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Mubarak’s Men to Reform Egypt? U.S. Diplomatic Cables Tell Another Story

For thirty years, Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt with an iron hand, enforcing his will through violence and holding the democratic rights of his people in contempt. In a mere matter of eighteen days, mass protests brought an end to his rule and called into question the political future of his most loyal partisans at the highest levels of the Egyptian government.

The end came in a brief announcement by Vice President Omar Suleiman, himself only recently appointed by Mubarak in the midst of the crisis. Tahrir Square erupted in jubilation at the news, an eruption that resounded throughout the Middle East, and echoed across the world.

Much news coverage and attention has been and will continue to be dedicated toward the celebratory aspects of this victory of the will of the people, along with expectations that it will usher in a new era of democratic reforms stymied for decades by Mubarak. In the midst of the celebration, however, necessary questions remain to be raised: How will thirty years of U.S. political support for Egypt’s strongman be altered, if at all, by the events of recent days? How has the U.S. related to the protests as they’ve unfolded? Who has taken over custody of the badly shaken Egyptian government, and where do they differ with the discredited policies of the Mubarak era?

President Barack Obama chose to distance himself from a fallen ally, praising the Egyptian protesters in the wake of Mubarak’s resignation: “Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.” President Obama’s words of support for the protesters and democracy, however, differ from the content found in U.S. diplomatic cables leaked to the public.

The highest-ranking officers in the Egyptian military who form the interim government – most notably, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Lieutenant General Sami Hafez Einan, and Vice President Suleiman – were men loyal to Mubarak for decades. President Obama has charged the Egyptian military with care-taking the revolutionary changes overtaking Egypt: “The military has served patriotically and responsibly as a caretaker to the state, and will now have to ensure a transition that is credible in the eyes of the Egyptian people.” However, the men at the controls of the Egyptian government appear to be those most resistant to the political reforms demanded by Tahrir Square.

The cables reveal the degree to which the U.S. condoned Egypt’s deplorable human rights record in exchange for Egypt’s support to U.S. regional concerns; in particular, support to the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Obama’s expressed optimism notwithstanding, the leaders of the Egyptian military are heavily implicated in the worst abuses of the Mubarak era. The diplomatic cables acknowledge a long history of U.S. support for the Mubarak dictatorship, despite its contempt for human rights, and even show the U.S. hand in promoting Suleiman as its trusted candidate to succeed Mubarak as president. 

Suleiman was the point-person in the “extraordinary rendition” program between Egypt and the Central Intelligence Agency – a program which critics have called “torture by proxy,” where suspects of interest to the U.S. were detained without charges and interrogated in Egypt. Cables termed the record of abuses stemming from this program, “most successful”, leading to some observers to term Suleiman as “the CIA’s man in Cairo” and the “Torturer-in-Chief”

Other cables reveal awareness  at the highest levels of the U.S. government of an assortment of repressive measures undertaken by the Mubarak regime, all mentioned without objection and often noted with outright support. These include: systematic torture against suspected political opponents, described as “endemic” and “widespread”; intimidation, harassment and imprisonment of Egyptian bloggers; round-ups of suspects by police who hung them by their arms to ceilings for weeks on end; the monitoring and harassment of a plethora of non-governmental organizations; and impunity for state personnel undertaking torture and other abuses.


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As a result of these past practices, the highest-ranking officers in the military remain heavily implicated in the worst abuses of the Mubarak era, many of which were committed with either U.S. knowledge or support. While Robert Naiman, of Just Foreign Policy, is hopeful that a democratic transition can take place, he does not think U.S. support for a meaningful democratic transition is by any means assured, given recent U.S. stances on the issue: “Just a few days ago, the U.S. was backing away from demands for ‘swift reform,’ backtracking toward its historic policies in Egypt, putting the interests of the U.S. military and the Israeli government first, and human rights and democracy last.”

U.S. policies were indeed soft on Mubarak during the explosion of protests and not forthcoming about civilian rule being established. While being questioned on Al Jazeera TV during the height of the protests, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley admitted that the Obama administration would not threaten to cut off vital aid to the Mubarak regime in an attempt to force his resignation (see video). Also, during a series of television interviews done during the height of the protests, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that the US would not seek the ouster of Mubarak and merely urged him to listen to opposition figures who lodged “legitimate grievances” in a move towards a “managed change” and an “orderly transition” toward a democracy Egypt has long desired.

These persistent forms of support led to criticism by the leading spokesman of the opposition, Mohamed El Baradei, a Nobel laureate, who told Face the Nation that the idea that “a dictator who has been in power for 30 years will be the one to implement democracy” was nonsensical.

By the time the last week of Mubarak’s reign started, and protests were still raging away, Obama administration officials moved away from Mubarak, but toward other officials in the Mubarak regime who were closely associated with past repressive policies. Consequently, others have brought up similar concerns to El Baradei’s, but in regards to the military officials currently leading the purported transition.

Sam Husseini of the Institute for Public Accuracy, told Common Dreams that: “Rhetorical flourishes about democracy set aside, the U.S. has been backing dictatorial rule for decades and the Army has been part and parcel of that. The protest movement is saying that they want a temporary, civilian structure, but no officials have set one up yet, much less even proposed it. U.S. policies as of late suggest limited civilian rule, at best, or at worst, a larger role for past officials supported by the U.S. with a narrow representation of opposition.”

Throughout the last few weeks, the tight relationship between key players behind Egypt’s repressive  tactics were collaborating closely with Obama administration officials. General Sami Enan, a top Egyptian military official, led a delegation of high-ranking military officials to meet with Admiral Mike Mullen in Washington on January 27, but the group had to cut the visit short to return to Egypt right before pro-Mubarak forces began to further escalate their violent response to mass protests. Another current interim head, former Mubarak Minister Tantawi, was reportedly making phone calls on a daily basis to U.S. Defense Secretary, Robert Gates.

Tantawi has not only long been Washington’s darling, but as leaked diplomatic cables revealed, was resented by  mid-level officers as “Mubarak’s poodle,” according to one 2008 communication.

Given the continued stronghold that the Egyptian military has over the country, its past repressive policies and continuing vital U.S. support for as much, the path to democracy appears to be far from an easy one in spite of the momentous resignation of Mosni Mubarak.

Andrew Kennis

Andrew Kennis

Andrew Kennis is an investigative journalist, an adjunct professor and a researcher who recently received his Ph.D. from the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He has reported from four continents over the course of the last decade, covering U.S. foreign policy, global justice and indigenous movements, immigration struggles and human rights abuses.

Jason McGahan

Jason McGahan, a former writer for the Washington Post, has been writing on politics and culture for ten years. He holds an MA in literarture and enjoys traveling, reading and writing poetry.

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