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Mubarak's legacy

February 11, 2011

After ruling Egypt with an iron first for thirty years, Hosni Mubarak has stepped down as president. Deutsche Welle's Peter Philipp takes a look back at Mubarak's legacy and his controversial relationship with the West.


When newly elected US President Barack Obama wanted to make a speech to the Muslim world in 2009, he chose to do it in Cairo. Just a year before that, French President Nicolas Sarkozy went to Egypt with his then-girlfriend (now wife) Carla Bruni. And two years later, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon and his wife were invited by Mubarak to visit the country over Christmas. They accepted.

Egypt, more than most other countries in the Arab region, has long held a fascination, a kind of pull, for Western leaders. And it is this attraction that lies at the roots of the special relationship that the West has historically sought and cultivated with Egypt.

A principle called 'self interest'

The real reasons for this are varied. But one thing they all have in common is this: Self-interest is the organizing principle; they aren't especially interested in the Egyptian people. And it's been that way for a long time.

Simply due to its geography, sitting as it does at the intersection of Asia and Africa, Egypt has always been an object of foreign desires: Greek, Roman, Persian, Arab, Turkish, British; in the Second World War it was the Germans, then the Soviets and the Americans. All have tried to bring Egypt under their influence.

Peter Philipp
Peter Philipp frequently writes about Middle East for Deutsche Welle

Oil and gas have never played a major role, as they have in Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Egypt's deposits of these riches are just too small. Yet since it was the largest country in the Arab world, it seemed that good relations with Cairo were needed to guarantee influence in the region.

After the revolution of 1952, Egypt became important due to its role in the world of nonaligned nations. During the Cold War, it was at first a close partner of the Soviet Union, and then – after Sadat was thrown out of office in 1972 - as a partner of the USA. The route to the Arab world and its many natural resources went, directly or indirectly, through Cairo.

Role in the Mideast peace process

A very particular aspect of Egypt's relations with the West had to do with the founding of Israel, and the resulting conflict in the Middle East. Until 1979, the country was at the forefront of the Arab front against the Jewish state. Anyone working toward detente or peace in that region needed to take Egyptian interests into account. That is, the interests of the power brokers in Cairo, not of the average Egyptian.

These calculations worked out well for the West. Once the leader in the ongoing attacks on Israel, after Camp David, Egypt became a force for peace in the region. President Sadat was assassinated, but his replacement Mubarak kept the peace. Not that any close or friendly relations resulted from that course - but for Mubarak, his role in the peace process was something of a replacement for his the lost leadership role in the Arab world. And above all, it was a guarantee for massive support from foreign interests, particularly the US.

'Guardians against terrorism'

When a comprehensive Mideast peace treaty failed to emerge, the nation's role as peacekeeper was slowly replaced by that of "guardian against Islamic terrorism." Especially in the wake of 9/11, Europeans and Americans appreciated that Hosni Mubarak could be counted on to stand with them in a front against terrorists. After all, the terrorists were active in Egypt early on, and now they were moving farther afield - places like New York, Madrid and London.

With the major support that Mubarak got, he did do quite a lot for development in his country. But not enough. The gap between rich and poor has grown even greater, and the principles espoused by the money donors - human rights, freedom, democracy and self determination - have not been implemented.

Author: Peter Philipp/ jen
Editor: Susan Houlton