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Israel Feared Mubarak’s Death for Decades. But His Final Years Were a Surprise

Egypt-watchers who analyzed the former president's every cough never thought he would die years after being deposed in a popular revolution

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh on May 11, 2009.
Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh on May 11, 2009.Credit: Cris BOURONCLE / AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

“How to deal with the transition after Hosni Mubarak’s departure” was among the items at the top of the list of major challenges facing Israel in any strategic briefing by a senior security or intelligence official during the first decade of this century. The Israeli intelligence community paid extremely close attention to the Egyptian president’s health. His every cough, hospitalization and unexplained absence from public events were dissected. When Israeli leaders met him, a member of the entourage was briefed to look out for various discreet signs of his condition.

The diagnosis was that Mubarak was dying from cancer and didn’t have long to live. The conclusion may have been correct, but the timeline was way off. Mubarak lived to 91, dying Tuesday in Cairo. The scenarios after Mubarak’s anticipated death ranged from the best case, at least from Israel’s perspective, of the powerful intelligence minister Omar Suleiman taking his place in an orderly succession, to the riskier possibility of Mubarak’s son Jamal inheriting his father, to the nightmare scenario of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover. The possibility that Mubarak would die nine years after being deposed in a popular revolution and after going on trial for the murder of protestors and corruption never entered the minds of the professional Egypt-watchers.

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Mubarak had become a permanent feature of the regional architecture: the archetypal pro-western Middle Eastern strongman. Most crucially for Israel, he had made it clear from the moment he took power in 1981, replacing President Anwar Sadat who was assassinated at his side, that he would stick to the peace treaty signed by Sadat. For that he would receive thirty years of gratitude from Jerusalem and Washington. But while Mubarak deserved gratitude, initially, for stabilizing the situation after Sadat’s death and guaranteeing the peace treaty, he didn’t do it out the goodness of his heart.

In the nine years that have passed since Mubarak was forced to resign by his fellow generals, four other men have filled the role of Egypt’s president – the interim Mohamed Tantawi; then the elected Mohamed Morsi; and following the military coup, another interim president, Adly Mansour; and then the current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. Not one of these presidents, not even the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi – who couldn’t even bring himself to say the word “Israel” in public – made any move away from the Camp David accords. It simply wasn’t in Egypt’s national and regional interest to do so.

Israel had put so much store in Sadat, and then Mubarak, as the guarantors of the peace agreement between the two countries that they had never seriously paused to think about the Egyptian people. Israelis were frustrated that Mubarak had never done anything to warm relations beyond the “cold peace,” which effectively discouraged any real engagement on commercial or cultural levels. But as long as he kept the agreement and most importantly, the security cooperation functioned and even flourished behind the scenes, secretly, they were content.

When hundreds of thousands took to the streets at the end of January 2011, in a display of pent-up anger that had been seething for many years, the assumption in Israel was that Mubarak would be criticized for clinging to the peace agreement. But I couldn’t find one person during those days in Cairo who brought Israel up in the long list of complaints they had against the Mubarak regime. It was all about the domestic situation. Israel simply was not a factor for them. They all treated the peace agreement as a given, and even when specifically asked, not one of the protestors thought the Camp David accords should be abandoned. And when the Muslim Brotherhood briefly came to power under Morsi, it wasn’t on their agenda either.

Egypt is the sick man of the Middle East: a massive country with a hungry, young and unemployed population, not even capable of feeding itself. It desperately needs foreign investment and aid, and that is not going to come if it cuts off diplomatic ties with its only stable and successful neighbor. Egypt also needs Israel’s assistance in confronting the Islamist insurgency in Sinai, where the Islamic State still has functioning strongholds.

On February 2, 2011, after a week of mass demonstrations, Barack Obama officially abandoned America’s old ally and announced that the transition of power “must begin now.” He did so despite Benjamin Netanyahu and other pro-American leaders in the region beseeching him to stick behind Mubarak. Obama mistakenly thought that an orderly democratic process could ensue. Instead, he found himself two years later begrudgingly endorsing a military coup against Morsi and then an even more repressive dictator in Sissi.

Mubarak by then was shuttling from the courtroom to a military hospital and then a prison hospital. The courts finally acquitted him and he was allowed to spend his last years in his private mansion, shorn of all influence. Suleiman, the preferred successor, who ironically had announced Mubarak’s resignation to the nation, died long before him, back in 2012. No one wants to risk predictions now of how long Sissi, a little known general back in 2011 whom no one was betting on to end up president, will remain in power. And if he is forced to leave, it will probably be because the shadowy group of generals holding the reins of power behind the scenes feels he isn’t up to the job.

Whoever ends up being Egypt’s next president will also uphold the peace agreement with Israel. Whether he will do better by the Egyptian people is another question.

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