One fascinating subplot of the Middle East peace talks in Washington this week is the role of Egyptian president/dictator Hosni Mubarak. The 82-year old Mubarak, who has long governed Egypt with an iron fist–but has served as a useful strategic partner for America–is very old, visibly frail, and possibly cancer-ridden. For many months he has been grooming his westernized son, Gamal, for a smooth succession into the presidency, and the fact that Gamal has joined his father in Washington this week was clearly about something more than tourism. (I’d love to know how engaged Gamal may be in the Israeli-Palestinian talks, particularly given that his father’s lucidity is suspect nowadays.)
More substantively, while the Mubarak regime may be grossly repressive and anti-democratic, one thing you can say for Hosni and son is that they sing a quite reasonable tune about Israel and the peace process. They loathe Hamas (albeit for selfish reasons: Hamas despises the Egyptian regime for its good relations with Israel), and Hosni’s vision of the peace process as explained in the New York Times op-ed page this week was quite admirable for a leader whose population is virulently anti-Israel. Of course, the Mubaraks have an incentive to play along with Obama, because by all accounts Egypt is terrified by the rise of Iran and is very keen on working with America to blunt Persian influence in the region.
And don’t think that’s not extremely important to the Obama White House. You’ll recall that when Obama delivered his address to the Muslim world from Cairo last summer, he largely soft-pedaled the question of human rights and democracy there–an issue George W. Bush tried to emphasize briefly, before concluding it was more trouble than it was worth. But that’s a change in worldview for Obama. Writing about Obama and Iraq this week, I went back and read his famous 2002 speech against the war, which included this passage:
You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.
Of course, those words were spoken in 2002, back when America could better afford to talk trash about the Saudis and Egyptians. Now that he’s president, dueling with Iran and trying to restore America’s strategic position, Obama clearly believes that so-called “moderate” Middle Eastern regimes are too important to be hectored in such terms. Enough so that the Carnegie Endowment’s Robert Kagan warns that Gamal’s attendance in Washington this week will be derided on the Egyptian street and elsewhere in the Arab world as “as the US giving its blessing to this latest chapter in Egypt’s long history of dictatorship.” But that’s just fine with Hosni and Gamal Mubarak.