BARBARA WALTERS TELLS PIERS: “I AM NOT A MIDDLE EAST EXPERT,” BUT IN FIVE MINUTES OR LESS, SHE OFFERS MORE HISTORY AND CONTEXT THAN ANYONE ELSE
I’m totally exhausted. After nearly two weeks of Egyptian protests which has included the promise of the President to step down in September and begin democratic reforms right away, followed by “thugs” entering Tahrir Square, the molotov cocktails and the roughing up and intimidation of foreign journalists, I’ve been busier than ever digging daily for research to supplement our great 24/7 American media.
Yes, we all love a demonstration by people yearning for democracy. But the coverage of Egypt as some kind of Woodstock has left me scrambling for something more. One of the low points for me was stumbling across Elliot Spitzer, excitedly telling viewers he can’t wait to see what happens next in Alexandria. Continuing on the primetime schedule for CNN was Piers Morgan, covering his first ever live news story. (Perhaps they might have tried breaking their new anchors in on a car chase or two.)
Over on Fox, Shep Smith was blaming Mubarak for sending thugs into the main square to attack peaceful demonstrators journalists. First I wondered how anyone knew who was behind the “thugs,” and then I wondered, as I did all week, why not one journalist worried in advance that it might turn as ugly as the 2009 protests in Iran.
Perhaps they subliminally knew not to paint Mubarak with the same brush stroke as Ahmadinejad who put an end to his country’s pro-democracy demonstrations in 2009 by cutting down people like Neda, the Iranian girl shot in the heart in front of her father.
What a joy it was to finally hear Barbara Walters join Piers Morgan mid-week and offer him, and us viewers, a history lesson. As he pressed with indignation to find out why Obama wasn’t insisting Mubarak step down immediately Barbara Walters gently, respectfully and very clearly, explained that the region is full of dictators and always has been. We support the ones who share our interests.
Yes, yes, yes! Finally someone spoke who was not giddy about the overthrow of Mubarak.
Like Barbara Walters, I will qualify my observations as those not of a mideast expert, but as a journalist with strong interest in the region who has covered stories there… certainly not as many as Barbara Walters who has sat down one on one with many or most of their 20th century titans.
Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote this weekend in the Daily Beast, “all who ignore this history are naive... The Muslim Brotherhood jumps immediately to mind… (for the potential to hijack democracy) but don’t overlook the potentially equal or greater threat … from Egypt’s beloved armed forces. The history of venomous domestic and foreign-policy pronouncements by the MB should keep us all awake at night. And never forget that the murderers of the great President Anwar Sadat were Muslim Brothers embedded in the army.”
Now I didn’t watch all channels all the time, so I might have missed the coverage where you get context and keen insights. But I’ve felt pretty much on my own. So as someone who has more than an average interest in both the story and how it’s covered, here’s my own personal briefing book for anyone else who might need it.
MODERN EGYPTIAN HISTORY FOR DUMMIES
- Hosni Mubarak is only the fourth president of Egypt
- The British occupied Egypt in 1882 and declared it a “protectorate” in 1914 during the war on the Ottoman Empire.
- In 1922, Egypt became a kingdom after the British recognized King Faud as the monarch. Faud ruled until his death in 1936 when his 16-year-old son, Farouk, succeeded him. Soon after the kingdom was established, nationalist groups such as the Communist Party and the Muslim Brotherhood began to bubble up.
- In 1948, Egypt entered the Arab-Israeli War and suffered a humiliating defeat which was blamed on King Farouk. General Gamal Abdel Nassar commanded an army unit during the war and, disgusted with Farouk, formed a clandestine group with fellow officer Muhammad Naguib to overthrow the monarchy: the “Free Officers Movement.”
- In late 1951, Egyptian police officers were aiding and abetting Fedayeen terrorists in a series of attacks against the British in Cairo, Alexandria and the Suez Canal. One stand-off between British and Egyptian fighters ended badly. The British negotiator was killed after which the British retaliated and killed 50 Egyptian police officers and wounded 100 more. Taking advantage of the public fury, members of the Free Officers Movement incited riots across Cairo.
- July 23, 1952, the Free Officers Movement staged a military coup taking command and control of Army communications posts. The voice the Egyptian people heard on their radios, reading the statement announcing the revolution, was that of Anwar Sadat.
- The leaders of the Free Officers, along with a few new members created a ruling body called the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC).
- On January 16, 1953, at the insistence of Abdel-Nasser, the RCC banned all other political parties, keeping the communists, the Muslim Brotherhood at bay. The RCC then declared a three-year transitional period of their rule, with Muhammad Naguib named as the first president.
- On June 18, 1953, the RCC declared Egypt a republic and officially ended the monarchy.
- While agreeing in their principles, Naguib and Nasser disagreed in the method and timetable for reform. In 1954, Nasser removed Naguib from power and made himself Prime Minister. On October 26th, an assassination attempt on Nasser by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood failed. In the aftermath, Nasser sanctioned the largest political crackdown in Egypt’s history. An estimated 20,000 people were arrested. Eight members of the Muslim Brotherhood were sentenced to death, The Muslim Brotherhood was dissolved and the remaining leaders fled to other Arab countries. Naguib was sent to a suburban villa and placed under house arrest where he remained for decades (until he was freed by Hosni Mubarak.)
- June 23, 1956, Nasser became the second president of Egypt. Although his was the only name on the ballot, he became a popular reformer, giving women the right to vote , nationalizing businesses owned by the French and British. His nationalization of the Suez Canal, which had been paid for by the French and British, made him a hero throughout the Arab world. He became the father of modern Egypt and a symbol of power and dignity.
- Abdel-Nasser resigned after the humiliating defeat in the Six-Day War which began in 1967 after tensions erupted between Israel and the Arab states of Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
- Anwar Sadat succeeded Nasser , his good friend, in 1970, becoming Egypt’s third president. During his tenure, he broke from Nasser’s socialist reforms, introducing more capitalist reforms, encouraging foreign investment. His policies created a wealthy upper class, but the middle class felt left behind. And in 1977, when he announced the end of food subsidies for the disadvantaged, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians protested in the streets.
- Sadat believed in replacing confrontation with Israel with negotiations. He signed various disengagement agreements with Israel and even visited Jerusalem. He accepted President Jimmy Carter’s invitation to join him and Israel’s Menahm Begin for peace talks at Camp David.
- March 26, 1979, Sadat and Begin signed the Camp David Peace Accord beginning three decades of friendship and peace between the warring nations. They would share the Nobel Peace Prize for their bold efforts.
- On October 6, 1981, Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists reacting to his peace with Israel. The plot included members of the Muslim Brotherhood who had infiltrated his army. Over 300 Islamic radicals were indicted in the trial of the assassin, identified as Khalid Islambouli. The 24 others who actually went on trial included two notable extremists we would hear from again. Among those convicted: Ayman al-Zawahiri, a physician and founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), committed to overthrow Egypt’s secular government through violent means He was released from prison in 1984 and around 1998, merged his EIJ with Al Qaeda and became the top operational planner for Osama BinLaden. Among those acquitted: Omar Abdel-Rahman, who issued the fatwa for Sadat’s assassination. He would be expelled from Egypt, later meet Bin Laden and ultimately make his way to New York City where, better known as the “blind sheik,” was convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He is now serving a life sentence in North Carolina; Al-Zawahiri remains on the FBI most wanted list with a $25 million reward.
The Mubarak Era
In 1981, Anwar Sadat was succeeded by Hosni Mubarak, his vice president since 1975. Thirty years later, it may well be time for Mubarak to step down, but he is not some tin pot ruler trying to hang on to power. Mubarak has had a lifetime of public service to Egypt.
Prior to becoming Sadat’s vice president, Mubarak served in Egypt’s air force for 25 years. He had trained with the Soviet Fruenz Academy for a year and, in addition to Arabic, Mubarak speaks fluent Russian and English. Under Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak ran cabinet meetings, the country’s security and was sent to Syria, Iraq, China and the U.S. on diplomatic assignments. His expertise was said to be integral to the Camp David Accords.
After Sadat was assassinated, Mubarak moved quickly to restore order. He jailed over 2500 Muslim fundamentalists, executing some, jailing others. He also released some of those who had been arrested by Sadat.
Mubarak also rebuilt relationships with the Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iraq, all who turned their back on Egypt in protest of the Camp David Accord. He even convinced the PLO’s Yassar Arafat to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
For three decades, Mubarak continued the visions of Anwar Sadat, maintaining peace with Israel, making affordable housing, food and health care available to more people. But clearly not enough people.
He remained a friend to the U.S., not supporting the 1990 war with Iraq over the invasion of Kuwait, but being angry enough about Saddam Hussein’s aggression to offer 45,000 troops to the Alliance.
In 1993 Mubarak was elected for a sixth term with 96.3 percent of the vote. Many felt that the vote reflected Egyptians approval of his stance against Islamic fundamentalism
Mubarak survived many of his own assassination attempts which came to light in 1992 and 1993. In 1995 another assassination attempt failed when eight shots were fired at Mubarak and all missed. His attackers were killed as were two policemen. Mubarak’s further crackdowns on Muslim extremists brought criticisms from human rights groups protesting, among other things, torture, executions, intimidation.
Enter John Quinones asking: “What Would You Do?”
… if you were a middle eastern leader facing militant extremists, terrorist plots, political assassins. (It ain’t the Tea Party, Toto.)
Just stop a moment and think of the U.S. reaction to the 9/11 attacks by a group of Muslim extremists . President Bush ordered the rounding up and indefinite incarceration of “enemy combatants” in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba.
Barak Obama ran for president on his promise to close the base, but he’s found it a far more complicated process. Making matters worse, many of those who were released have committed other terrorist acts. (To fracture another phrase from a popular movie: “It’s the Middle East, Jake.”)
Each act of terrorism that happens here, or is foiled here, seems to blur the line a little more. Hey, it’s 10 years since 9/11 and we still have our new wire-tapping laws.
Now, imagine if the attack on President Reagan or the recent killing spree in Arizona wasn’t carried out by a disenfranchised loner, but a politically motivated religious zealot. Would you be so quick to add their larger groups of extremists to your ballot on super Tuesday?
Far fetched, you say? Maybe in America, but not in the Arab world where on January 26, 2006 we watched Hamas win a free and fair election among Palestinian voters in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Hamas, as we know, is a militant group which denounces the right of Israel to exist and, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, has killed more than 500 people in 350 terrorist attacks since 1993. They morphed from the Muslim Brotherhood. Now they’re the ruling party.
Admittedly, He’s “Hosed” his People a Bit
Okay, in addition to all the human rights violations, I also have read Hosni Mubarak got very rich from his lifetime of public service. I don’t really know how rich; the articles I’ve read seem to recycle the same ten-year-old information that the family is worth between $40 and $70 billion. Besides listing some expensive real estate in London, Beverly Hills, Paris and other desirable locations, the “experts” suggest the money is hidden in secret British and Swiss bank accounts, and in partnerships with foreign investors. They also suggest Mubarak got rich from government contracts during his time as head of the air force.
There is no question the Mubaraks live large. I would be careful about any or all of the specifics regarding his wealth. ABC News recently quoted a Amaney Jamal, a political science professor at Princeton University who, if you read closely enough, is actually talking in generalities, explaining the estimate of $40 to $70 billion is comparable to the net worth of other leaders in the region.
“The business ventures from his military and government service accumulated to his personal wealth,” she told ABC news. “There was a lot of corruption in this regime and stifling of public resources for personal gain. Jamal said that Mubarak’s assets are most likely in banks outside of Egypt, possibly in the UK and Switzerland. “This is the pattern of other Middle Eastern dictators so their wealth will not be taken during a transition. These leaders plan on this,” she said.
Sadly, you’ll find the guesstimate of Mubarak’s worth, if that’s even what it is, boomeranging in newspapers around the world as fact, citing ABC News sources.
I believe the citizens of Egypt want a change and they want it now. I fully support them. But forging a peaceful and democratic transition doesn’t happen just because the western journalists get giddy over peaceful protesters or shaken when Woodstock turns into Altamont.
Egypt is very vulnerable now. We can only hope that behind the scenes cooler diplomatic heads can prevail.