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Gilbert Achcar Pt.5: After Sadat, Mubarak firmed alliance with Israel and US and pushed neoliberalism

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. This is the next in our series on the history of modern Egypt. In the last segment, we left off with the death of Sadat. And by this point, the Egyptian army and the Egyptian state had more or less become clients of the United States. Now joining us again to pick up the story is Gilbert Achcar. He’s a professor of development studies and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, England, and he’s author of the book The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. Thanks for joining us again, Gilbert.


JAY: Alright. So Sadat died, and as you said in the last interview, his funeral was rather meager next to that of Nasser. So pick us up with the beginnings of the Mubarak era.

ACHCAR: Well, Mubarak was Sadat’s vice president, so he took over and all that. I mean, he was probably more popular in the first years than what Sadat was, because he, having taken the measure of the popular–if not resentment, at least disaffection towards the regime, he played it rather, you know, moderate. So he tried to appear as a kind of more moderate figure. And he managed to have some more popularity than what Sadat had in his last years. But then we are speaking of something, of a rule that started in ’81, after assassination of Sadat in October ’81. So that’s extremely long period. And as everybody knows now, because this has become major news throughout the world that this man is over 80, he’s, I mean, quite old for a president. Now, basically, he just continued everything Sadat had started, that is, the so-called Infitah, which means the opening, which means, actually, the liberalization of the economy, the implementation of the neoliberal recipes in the private sector (and in an increasingly wide private sector) at the expense of public services and the rest.

HOSNI MUBARAK, PRESIDENT OF EGYPT: We are going through economic reform and the economic reform has its side-effects. The side-effects some [inaudible] of the people and this I told the people before starting the economic reform and this is everywhere, all over the world whenever there is economic reform, people are affected. At the same time, we are making reforms in the economy. Within 2-3 years there will be a stabilization; at the same time we are working hard to raise the standard of the people who are being affected but we can’t do it overnight.

ACHCAR: The way opened for all sort of profiteering and the crony capitalism that developed in the country. All that was, you know, very much fostered by the Mubarak dictatorship as a continuation of what Sadat started, as well, of course, as the very close relationship with United States.

JAY: One question I have about this relationship with the United States, both with Sadat and with Mubarak, given that Egypt had just been in a couple of wars with Israel, given the general public opinion against what most Egyptians, I assume, thought was an Israeli occupation, especially post-’67, of Gaza and the West Bank, but even before that (even the original establishment of Israel was certainly a rather very unpopular thing amongst most Egyptians and most Arabs), how does the Egyptian elite and the Egyptian military caste sell becoming a client of the US, of the United States, which clearly is the reason there is an Israel?

ACHCAR: Well, for that we have to go back to Sadat, because–and, actually, that’s in a sense the function of the war he waged in 1973, which was a war, paradoxically, designated as a preamble for some sort of capitulation to Israel and to US pressure; but that came later. I mean, they were attempt, since ’74, ’75, rounds of negotiations with Israel, but which were not conclusive until Sadat made the dramatic gesture of going to Israel in 1977, after the Israeli far right, the Likud, led by Menachem Begin, came to power.

PBS NEWSHOUR (VOICEOVER): On November 19, 1997, Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat went to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Menachen Begn, the first official visit to Israel by an arab leader. Since the founding of Jewish State in 1948.

ANWAR EL SADAT, PRESIDENT OF EGYPT: I’m feeling that this is a sacred mission because as I say it, the alternative is horrible.

MENACHEM BEGIN, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL: Of course, Egypt is the largest and strongest Arab country neighboring with Israel and we are very interested in having peace with Egypt and friendship too.

ACHCAR: So he went there, and that accelerated the Egyptian-Israeli so-called peace track, and led, actually, to the treaty signed between the two countries in ’79 and then implemented gradually until the early ’80s, through which Israel gave back to Egypt the Sinai, except the Gaza Strip. But most, I mean, of the Sinai was given back to Egypt with limited Egyptian sovereignty over the Sinai, that the Egyptian army didn’t have the right to go there, only police forces. And so this peace treaty was sold by Sadat to the Egyptian people in the same way that the shift in relations from the Soviet Union to the United States was sold to the Egyptian people, with promises that this will bring, you know, a huge prosperity to the country, everybody will get, in some way, rich or better.

JAY: So we’re dumping the collapsing Soviet economy and we’re going to ride the American gravy train.

ACHCAR: Absolutely.

JAY: And I guess with the Egyptian elite, at least, I guess there was some truth to that.

ACHCAR: Well, for the Egyptian, I mean, elite, depends what we mean by “elite”. But the Egyptian rich, this crony capitalism that developed since the years of the Infitah of Sadat to a very extensive degree, yes, indeed. I mean, these people made a huge lot of money. And that’s how this country–I mean, gradually, this country (which was, even with quote marks or without, anyhow, economically considered a socialist country in the ’60s) is a country where if you look at the government just before the recent popular protests, it’s a concentration of multimillionaires, you know, of very rich people. And the head of the party is–of the ruling party is also a major capitalist. I mean, so this is a really rotten country. There’s a lot of crony capitalists, very rich guys, in power. They–many of them originate in the military, because there is a–I mean, the borders between the military and the private sector are quite porous, and that–and a lot of military end up in the private sector as rich capitalists or on the boards or whatever. And this is this kind of very rotten situation that existed in a country where 40 percent–and these are official figures–40 percent of the population live on less than $2 per day. I mean, you have huge, massive poverty in Egypt, absolutely huge poverty in Egypt. And at the same time, you have, I mean, extreme wealth, extremely rich wealthy class. And so this social gap, these social inequalities are so strident, so sharp in that country that of course very naturally this created such a huge mass popular resentment, especially, I mean, in the cities, in the urban settings, when people are confronted to these social inequalities, where, you know, they see where the rich live, they see the hotels, they see this kind of different planet on which part of the Egyptian society lives, you know, stories about weddings costing fortunes and things like that, you have all sort of crazy, ostentatious spending by this crony capitalism, and on the other side of the social divide people starving and people living in the streets or in the cemeteries–. I mean, this is an extremely unequal society. And really that was–I mean, it was absolutely clear for any person who knew about Egypt or knew Egypt that this country would sooner or later go through an explosion.

JAY: Okay. So in the next segment of our interview let’s get up to the period of the explosion. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Gilbert Achcar on The Real News Network.

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Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon, and is currently Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder, published in 13 languages, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Noam Chomsky, and most recently the critically acclaimed The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives.