Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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The Mind of Hosni Mubarak

by Elliott Abrams
February 4, 2011

Americans must wonder why Egypt’s president does not understand what seems obvious to so many of us: that he should step down now and thereby help bring Egypt’s crisis to an end. Mubarak gave his own explanation yesterday to ABC News: “You don’t understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now.”

Having been in a great number of meetings with Mubarak during the Bush years,  I believe I know what he’s thinking. Mubarak is not a thief like Tunisia’s Ben Ali or a vicious murderer like Saddam Hussein, and refuses (until now, anyway) to leave because he actually believes what he told ABC.  His view has two components. The first is that Egypt is a tinder box, not today but every day. He has never viewed Egypt, not for one day during his three decades of power, as a stable country. I can recall his reaction to small incidents like a demonstration of workers here or there, a strike, or a protest over bread prices. He saw these not as minor annoyances but as dangerous moments, and rushed to provide subsidies for prices and send in police reinforcements. The cork could pop out of the bottle at any time, he seemed to think. He genuinely believes that absolute chaos would result if he stepped aside.

The second component is his view that Arabs must be ruled with an iron hand. This was his practice in Egypt and his repeated recommendation to Americans for Iraq; he thought Iraq could only be governed by a tough-minded general, the same formula he obviously liked and lived for Egypt. The choice for Arab lands was a tough general, a clever king, or chaos. None of this nonsense about democracy, not in the Arab world. In this he took the view that President Bush abandoned in his Freedom Agenda– that the Arab world was not and would never be ready for democracy. If there was ever a proponent of “Arab exceptionalism,” it was Hosni Mubarak. To him these were the sole places on earth where freedom had to be kept at bay.

And at 82 nothing will change his mind. Sending a retired diplomat to see him or having the president call him has no impact. Mubarak came to his conclusions about how to rule Egypt based on the experiences of his life, and the only way he’ll go is if he’s pushed. The Egyptian Army must undertake that responsibility, and the sooner the better.

Post a Comment 14 Comments

  • Posted by Liz

    Thanks for the post. Very illuminating. Until reading this I was sure he was lying when he said he’s sure Egypt would descend into chaos, but it seems he actually believes his own insanity.

  • Posted by Frieda

    As a middle eastern, I must say that his feeling about ” aArabs have to be ruled by a fist” is very common. That’s what average people believe- there is “respect” for the bully in that region- it’s sad but it’s true – too much freedom is a ssign of weakness- there is not respect for American type of freedom !!!!!! They see Hollywoood as American culture and they don’t want that.

  • Posted by Peter

    Correct and clear-eyed as usual.

  • Posted by mohamed

    with respect, we want freedom, we want justice and peace.we pay blood everyday to get it in falesteen (palestine)and iraq.
    if there somebody hate democracy for the arab it’s natanyaho and the israeli political military system, he call for saving mubarak regime.it’s the US who suport Repressive regimes in the region and nobody else.peoples wakeup and who is standding with peoples will win.

  • Posted by eitan lee

    I think these sorts of arguments above are not only conservative, but orientalist and offensive.

    It is easy not to notice how new generational attitudes immerging. Egypt is changing; therefore such old fashion sound-bites as above ring no bells.

    I disagree about your view sir re: army. If the army takes over we are back to sq. 1

    We are on a crucial crossroad in history, despite western belief, this time it is the people who will have to decide. The urgency is:
    1. Mubarak to symbolically step down, and I agree, this must be done with dignity (before it gets dirty)
    2. He must set an interim constitutional committee to re-write the rules + interim government.
    3. Call for earliest possible elections and formation of a new parliament.
    4. Distribute election campaign budgets, as a show of good will and seriousness to a democratic call.
    5. Run internationally monitored elections.

    Of course, this is not going to happen because in politics it is hardly the ‘right’ thing that happens, it is usually, what the dominant group vaguely wants; in this case, it is the Egyptian ruling class.

    Unfortunately, because people misread the signs, the danger of a civil war is imminent. The masses have nothing to lose. the state worth nothing for them. They could destroy Egypt that far, that it would not be worthwhile for the ruling classes to cling to the rubble.

  • Posted by Deborah

    Wow. I never thought I would agree with Elliott Abrams or the Council on Foreign Relations.

  • Posted by Ali

    I believe Frieda is right, most Arabs believe that strong handedness is the way to rule Arab populations; her implied reason behind that, as if it’s almost inherent to them is not. Arabs more than anybody yearn for freedom and democracy the problem is in the absence of the true Rule of Law these freedoms will be always abused and inevitably result in repeated failures of democratic experiments

  • Posted by Yossi

    U are wrong in this one Elliott

  • Posted by Tom Jędryszek POLAND EU

    I think, best solution is the negotiation: How make possible give over without collateral damages. I know This isn’t respect for American type of freedom but for own life is comparable. Possibility can use to better worlds, This a question of seeing of proper arguments.

  • Posted by Tom Jędryszek POLAND EU

    How is the arguments? This a good ask.
    I think,

    1/ Citizens of Egypt, can show the people on the world how is democracy easy without violence without collateral damages. My by this example for different therythory in long time perspective, In future.

    2/ Egypt have chance to show , how negotiate can by better Islamic and paralelly Christian interculture world with common flat of agremeent.

    3/ Egypt can show for world , how care about own all the citizens and citizens how take care for all people in negotiation. Respect to human rights is condition to participate for example in EU and cooperation in democracy.

    This a chance to promote of Egypt for better futhure. Please consider this. And save human’s life.

  • Posted by Elizabeth

    Yes. What you write makes absolute sense to me as well. Mubarak is like the strict parent who knows “best” for his children. And you are correct–it is most unlikely that he will change at 82. Perhaps Mubarak also has a touch of Münchausen syndrome by proxy and that is why he ordered those thugs to throw bricks at other Egyptians.

    “Pushed”? No, that won’t work either. Mubarak needs to be KICKED OUT FORCEFULLY. He will no go gently into that dark night.

  • Posted by Leen

    I think you are completely wrong and you have never dealt with the Egyptian people; they are so friendly, so democratic and the most recent evidence for that the great deal with the crisis that Christine showed on the CNN when the police disappeared to make chaos and giving the criminals to get out of the prisons to create the chaos, you can see how they ruled and guarded their city.The Egyptian people are more civilized and than us in the US. But crack down over 30 years is unbearable. I should also mention that Mubarak could have the means to make the propaganda like that and the ghost of Islamic fundamental to keep himself their and to prove how powerful is he. What you do not know is that the fundamentals he was fighting with all the power he had are not more than 120 people and they were rejected by the Egyptian people. comparing his power of police and Army with what they achieved of subverting, you will easily see how weak he was.

  • Posted by Mary Williams

    @Frieda that is typical of a country with many poor less educated people and Mubarak is old. The Egypt of his youth was even poorer and had far less educated middle class people. The ruling class will view people through lens formed when younger. The typical Arab is still poor, so ruling classes will view Arab commoners as threatening and course. They will see groups of them as a mob.

    Someone who is very powerful or very rich does not really understand the way a normal person would think and dictators are unloved because they abuse power. The distrust between the people and the regime is normal but the prejudices the dictator has against his people is a self serving bias, which protects his self image. These kinds of views and prejudices are common in polarized societies. A regime and its cronies have no connections to average citizens.

    In my own country the United States we are becoming polarized as well. Think about all the comments about the ‘fat ignorant Americans.’ This is flowing from economic inequalities. This describes a particular type of American who offends elites. Less affluent people can’t afford expensive gym memberships and nutritious foods; outdoors exercise is expensive as they work all the time to make ends meet. People on the margins of society are upset and easier to manipulate, they also appear dumber as they are not as well informed. University is expensive both in time (4 years or more if you have to work) and money.

  • Posted by Bazu

    Allow me to correct you Mr. Abrams, yes Mubarak is a thief $70billion worth, and yes he is a ruthless killer or you havent been watching the news lately? What the Americans are seemingly refusing to comprehend is that that this is their chance to score a win in their war against terrorism – that democracy in the Middle East is Alqaeda’s worst nightmare. They will lose their recruitment base which predominantly comes from frustrated unemployed youth in supressed countries.

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