Mubarak's Legacy: An Egypt In Turmoil

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Host Guy Raz speaks with University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami about Hosni Mubarak's 30-year-rule and the impact he had on Egypt as well as the entire Middle East region.

GUY RAZ, host:

So how did Hosni Mubarak's regime come undone so quickly? After all, he was Egypt's longest-serving leader since the mid-19th century. Well, according to Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, Mubarak's downfall had a lot to do with missed opportunities over those 30 years.

Professor SHIBLEY TELHAMI (Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland): I think the reality of it is if you look at Mubarak's regime specifically over the 30 years, he had many opportunities. There was a decade, first decade after Anwar Sadat was assassinated, he became president. And that whole decade in the 1980s, he actually was seen as a relatively successful leader, because people were worried about the instability that might come after the assassination of President Sadat and what would happen to the newly signed treaty with Israel and what would happen to Egypt, which had been just expelled from the Arab League.

RAZ: Completely isolated...

Prof. TELHAMI: Completely isolated.

RAZ: ...after signing that agreement with Israel.

Prof. TELHAMI: And so for a whole decade, he really navigated a very careful foreign policy that was, you know, pursued stability at home, maintain closer relations abroad, maintained the peace with Israel and managed to get back into the Arab fold.

RAZ: He was a well-respected air force official, air force general, was seen as something of a hero during the 1973 war with Israel. He was relatively popular in Egypt during the 1980s. Isn't that right?

Prof. TELHAMI: No question. And I think a lot of Arab states look to him to get Egypt back into the Arab fold.

RAZ: He was seen increasingly as a leader of the Arab world in the '80s?

Prof. TELHAMI: I wouldn't put it that way. I would say that there were mutual interests. The Syrians had a good relationship with him from the past and they were happy to start some kind of relationship.

But more important, it was Iraq that needed him, because Iraq, which had been one of the most defiant state rejecting the Camp David Accords, got engaged in the war with Iran and then it was in trouble in that war in the mid-1980s. And they needed every bit of help. He was there for them, and they were there for him. That's really the key relationship that brought Egypt back into the Arab fold.

RAZ: And certainly here in the U.S. for quite sometime, certainly through the '90s, he was seen widely in the sort of power circles in Washington, certainly in Europe as well, as perhaps the most significant leader in the Arab world. When and how did Mubarak's rule begin to corrode?

Prof. TELHAMI: The most critical event is the assassination attempt on his life in 1995. There's no question that he became so insecure and so reliant on security services and his regime became far more of a police state, and especially because that was followed by a lot of other attacks by militant Islamic groups on the state and on the tourist industry and on the symbols of the state.

RAZ: Shibley Telhami, how will Hosni Mubarak can be remembered by Egyptians, by Egyptian historians once the rhetoric and the passions cool down?

Prof. TELHAMI: It's really a tough question to answer, because I think that - I was speaking with someone who knew him very, very personally in the past week, someone who has known him for all these years. And she said to me something, she said, I look at him as a tragedy, as someone who had so much that he could have been so much more, that he turned into the ending that he has faced. And it will be seen - he will be seen that way, as a tragic figure in some ways.

RAZ: I'm sure you recall, but over the past 10 years, there were many points where you hear pundits and kind of self-appointed Middle East experts saying, well, you know, the Islamic world really has to have a reformation like the Christian world had, you know? There has to be some kind of a real break. I wonder if in some ways, this is kind of a reformation.

Prof. TELHAMI: As a political reformation, if there was one, this is it. Why? Because we have never seen public empowerment on this scale. We have never seen anything like this, maybe in world history on this scale where you have millions of people with no ideology, with no real organization take to the streets in a sustained fashion against an entrenched autocracy with hundreds of thousands of security services and military, and prevail.

The empowerment that comes out of that is extraordinary. And I do think it is going to lead to a change in Arab politics. It doesn't mean that it's going to have a spill over in the sense of overthrow every government. But there is no government in the Arab world that is not going to change its thinking, its tactics. There's no public in the Arab world that is not going to think differently about politics.

Let's be modest about our ability to figure out what's going to come next. I can't do that. But I don't know any person or any group in the Arab world that is not now rethinking its options.

RAZ: That's Shibley Telhami. He is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland College Park, and nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution.

Shibley Telhami, thank you.

Prof. TELHAMI: My pleasure.

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