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.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Who Lost Egypt?

by Elliott Abrams
June 26, 2012


In a very interesting column entitled “Who Lost Egypt?” in today’s Wall Street Journal, my friend Bret Stephens proposes three answers: “the Egyptians, obviously;” the Obama and Bush administrations; and “liberal abdicators.” The article is well worth reading.

But it errs in overlooking someone who should be at the top of the list, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak, after all, ruled Egypt for 30 years. During all that period he warned against the possibility of a Muslim Brotherhood take-over, yet somehow he managed to deliver Egypt to exactly that fate. How did that happen?

Many books will be written about this, but it should not escape notice that Mubarak–who became president only because he was Anwar Sadat’s vice president when the latter was assassinated–never appointed a vice president. Even as he aged, reaching 82 at the time of his removal from power, Mubarak refused. In the early years it was thought that perhaps he feared that a vice president would be a rival for power, even a plotter against him. But later, the obvious explanation was that he wanted his son Gamal to succeed him. This may or may not have been true, and my own view is that Mubarak was no enthusiast for that outcome. I believe he understood that as a private businessman Gamal would likely have a long, wealthy life, while as president he might face disaster, sedition, overthrow, even assassination. The rumor mills of Cairo have long supplied diplomats with the view that it was Mubarak’s wife Suzanne who most strongly favored Gamal’s rise to the presidency and who stopped Mubarak from selecting a vice president.

Ironically, the man who might and in a certain sense should have been that vice president was Ahmed Shafik–the very man who just lost the presidential election in an extremely close race. Shafik was a Mubarak protege, a former Air Force general who had proved highly competent as a cabinet minister. The logic was clear: he could be trusted to protect Mubarak and his family if and when Mubarak had to leave power, or protect the family after Mubarak’s death in office. The appointment of a vice president such as Shafik would have put paid to the story that Gamal would rule Egypt after his father, giving the country not 30 years of Mubaraks but perhaps 60–and thereby contributing to the uprising that cost Mubarak his power and has left him and his two sons in prison. The revolt of last year might have looked very different had there been a vice president who could constitutionally take over, and the Muslim Brotherhood victory might well have been avoided.

During his 30 years in power Mubarak did not, obviously, crush the Brotherhood. This is partly to his credit, in the sense that he did not organize murder after murder on the model of the Assads of Syria. But neither did he allow the Brotherhood’s rivals and opponents to organize, for that would have meant opening the political system and allowing a bit of democracy: freedom of speech and press and assembly, the organization of new political parties, and free elections. In the Mubarak dictatorship, the Brotherhood was repressed but thrived in the mosques and social organizations it established, while Egypt’s nascent liberal, secular, and constitutional groups were crushed. They must now start almost from scratch in building a political opposition to the Brotherhood.

Mubarak believed that he was the only bulwark between the Brotherhood and Egypt, but in truth he was the enabler, the transmission belt that moved the Brotherhood to power while eliminating its “natural” enemies. The Bush administration came to understand this, but we did not act strongly enough on our perception except in 2004-2006. Mubarak was sufficiently offended by the pressures for democratic reforms to refuse to visit Washington in the Bush administration’s second term. But a late focus on efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement led to casting Mubarak as an indispensable figure and to a reduction in pressure on him for reform, an error then repeated by the Obama administration. The scene in September 2010, when he was invited to Washington for the opening of Israeli-Palestinian talks (which broke down almost as soon as they began) and feted as a great leader, showed everyone that there was no Obama “freedom agenda” when it came to Egypt. It was the old business as usual, with an aging Mubarak refusing any real reform and allowing the Brotherhood to grow while he made sure that its potential political opponents could not.

Many others will add to Bret Stephens’s list of “who lost Egypt,” but Hosni Mubarak must be at the top.




Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by EthanP

    As is often the case, as a despot, Mubarek became his own worst enemy. And his wife is not the first whose ambitions for a son have brought ruination to a state.

  • Posted by Schmendrick Perkins

    Maybe this comment is more suited for the WSJ site, but since you referred it here, how does Stephens go from:

    “The Brotherhood is the most successful social organization in the Arab world. Its leaders are politically skillful, economically literate and strategically patient. Its beliefs resonate with poor, rich and middle class alike.”

    (Organized, politically skillful, economically literate and strategically patient? Its beliefs resonate with poor, rich and middle class alike? Can we try that?)


    “They chose—albeit by a narrow margin—a party that offers Islamic stultification as the solution to every political and personal problem.”

    Stultification is the status quo in the Arab world. If an Islamic sense of stability, purpose, and self-esteem is their path to satisfaction, what’s the problem?

  • Posted by Diana Hughes

    A very interesting article. I agree Mr Mubarak should have appointed a Vice President and Mr Shafiq would have been the ideal choice. I think it was the idea of succession that was one of the reasons that the President lost popularity. I agree, too, that Mr Mubarak was certainly no Assad. It is terrible that he is now undergoing what I think is a most unjust and political sentence and I hope he will survive to go to the Court of Appeal and have that sentence overturned. His mistake was in staying in power too long and becoming remote from his people and the Constitution ought to be changed to ensure something like that never happens again. Now he has suffered enough. His family life, his reputation and his health have all been destroyed. He should be allowed to leave Egypt and live in peace and safety for the rest of his life and all Egyptians should now unite and create a great new country for future generations. Thank you for an interesting and good article.

  • Posted by neville craig

    When I lived in Jordan there were frequent reports that Adbullah would not become king because he had an English mother.
    British television recently looked into Mrs Mubarak’s ancestors and found similar background. European imperialism will out?!

    The Mubaraks’ ill-gotten gains allegedly lie partly in a company called Hermes. It may not be linked, but two new airports built in Cyprus under PFI schemes involve a company of that name.
    Perhaps they formed a consortium with Russian ‘Jews’ there.

  • Posted by Omar Ibrahim

    Egypt was not, is not, LOST.
    If anything it was Won over, retrieved and repossessed by its own people who , for the first time in history, had had a real say on who is to rule over them.
    Their choice could, theoretically, prove to have been an unwise choice but their gain in electing their ruler will be a historical unrevoquable gain

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    I think Egypt is not lost but if one accepts Stephen’s logic then Israeli government should be given the top prize of ‘losing’ Egypt. Israel supported Mubarak, and now supports Egyptian army, because it correctly feared that most Egyptians are against its policies. The problem is that dictators are out of fashion in 21st century. Surprisingly, even in Muslim Middle East, people want to rule themselves and influence policies. So, Israel should change its policies or it will keep on ‘losing’ more Arab countries.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    Is it also possible that Mubarak was unable ( or unwilling ) to expand Egypt’s economy in a manner which would have benefited the ordinary Egyptian , the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts notwithstanding ?

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required