The Mubarak Years: Arab League new chief Aboul-Gheit's testimony

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 3 Jul 2016

The Mubarak-era foreign minister and new Arab League chief sheds light on the final years of Mubarak's rule, discussing the political ambitions of Mubarak's son, Egypt-US relations, and the negative impact of an ailing president

Ahmed Aboul-Gheit
File photo of former Egypt foreign minister and new Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul-Gheit (AP)

It was as early as 2009 that Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, then foreign minister, heard President Hosni Mubarak expressing concern over US intentions regarding his own fate.

It was a remark that Mubarak made in a direct conversation with his foreign minister following Aboul-Gheit's return from a visit to the US where he had heard, and later conveyed to the president, direct criticism from US senators and members of the administration over the failure of Mubarak to embrace democracy, along with his plans to groom his younger son, Gamal Mubarak, for succession.

“I was surprised, as our meeting was coming to an end and he was walking me out, to hear him say that he felt that the Americans were getting in a mood to remove him from the rule of Egypt,” Aboul-Gheit recalled.

This recollection is only one part of a very lengthy memoir that the former foreign minister, now Arab League secretary general, includes in his over 500-page book, My Testimony: Egyptian Foreign Policy, 2004-2011. Aboul-Gheit officially starts his reign as the Arab League chief on Sunday. 

Mubarak's unease, Aboul-Gheit recalls in memoires he wrote in 2012, a year after he left office, came against the backdrop of incremental disagreement between Cairo and Washington over Egyptian internal politics and what seemed to the Americans to be Mubarak’s wavering rule.

Aboul-Gheit writes in his book that he heard direct criticism of Mubarak and the succession scenario – which he says he and former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman were uncomfortable about – from Republican Senator John McCain during his participation in the annual Munich Security Conference in 2009, and later from US Vice President Dick Cheney in the same year.

Aware of the sensitivity of the matter to Mubarak – who is quoted by Aboul-Gheit in his memoires as having repeatedly expressed resentment at the idea of open succession – Aboul-Gheit had chosen to privately bring to the attention of the president his need to take a few "encouraging steps" to reduce US apprehension over the matter.

Area of contention 

One area of contention between Cairo and Washington, Aboul-Gheit recalls, was the fate of Ayman Nour, a young politician who had contested Mubarak in the first multi-candidate presidential election in 2005 and came second by a landslide to the longstanding president who had been in power since 1981.

It was, he wrote, something that was brought up by almost all top US officials, sometimes during private talks and at others – especially with then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – during press conferences and briefings.

Aboul-Gheit recalled that he had more than once asked the president to use a presidential pardon to release Nour. Mubarak, he added, was always reluctant.

The excuse that Mubarak offered, according to Aboul-Gheit's testimony, was his wish to intervene in judicial affairs.

Another point of contention between Cairo and Washington, Aboul-Gheit recalls, was debate over the operation of two US political non-governmental organisations that were associated with the two US political parties.

“[The Americans] demanded freedom of operation for American NGOs in Egypt … we declined to offer an official approval and kind of left the matter open … The president was not willing to pass any approvals," Aboul-Gheit wrote.

"However, he chose to be the sole decision-maker of the fate of these NGOs that were discretely working in Egypt to train Egyptian elements and civil society groups ... [with] a very generous budget that the Americans were passing to their operation from US aid to Egypt … first with around $25 million in 2005 and later it went up to $50 million, as was publicly announced."

According to the former head of Egyptian diplomacy abroad, “The Egyptian state was not unaware of the operations of these groups, but it was a bit too complicated to take a firm position on them.”

Aboul-Gheit said that he had told Mubarak that these large amounts of money “might be for ulterior motives that are much bigger than simply training for democracy and electoral [processes] and so on … He was feeling worried but he chose not to take firm action on the matter; this was the case until the time he stepped down.”

In the reading of Aboul-Gheit's memoir, it is clear that Mubarak was trying to avoid an additional open confrontation with the US that would only add to the issues he was having with Washington over Ayman Nour and Gamal Mubarak.

Mubarak, Aboul-Gheit suggested, would not have wished to get into another clash with the US that might prompt Washington to question its military aid to Egypt in negative terms.

“I thought carefully about the issue of these NGOs when it was brought up again after the 25 January Revolution in relation to their attempt to simply overlook Egyptian law in their operations in Egypt,” Aboul-Gheit wrote.

He added that he chose to brief the first post-Mubarak cabinet in detail on this matter and on “the security reports that he was receiving in relation to the funds that some Egyptian NGOs were getting from here and there under the pretext of being part of Egyptian civil society."

Structural division 

In addition, the memoires of Aboul-Gheit also reveal considerable insight into the structural division in the top levels of Egyptian rule during the last few years of Mubarak, whereby Gamal Mubarak had his own authority, away from the state and established rules and norms.

This, he said, included meetings that the younger son of the president, in his capacity as a leading figure of the ruling National Democratic Party, held with foreign officials in Egypt and overseas without notifying the foreign service.

According Aboul-Gheit , when the help of an Egyptian embassy was solicited to facilitate logistics for a visit by the younger Mubarak, it was done directly between the presidency and the concerned embassy, without notification to the office of the foreign minister.

Aboul-Gheit reflects on the expanding "political space" of Gamal Mubarak as one of many signs of an old, ailing and increasingly disinterested president who seemed to be struggling with an almost monotonous rule.

This "ailing" factor, Aboul-Gheit says, was frequently a handicap to the efforts of the top Egyptian diplomat to better position Egypt in the world of African politics.

The book includes several detailed accounts of 
Aboul-Gheit's attempts to try to pique the president’s interest and dispel security concerns  of visits to African capitals as head of state. Aboul-Gheit felt Egypt was fast losing ground to other players, including some of Egypt’s direct regional adversaries.

This presidential disinterest in Africa – which was not just a function of old age, declining political focus, and an inevitable side effect of the assassination attempt on Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995 – had big repercussions on the decisions of upstream Nile river countries to shrug off Egyptian objections to their efforts to rework Nile water shares from those set out in previously agreed international treaties, effectively downsizing Egypt’s "historical" share.

Aboul-Gheit's book includes a shocking account on the slow reaction of Cairo to what seemed a fast-tracked Ethiopian attempt to pursue water projects that would leave Egypt with potentially serious water shortages, despite the accounts he offers of the foreign ministry's efforts to try to block international political, legal and financial support for these Ethiopian plans.

An ailing president who was growing less interested in the details of domestic and foreign affairs, especially after the sudden loss of his eldest grandson, is a repeated image throughout the 13 chapters of Aboul-Gheit's book. 

Included during this period is Mubarak’s first meeting with the newly elected US President Barack Obama in 2009 and his various foreign trips and meetings with visiting leaders.

Also discussed is the management of Mubarak's relations with Arab leaders, especially with Saudi Monarch King Abdullah, as the Egyptian president found it easier to avoid rocking the boat of Egyptian-Saudi relations, at times at the expense of Egyptian preferences or even interests, rather than to try and push the envelope or maneuver politically.

Aboul-Gheit also discusses the growing role of the intelligence and security apparatuses at the expense of direct presidential intervention in managing crucial domestic and foreign affairs, including relations with Israel.

At this point in time the former foreign minister noted attempts of Mubarak's immediate aides to reduce the flow of work needing the president’s attention – something that Aboul-Gheit often criticised in his book.

Mubarak’s sloppiness was also clear ahead of the 25 January demonstrations.

He seemed carleless despite what 
Aboul-Gheit suggests were clear security warnings that the call for protests was not a minor issue to overlook, especially in the wake of the ouster of long-ruling Tunisian President Zein El-Abedine Ben Ali, and later to expanding demonstrations in Egypt and gradually declining international – and especially American – support for his dying regime.

Aboul-Gheit's book, which is printed by Nahdet Misr, does not reveal many secrets about his seven years in office. However, it explains and at times attempts to justify political events and positions during his tenure.

The selection of pictures is slightly disappointing in its scope. However, for keen researchers there is a considerably thorough, but certainly not complete, annex of statements that were made by the head of Egyptian diplomacy and some of his aides during the years from 2004 to 2011 on key issues of Egyptian foreign policy.

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