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May 1, 2005

 

Mubarak Keeps Egypt Guessing in Interview

 

The longtime president's seven-hour tete-a-tete with a reporter on TV is a journey to the past, and his critics find in it little hope for change.

 

By Megan K. Stack, Times Staff Writer

 

CAIRO "60 Minutes" it was not try 420.

Word that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had given a seven-hour television interview raced through coffee houses and newspapers last week. It was an uncommon move from a ruler more given to ceremonial speeches than to cozy tete-a-tetes with reporters. Most tantalizing of all, the government newspapers wrote knowingly, the interview would include a surprise.


This was news indeed. Aside from assassinations, wars with neighboring Israel or coups, political surprises have been rare in Egypt, a country that has had three presidents since 1954. But a sliver of unpredictability appeared earlier this year when Mubarak announced that he would open this fall's presidential race to other candidates for the first time since taking office in 1981.

And so Egyptians tuned in eagerly for three nights to find out what was next: Would Mubarak announce his candidacy and ask his people to vote for him? Would he say that he wouldn't seek another term, putting a dramatic end to his storied career? Would he make some other, unpredictable move?

He did not.

"I'm trying something new here," Mubarak told television reporter Imad El-Din Adeeb, who prefaced most questions with "Your Excellency," and lobbed softballs such as, "Did you always have this confidence?" and "Did you always have this internal thermometer to detect who was a sycophant and who was honest?"

At one point, Adeeb told Mubarak, whose regime has a long record of jailing journalists, "One does not worry when you are around, but if I were conducting this interview with any other president, and I asked him a question he didn't like, he would have me arrested before I got to my house."

For pro-democracy activists still waiting for Egypt to make good on long-promised reform, the interview was a long (very long) journey into the heart of a regime that appears determined not to change. Martial law won't be lifted anytime soon, Mubarak said. Egypt has freedom of speech, he said he just encourages newspapers not to exaggerate.

"Considering Mubarak's interview last night, I don't think there's going to be any real change," said Mahfouz Azzam of Egypt's Labor Party. It was the day after the last segment of the interview aired, and Azzam was standing on the steps of the journalism syndicate in the midst of an anti-Mubarak demonstration.

Protesters chanted "Down with Mubarak," and "Freedom, freedom, where are you? Mubarak stands between me and you." Thick lines of security agents lined the streets before them, batons in hand.

"There are people who have no interest in change. They've been ruling for 25 years by force, by oppression, by torture," Azzam said. "They're not willing to give up their privileges or their seats."

In the interview, Mubarak spent hours reliving the bad old days of the wars with Israel and invoking his military experience.

Then Adeeb asked Mubarak about Egypt's heavily criticized emergency law, which gives the government wide-ranging authority to arrest citizens at random, to try them in exceptional courts and to crack down on demonstrations. Hanging over the country since Mubarak took power in 1981, martial law is considered one of the greatest obstacles to an Egyptian democracy.

"You want me to lift the emergency law when the whole world is putting it in place?" Mubarak said, apparently referring to anti-terrorism provisions passed in Europe and the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. "If it wasn't for this law, Egypt would be in ruins by now."

Adeeb asked whether the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned organization that is believed to be the most powerful and popular party in Egypt, would be legalized. Absolutely not, Mubarak replied.

Finally, at the end of the last night of the interview, Adeeb popped the big question: Would Mubarak run for president?

"I still haven't decided," he replied.

It was a strangely demure response. Many analysts believe that the president is planning to orchestrate a sort of popular request for his candidacy. Already, an Egyptian singer famed for the hit single "I Hate Israel" has come out with a pop song praising Mubarak.

The interview, shot by a famous young Egyptian director, showed Mubarak looking calm, comfortable and sturdy. Gone was the haggard weariness that creased his face in the fall of 2003, when he suffered a "health crisis" during a televised speech before parliament and rumors of illness swirled.

Most of the interview was devoted to events of the last century. It was well into the last segment before the interview touched on current topics.

Mubarak took Adeeb to a military control room and map room to tell tales of long-finished wars. (The visit to the control room, many observers concluded, was the touted surprise, but nobody knows for sure.) The president spoke of the battles with Israel, the intricacies of the air force and, most of all, the burdens suffered invisibly and thanklessly by a lifelong leader.

"I've only had three months' holiday in my 56-year career," Mubarak said. "I've been doing hard labor for 56 years, and it's all for Egypt."

"The dialogue was between two players from the same team," columnist Magdi Mahanna wrote in the independent Masri al Yom newspaper. "Imad Adeeb would throw the ball to President Mubarak, who would score easy goals."

Mubarak said he never cried, and that he had no time for fear.

"There's no place for despair in my life," he said. "Where there's life, there's hope. Despair does not know me."

Near the end of the second night, Adeeb asked the president how he managed to stay so calm all the time.
"I am never provoked," Mubarak said.
"Even when you are sitting with [Benjamin] Netanyahu or [Ariel] Sharon, for example?" pressed Adeeb, referring to Israel's finance minister who was once prime minister, and the current prime minister.
"I may be provoked internally," Mubarak replied reassuringly, "but I will never show it."


Jailan Zayan in The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

 

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