This week I am in Houston, Texas. I am here to give a talk to students of journalism, at the opening of the Sam Houston University Global Center for Journalism and Democracy, about the situation in Egypt post- revolution. This isn’t my first visit to Texas. I was here eight years ago as an Egypt TV correspondent covering former President Hosni Mubarak’s talks with then-US President George W. Bush at his ranch in Crawford.
President Mubarak’s annual trips to the US had –up until the 2004 visit to Crawford–been a sacred tradition, and had continued to take place regardless of any tensions between the two countries. In fact, they were an opportunity to defuse those tensions if they did exist, secure US investments in Egypt, and guarantee the continued flow of US aid.
US assistance to Egypt in those days averaged two billion US dollars annually making Egypt the second biggest recipient of US aid after Israel. In return, Mubarak used the US visits to renew his vows to protect Israel’s security, promising to keep the peace and to cooperate fully with the US in its counter-terrorism efforts.
Unlike Mubarak’s previous visits to the US which had all taken him to Washington, the 2004 talks between the two former Presidents were held at the presidential retreat rather than at the White House. Egypt’s state- owned Al-Ahram described the visit to the Crawford ranch as “an honour reserved for staunch US allies.” The change of venue was however, was perceived differently by some Americans.
An American journalist covering the talks told me in confidence that “Bush had chosen to receive the Egyptian President at the ranch because he could not be seen by his people as waging war on a dictator in Iraq and shaking hands with another at the White House.”
In an article published in the Washington Post to coincide with the visit, Mubarak was meanwhile described as an “unrepentant autocrat.”
“Not only had he ruled Egypt under emergency law for over twenty years, but his repressive policies (including the persecution of Islamic political movements) had helped fuel Al-Qaeda–whose top leadership included a number of Egyptians,” explained the Washington Post columnist. He further noted that Mubarak was “the greatest obstacle to President Bush’s democracy initiative in the Greater Middle East.”
There had been leaked reports from informed sources that democratic reforms would be on the agenda of the Mubarak-Bush talks. While it is certain that Bush did prod Mubarak on the issue, it is unclear in which manner this was done. Mubarak emerged from his talks with President Bush looking pale and drawn.
His voice at the ensuing press conference was hardly audible as he addressed reporters, saying that Egypt’s strategic relationship with the US had matured over the past thirty years, constituting a force for stability, both regionally and globally. He pledged his commitment to advance the special relationship between the two countries and deepen their cooperation.
The atmosphere was tense at the press conference and it was evident that the talks (which had taken place behind closed doors) had ended with serious differences left unresolved.
Mubarak and Bush had failed to agree on US policy towards Iraq. While he expressed concern on the violence in Iraq (which that week had seen the worst fighting since the fall of Saddam Hussein), Bush insisted the crackdown by US military forces on “lawless gangs” was necessary for a move towards democratic transition.
To make matters worse, within days after meeting Mubarak, Bush gave then- Israeli PM Ariel Sharon the green light to retain illegal settlements in the West Bank and said Palestinian refugees should return to a Palestinian state not to Israel.
The biggest bone of contention however, was President Bush’s push to democratise the region. Prior to his visit to the US, Mubarak had denounced the Bush administration’s plan to promote political liberalisation as “an outside imposition.” He insisted that Egypt was already democratic; arguing that reforms could only take place after a solution had been found to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “The only beneficiaries of democracy would be the Islamic extremists,” Mubarak warned.
US analysts meanwhile urged Bush to press the Egyptian President on reforms, insisting that the US propose conditioning for US aid to Egypt. It was clear too that Bush’s patience with Mubarak was wearing thin and surprisingly, he did not attempt to hide his disdain.
According to the Washington Post article titled “Our Man in Cairo,” Bush had earlier said that “years of accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East had not made Americans safe.” He vowed to correct flaws in US policy toward the Middle East noting that “Egypt was at the centre of that flawed policy.”
“Despite receiving billions of dollars in aid from the US for many years, millions of Egyptians remain mired in desperate poverty,” Bush had lamented, adding that ”Mubarak’s suppression of alternatives to his nationalist ideology had strengthened Islamic extremism.”
Following the press conference, Bush invited the American journalists who had come to cover the talks to stay for Easter Brunch. “The others may leave,” he said stiffly.
By “the others” Bush had meant members of Mubarak’s media delegation. This was no diplomatic slip. I believe that Bush deliberately took the jab at his Egyptian guests to embarrass Mubarak and make him feel unwelcome.
Mubarak did not set foot in the US again for the remaining six years of Bush’s presidency. His next visit came in 2010 after the election of President Barack Obama. He did however promise some reforms in 2005 including to end the emergency law and to hold free and fair elections. But these were token gestures and the Egypt Spring of 2005 was short-lived. When candidates from the then-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood won 20% of parliamentary seats in 2005, Mubarak again cracked down on the Islamist movement.
Furthermore, Ayman Nour who ran against Mubarak in the 2006 presidential election was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of allegedly forging petitions. Rights advocates however later claimed that the charges were politically motivated. The low voter turnout in election was a sign of the growing frustration of Egyptians at the lack of political reforms.
It’s been eight years since Mubarak’s visit to Crawford and a lot has happened since. I am now back in Texas under very different circumstances as an ailing Mubarak languishes in jail, a defeated and broken man. I cannot help but reflect on the 2004 visit, and wonder if he would have met a different fate had he carried out the promised reforms. Mubarak is no longer in power and Americans today are wary of the new Islamist government in Egypt.
Since my arrival here, I have been asked more than a dozen times if I thought President Morsy would deliver on the promises he made during his election campaign. Americans are particularly concerned about pledges concerning respect for previously signed international agreements. I have been assuring them he will. After all, Mubarak has paid too high a price for breaking his promises.