating.

Reform in Egypt

MEQ: How does your government deal with the increasing influence of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood?

Mubarak: This is a problem that we take seriously. Religion is, as you know, one of the most important components of our society and our culture. And yet, some groups try to instrumentalize it, in order to promote their subversive ideas.

Facing this threat, Egypt always had a clear policy, which never changed since the 1952 revolution: The constitution formally prohibits confessional political parties and the use of religion in political discourse. But this is not enough. During the last months, these groups have been trying to take advantage of the difficulties our country is going through. By multiplying anti-Western references, they are building barriers between the different cultures. They are destroying the bridges between the Eastern and Western worlds that the past generations had so much trouble building. That is the worst thing that could happen.

MEQ: As the law is not sufficient, what else can you do?

Mubarak: Without any doubt, we should encourage our people to get more involved in politics. In Egypt, we have some moderate forces who believe in the modernization of society and some parties which understand the role that our country must play region-wide and worldwide. We considered that it was wiser to integrate them into the democratic institutions, rather than leaving them aside. But what about the others? How can we prevent the negative forces from diving into the breaches of the system and destroying it from inside? We cannot at the same time favor widening of the political spectrum and hush up all forms of expression. That's the dilemma many countries are confronting today.

MEQ: What are the other factors of destabilization?

Mubarak: Poverty, obviously. It is one of the best grounds for radicals from all sides to prosper. Our purpose is to improve Egyptians' living standards. We have a three-pronged plan to achieve this: favoring Egypt's insertion into the global economy, reducing the state's role in the economy, and giving the private sector greater freedom.

We have launched some fiscal, trade, and customs reforms. I must also mention that we extended social protections. And these efforts have borne fruit: Our exports have doubled in the last four years, and we have created more than 800,000 jobs per year. Foreign investment is pouring in. All our economic indicators have turned up, and our growth rate is about 7.5 percent per year. But there is still a long way to go. The greatest challenges we now face are rising energy and food costs. President Mubarak is personally involved in solving these problems as he showed when participating in the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] summit in Rome last June [2008].

MEQ: Was this reform process launched correctly? Will it be sufficient? Are you satisfied?

Mubarak: Three years ago, my party was elected on an ambitious reform program. We know that in two years, we will have to give our voters an account of these reforms. Will Egyptians' lives have improved? Will we be able to implement all the reforms we promised we would? If so, we will feel emboldened to keep on that path. If not, we will have to be honest both with ourselves and public opinion and acknowledge that we failed. I am perfectly aware of what the consequences of such a failure could be, and I am doing my best. I know that our action will later be examined scrupulously. This is what we call a "result-oriented culture."

MEQ: As the process has reached its midterm, are you optimistic?

Mubarak: Bringing change is always a harsh task. You must sometimes accept unpopularity. But if you are really convinced that you are making the right decision, you must stick to it. Modernization is worth this price.

There is one aspect that we did not mention, yet, which seems paramount to me: The reforms that we have launched intimately depend on the regional context. That's the reason why our government has been trying hard, for the last few months, to put the peace process back on track. The region, including Egypt, will never get better before the Palestinian question is solved. Here I am not trying to find an excuse: It is a fact that having this 60-year-old conflict at our doorstep handicaps us.

Rough Neighborhood

MEQ: What are the other issues overshadowing the future of the Arab-Muslim world?

Mubarak: Since the invasion of Iraq, it is obvious that Iran is trying to increase its influence in the region. It is not just a matter of disagreement on the nuclear issue. In fact, the problem is much deeper: Ever since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, Tehran has been trying to convert Iraq into its exclusive domain. I consider the invasion of Iraq to be the greatest strategic mistake made by the United States.

Iran benefits from this situation to extend its hegemony over Hezbollah in Lebanon, destabilize Gaza, which is from now on in the hands of Hamas. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are the two greatest countries in the region, are trying to build up an opposing force. But unfortunately, Iran and its allies disapprove of our policy of the balance of power and even accuse us of supporting the Americans in Iraq, which, of course, is not true. We and the Saudis are just defending the interests of our own countries.

MEQ: Are Hezbollah and Hamas credible interlocutors for Egypt?

Mubarak: You cannot talk about Lebanon's problem without mentioning Hezbollah. The Egyptian government's stance on this point is clear: The Lebanese factions must reach an agreement and compromise. Lebanon will only be able to survive as a nation if all the parties reconcile. Hezbollah is one of these factions, but not the only one.

Unlike some of our neighbors, we have never changed our strategy regarding Lebanon. We have always tried to gather the Lebanese, in total impartiality, which does not prevent us from denouncing Hezbollah's violence. Although this is the policy that the Arab League decided to follow last May, in Cairo, it asked all the troops to withdraw from Lebanon and all the Lebanese factions to meet again for a round-table in order to reach an agreement.

MEQ: How did Egypt react to Hamas taking control of the Gaza Strip?

Mubarak: We condemned Hamas's military takeover and supported Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] as a legitimate representative for the Palestinian people. But we also are active mediators, and we are working in favor of a cease-fire. Why? Because we want both to stop the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza and to appease the on-the-ground situation so that the peace process can restart. Until this problem is solved, we won't be able to aspire to stability. The more complicated it gets, the bigger the temptation will grow for some people to interfere in the process and disrupt it.

MEQ: To whom are you referring?

Mubarak: I meant that if we could find a solution, many extremists would just lose their reason to exist. They would no longer be able to use the suffering of the Palestinians to enroll new recruits and to pursue their political objectives, which often have nothing to do with this conflict. In such a context of peace, not only would the Palestinian people enjoy their rights within a state, and not only would the Israeli people enjoy security, but this endless fight would also stop favoring the emergence of extremism—extremism which, by the way, exists everywhere, and not only among the Muslims.

MEQ: What do you do with Iran and Syria? Both countries continually undermine efforts for peace.

Mubarak: That's right. The only solution is to pull the rug out from under their feet. On the day when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ends, these movements will no longer have any influence.

Let's have a look backward for a second: During the 1990s, [Yitzhak] Rabin and [Yasser] Arafat surprisingly reached an agreement in Oslo, overcoming all the differences. At this time, the extremist forces, that the perpetuation of war feeds, were as powerful as they are today. It is these leaders' determination, vision, and courage that made the Oslo peace agreement possible. Unfortunately, it did not bear fruit. The situation is much worse now. But it is not a reason to give up.

You don't need to be a genius to guess what the final peace agreement will look like. Everyone knows that both sides will have to make some concessions.

Egypt's Relations with Israel

MEQ: In retrospect, do the Egyptians approve the peace that [Anwar] Sadat signed with Israel in 1979?

Mubarak: No doubt Sadat made the right decision. He was right not to yield to the pressure from other Arab countries, which during the 1980s, were not even willing to talk about peace. Most Egyptians agree on this point. But, on the other hand, just like them, I can remember the speech that the late President Sadat made at the Knesset. He warned that no solution would be achieved until the problem was treated globally. Even though we regained some territories, we are still suffering from this failure. This disenchantment is still perceptible within Egyptian public opinion. If you go to Cairo today and meet with some pundits, you will hear some hefty words on the relations between Egypt and Israel. But it is true that what really matters is neither what you hear at the cafés nor what you read in the newspapers: It is the Egyptian government policies. And I am still convinced that, if we keep on explaining to Egyptians all the benefits they got from the peace and all that they could have lost if Egypt were still at war, none would be ready to renounce this opportunity.

MEQ: Could the government be tempted, under pressure from public opinion, to change its attitude towards Israel?

Mubarak: As I told you before, Egypt chose its side about thirty years ago—the side of peace—and has no intention of changing. That said, whether we like it or not, our relationship with Israel suffers from the situation in the region and especially from the endless Palestinian conflict. That's why Egypt is, with others, trying to find a sustainable solution.

MEQ: Who is the American president who best understood the Israeli-Palestinian question?

Mubarak: The Egyptians naturally remember the role played by President Carter; he is the one who helped Sadat and the Israelis prepare the Camp David agreements. I remind you that these agreements consisted of two parts: one Egyptian part that reached a successful peace agreement, returning the Sinai to us, and another part aimed at the Arab countries and the Palestinians that remains ineffective.

The last American president who really got involved in this issue is Bill Clinton. He did not hesitate to put his prestige at stake; he took great risks to try to reach an agreement. We got very close to a solution. His efforts were not in vain. President Clinton built a framework that remains valuable and can be used whenever there will be sufficient political will to reengage in negotiations.

MEQ: What would be your advice to the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority?

Mubarak: President Bush promised that he would reach an outline agreement before the end of his term. Now we only have a few months left and, on a number of issues, both sides' positions remain irreconcilable. We must nevertheless acknowledge that time is not in our favor. Many occasions were missed during the last years. Will one more chance pass by?

MEQ: Do you believe that, deep in their hearts, the majority of the Arab world leaders accept the legitimacy of the Jewish State?

Mubarak: Yes, I believe so. The Arab peace initiative that Saudi Arabia and some other Arab countries launched in 2002 was reengaged last March, during the last Riyadh summit, and it was a major advance. As you know, when Anwar el Sadat visited Jerusalem in 1977, the whole Arab world condemned the process. The voices against it were strong. In 2002, during the Arab League summit in Beirut, these countries opened a door: For the first time, they admitted the Jewish state's right to exist, based on a return to the boundaries of 1967 and the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as a capital.

MEQ: Is Arab public opinion ready to accept such recognition from their leaders?

Mubarak: The Arabs are very sensitive to the daily violence the Palestinians suffer. But their leaders are the ones who are able to make the decision [to recognize Israel] if only they were brave enough to do so. It will be the Arab leaders' job, then, to convince their public opinions that their policy is right.

Finally, in order to solve the Palestinian question, what we need the most is leadership: The United States must get more involved; the European Union must come back into the game; and both Israelis and Palestinians must get past decades-long accumulated hatred. They must do that for their people, for their security, and for the stability of the region.

Relations with the United States

MEQ: A new U.S. administration will take office in January 2009. Who would be the best to take the torch of peace in the Middle East, Barack Obama or John McCain?

Mubarak: Honestly, I'd better not advance an opinion. I only wish that the Bush administration will commit to explaining to its successors what mistakes it made and will give them useful advice so that U.S. policy towards the Arab world changes.

The most important message—which Egypt has been repeating for years—consists in recalling that the essential cause of trouble is the deterioration of the Palestinian problem. The longer we wait, the worse the situation will get and the more difficult will it be to find a solution. The United States understands that. Maybe a little late, but still, they got it. I hope that the next administration will start working quickly. That administration will only have to retake the framework as the Bush administration will leave it, in order to save as much time as it can.

MEQ: What is your judgment on the legacy of George W. Bush?

Mubarak: It is banal to underline the impact of 9-11 on American foreign policy. Nevertheless, all American officials immediately saw the world through a very different perspective. I think that the decisions they took right after the attack, and especially the war in Iraq, diverted them from their real priorities. Did they have to overthrow the Baghdad regime? I leave this question to historians. What I'll remember from this war is its cost and its negative outcome. Its negative consequences are much greater than the benefits that the Bush administration could expect.

MEQ: Egypt is the second biggest recipient of American aid in the region after Israel. Does this contribution put your country into a submissive relationship to the United States?

Mubarak: Not at all. Our good relationship with the United States has helped us develop our economy a lot along the last twenty years. Moreover, the nature of our relationship has evolved much. It has ripened. There are many issues on which we are in total harmony, but when we do not agree, we do not hesitate to say so. Our ties are strong and old enough to survive criticism. We are no longer trying to downplay our differences, and this is new. For instance, we have never hidden our opposition to the war in Iraq. We thought that it was a mistake, that the United State was heading the wrong way. The central question—I do not hesitate to repeat it—remains the Palestinian question. President Mubarak expressed his views very clearly on this issue.

MEQ: Does the United States show the same sincerity to Egypt?

Mubarak: Absolutely. When the United States dislikes some of our actions, they let us know straight out, including on domestic matters. The United States, of course, expressed some reservations about our position on Iraq. I like it like this.

Going Nuclear

MEQ: Do you believe that the Iranian nuclear program represents a threat?

Mubarak: No country should be encouraged to acquire such weapons. I am not referring to Iran in particular; this rule applies to all.

MEQ: You affirmed your will to see Egypt continue its civil nuclear research program. Doesn't this program inherently bear some proliferation risks?

Mubarak: The Egyptian stance on this issue is unambiguous. I ask all the countries in the region, with no exception, to not seek nuclear weapons, or to get rid of them if they already have them. Weapons have nothing to do with civilian nuclear energy. The nonproliferation treaty clearly affirms the right of each state to develop a nuclear research program with peaceful designs. When President Mubarak talks about the entry of Egypt into the nuclear area, he, of course, refers to its civil use. Actually, in the next fifteen years, we want to dramatically increase the share of nuclear electricity in our global production.

[1] Daniel Sobelman, "Gamal Mubarak, President of Egypt?" Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2001; The Washington Post, Oct. 11, 2007.