Cablegate: Egypt in Transition: Sadat and Mubarak


DE RUEHEG #2871/01 2661601
R 231601Z SEP 07

C O N F I D E N T I A L CAIRO 002871




E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/31/2017

REF: A. CAIRO 2839
B. CAIRO 2825

Classified By: ECPO Minister Counselor William R. Stewart
for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).


1. (C) Egypt faces uncertainty as it moves towards a
post-Mubarak future. It has been almost exactly twenty-six
years since Egypt last faced such a transition. Although one
could argue that some of the elements that led to the
dramatic events of September and October 1981 are back in
place -- shortages of basic foodstuffs, external political
pressures, and crackdowns on political adversaries --
tensions now are different, and not on the same scale. While
we should not place too much weight in analogy, it can
nevertheless be instructive to review the events of September
and October 1981 to see what useful comparisons can be made.
End summary.

Rumors Run Amok

2. (C) This September, as in past late summers, salon talk
and front page headlines have focused on that most sensitive
of topics: the health of the president and the eventual
transfer of power. Talk has been so pervasive, Prime
Minister Nazif felt obliged to announce that "there is a
system for the smooth transfer of power." Rumors of
President Mubarak's deteriorating health -- and even his
demise -- have been so insistent, even Suzanne Mubarak felt
the need to publicly assert that he is alive and well.

3. (C) At least half a dozen editorials have compared the
tensions and rumors of this September to September 1981.
Although the majority of Egyptians are too young to recall
personally those momentous times, the lore of it remains deep
in the national consciousness. Even young Egyptians recall
hearing of the great "round up" of September 3, 1981 when
Sadat seemed to "go crazy" as one commentator recalled,
arresting and imprisoning opponents and critics of every
stripe. Communists, Nasserists, Muslim Brothers, academics,
and liberal-minded journalists found themselves cell-mates
that late summer day. Even Coptic Pope Shenouda was placed
under house arrest. Although Mubarak has hardly gone so far,
some observers have argued that his feuds with Ayman Nour,
Anwar Esmat El-Sadat (the late president's nephew), Saad
Eddin Ibrahim, independent editors, and other perceived
opponents, combined with his sweeping roundup of the Muslim
Brotherhood -- arguably his only real political threat -- is
reminiscent of 1981, and they fear it could lead to similar

Mubarak Is No Sadat

4. (C) According to some of Egypt's most astute political
observers, this is over-analyzing the situation and drawing
very wrong -- and dangerous - comparisons. Mohammed
El-Bassiouni, chairman of the Majlis al-Shura's National
Security Committee (which also has responsibility for Foreign
Affairs and Arab Affairs), believes that the two Septembers
have very little in common. El-Bassiouni recently told
MinCouns that in 1981, when he was Egypt's military attach
in Tel Aviv, President Sadat was under extreme pressure for
not providing the "peace dividend" he had promised would be
the result of his bold move towards Israel, and his deepening
friendship the United States. When prosperity for all did
not appear, Sadat felt under enormous pressure. Combined
with Egypt's isolation in the Arab world, it seemed that his
gamble had failed. In his pride, he lashed out at perceived

No Comparison?

5. (C) Such a scenario simply does not exist today,
El-Bassiouni opined. Egypt's economy is growing, the fruit
of President Mubarak's reform program launched in 2004.
While relations with Israel are still "problematic," Mubarak
has taken Egypt back to its rightful position as leader of
the Arab world. The external pressures that helped stoke the
tension of September 1981 "simply do not exist today."

6. (C) Another alleged similarity between the present and
Sadat's September is the shortage of basic commodities.
Egyptians have been angered in recent weeks by reports of
villages without access to drinking water -- in some cases,
for years (ref A). Shortages of subsidized bread have also
been in the headlines, as the poorest Egyptians wait in
queues for shrinking loaves. At least one observer has made
the case that September 2007 is more reminiscent of January
1977 -- when riots erupted throughout Egypt due to price
increases for bread and other basic foodstuffs -- than
September 1981. But Dr. Galal Amin, economics professor at
AUC (as he was in 1981) thinks there is little in common,
economically, between the two eras. Egypt under Sadat, he
argued, was actually better off in many ways: unemployment,
which he sees as the single greatest problem facing Mubarak
today, was lower then, and the overall standard of living was
higher. The average Egyptian, he said felt that
opportunities were greater in 1981, leading to general
optimism. Sadat's "infitah" program, opening up Egypt's
economy to foreign investment appeared to be working and
creating jobs. Tourism was taking off, and the average
Egyptian "felt good" about his life and better about his
future than Egyptians today, according to Amin. Economic
statistics refute Amin's assertions, but there is a
perception within a certain statist/elite/academic
demographic, represented by Amin, that somehow Sadat's were
"the good old days."

Economic Reform Still Masks Underlying Woes

7. (C) Sadat trumpeted economic reform, touting
privatization, pointing to a freer market that would benefit
all Egyptians. These thoughts have been echoed under
Mubarak, especially since the appointment of Prime Minister
Nazif and his cabinet of economic reformers in 2004.
However, as in 1981, recent economic advances are incomplete.
Gigantic government subsidies then, as now, have served to
brake greater economic reform. In 1981, 21.5% of the Gross
National Income (GNI) went to the wealthiest 5% of the
population, while the poorest 20% of the population received
a mere 5% of Egypt's income. In 2007, there remains the
general sense that Egypt's economic growth is benefiting only
a tiny portion of the population. 17% of today's population
lives under the poverty line, almost identical to the
percentage in 1981, and the poorest 20% of the population
received 4.8% of the GNI in 2004/05, while the richest 10% of
the population received 30% of GNI. Although statistically
the standard of living has not dramatically deteriorated,
neither has it improved, leaving Egyptians with the feeling
that others have passed them by to a brighter economic

The Odd Couple

8. (C) What the two periods unquestionably do have in common
are a pair of increasingly isolated dictators, set in their
ways and fearful of any kind of dissent. But though alike in
certain personal characteristics (particularly paranoia),
there are at the same time some very fundamental differences,
including age (Sadat was a robust 63 years old when
assassinated; Mubarak is a slowing 79) and length in office
(barely 11 years for Sadat, closing on 26 years for Mubarak).
Importantly, Sadat had a clear successor -- his vice
president, Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak, in turn, has scrupulously
avoided naming a VP, and although most believe that son Gamal
will succeed him, no one can say for certain how that will
play out. Another dissimilarity: Minister of Information
Enas El-Fiqi, under intense scrutiny and pressure himself for
allowing the rumors about Mubarak's health to get out of
control, recently told the Ambassador that "there is no
comparison" between Sadat and Mubarak because, "Mubarak never
loses his temper." (El-Fiqi, though, admitted that the
stress of his job was literally driving him to drink.)

9. (C) Mubarak relishes his self-image as a benign, paternal
leader, tough but fair. Still, he has shown signs of moving
toward Sadat's modus operandi in dealing with political
opponents. In the past year, Mubarak has arrested upwards of
a thousand Muslim Brothers. While some have subsequently
been released and only 40 are facing trial before a military
tribunal so far, the message is unmistakable: after allowing
the MB to participate in the 2005 parliamentary elections as
"independents" (in which they won 88 seats, 20% of the
Assembly), Mubarak is cracking down. Another similarity is
the recent phobia Mubarak has developed towards the press.
The Egyptian media, arguably as free as it has ever been (and
certainly freer than it was under Sadat), is suddenly facing
a cost for that liberty. In early September, four editors of
independent newspapers were convicted of insulting the
president and other GoE officials, while another editor is
facing trial October 1 for allegedly spreading false rumors
about Mubarak's health which were damaging to Egypt's
reputation and to its economy. These arrests have been
widely seen here as blatant attacks on the freedom of the
press, much as Sadat's rounding up of journalists was in

Love and Hate For the USA

10. (C) One of the more striking similarities between the two
leaders is their uneven relationship with the United States.
Sadat's September madness came close on the heels of a
profoundly disappointing trip to the United States to meet
the new President, Ronald Reagan. By discarding the Soviet
Union and reaching out to the United States -- and Israel --
he had taken considerable political risk. He had calculated
that the payoff in tangible and intangible terms would more
than justify that risk. But as his international stature
increased spectacularly as the Arab world's "Man of Peace,"
his standing at home did not keep pace, as heightened
expectations for peace and prosperity were unrealized.
Still, in the U.S. he felt he had found a faithful ally, one
that would stand by him even when his own people did not.
Unfortunately, President Reagan's reception of Sadat in
August 1981 was lukewarm, and Sadat came under severe
criticism by the U.S. press for not delivering true peace to
the Middle East. According to Mohamed Heikal, Sadat's former
Minister of Information (who was himself arrested on
September 3, 1981), Sadat returned to Egypt a bitter man,
feeling betrayed by the Americans. Shortly afterwards came
the arrests.

Twin Twilights

11. (C) At the end of the day, and the end of their reigns,
Sadat faced and Mubarak faces similar situations. But
Mubarak seems to have managed the dilemma better in at least
one key area: he has systematically and "legally" eliminated
virtually all political opposition, leaving only the MB
standing, having foresworn violence and politically
emasculated. Mubarak's internal security apparatus, an
estimated 1.4 million strong, is at least twice the size it
was under Sadat. Its ubiquitous presence and monopoly of the
legitimate use of armed power makes any kind of violent
change of leader unlikely.

The One Certain Thing

12. (C) The two presidents share another undeniable point in
common: their mortality. Mubarak's street credibility, like
Sadat's, is very low. The was illustrated by the insistent
rumors of Mubarak's illness and death, despite numerous
official denials. This lack of faith by the people of Egypt
in their political leaders could well come back to haunt
Mubarak's successor, whomever he may be. Will it make the
transition more difficult? Yes. Will it matter in the end?
Probably not, as long as the successor enjoys the support of
the elite and the security apparatus, including the military.
And even if there is a valid analogy to draw between
September 1981 and September 2007, it is at best uneven. The
world -- and Egypt -- have fundamentally changed. While
President Mubarak clearly faces significant challenges, and
has reacted with at least some measure of Sadat's paranoia,
we do not foresee September 2007 leading to another October

© Scoop Media

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