Mubarak’s Egypt and US interests in the Middle East
By Antonia Roupell
The subject of Egypt’s tempestuous recent history was brought to the Frontline Club on Monday 19 January in the form of the documentary film, Mubarak’s Egypt. The screening, which was the English language premier following its broadcast in Arabic on the al Arabiya news channel, was followed by a Q&A with director Charlie Smith and executive producer Christopher Mitchell. Poignantly, the screening closely followed the recent acquittal of Hosni Mubarak over numerous charges of murder and corruption allegedly committed during the 2011 uprising.
Unlike other documentaries that have captured the build-up to Egypt’s uprising and subsequent overthrow of it’s authoritarian leader, Mubarak’s Egypt does not approach the subject from the perspective of Egypt’s youth, activists or opposition groups. The film instead gives voice to insights from the old guard, government officials and policymakers. In essence, Mubarak’s Egypt is a portrait of the former President himself, as narrated by those who knew him.
Mitchell commented on the film’s consistent choice of interviewees:
“These are voices that most of us have not heard before, and if you want to understand the Mubarak regime then it’s of value to listen to the people who were closest to him.”
Insights from Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and Cabinet minister Farouk Hosni, are coupled with US equivalents, such as President Bush’s adviser Elliott Abrams and Secretary of State Mike Posner. Together they portray the former Egyptian President, to varying degrees, as the leader of a corrupt and repressive authoritarian regime.
US- Egyptian relations and the role of the United States in the Middle East at large are likewise a central theme of the film. External developments in the region, largely the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the de-thawing of the Israel-Palestine peace process, directly set America’s tone in this regard. Nevertheless, the consistent US agenda in Egypt, spearheaded by the Bush administration, was one of pluralism and so-called democratisation.
Egypt too was fighting its own battle on this front to no avail. A key figure in the film is opposition candidate and runner-up in the 2005 presidential election, Ayman Nour, who was imprisoned the same year. The film offers a reminder that although the Egyptian people as a mass made history when they marched onto Tahrir Square, individuals too, for better and, too often, for worse dictate its course.
Mitchell was struck by what he called the “fickleness of interests that the Americans had.” A succession of visits between both the US and Egyptian foreign secretaries exposed how volatile these relationships often were. Irritated by Condoleezza Rice’s demands for political reform, the former Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, recalled his tactics to delay her for meetings and to generally ensure that her visits were not a success. Beneath these amusing anecdotes the question remained, was the United States Egypt’s friend or foe under Mubarak?
While the film’s hindsight offered some clarity, it also exposed the ongoing grey area that continues to loom over Mubarak’s three-decade long rule. The certainty of the hard-nosed military men surrounding Mubarak in contrast with the uncertainty of his successor. While popular belief was that nepotism would prevail, Egypt’s military seemingly opposed to Gamal Mubarak following his father’s footsteps. During the Q&A, a number of audience members questioned why the film only alluded to the army’s pivotal role in dictating Egypt’s socio-economic and political environment. Both filmmakers answered simply that they were limited when it came to access and budget.
Smith said his approach was to, “leave out analysis and let them [the interviewees] speak for themselves.”
Mitchell went on to speak of the difficulties of filming in Egypt when they were there in January 2014.
“The reason we only got five or six [Egyptian interviewees] was because most of them were in jail,” said Mitchell.
In spite of these logistical limitations, Mubarak’s Egypt effectively took advantage of the vacuum that followed Egypt’s brief revolution in order to reopen a discussion which has been closed for too long. Although Mitchell expressed optimism for Egypt’s prospects, he mainly emphasised the need for this discussion to continue.