Shafik Gabr was one of President Obama’s greatest fans eighteen months ago. Today, as Mr. Obama presses for the immediate resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, not so much. “The United States is siding with chaos if they force Mubarak out now,” says Gabr.
Gabr is the Chairman of the Artoc Group for Investment and Development, one of Egypt’s leading businesses. He has spent a good portion of his adult life trying to educate Americans about his country -- its peace pact with Israel and record on women’s rights, for instance, that distinguish Egypt from many of its neighbors.
He has hosted scores of business and government leaders from the Middle East and the U.S. at his forums in Washington and Cairo, visited with dozens of Congressmen, invited members of the media to attend President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech; in short, he has acted as an ambassador for his country at a very high level. His ambition – bringing our two peoples closer together – is not strictly altruistic. He recognizes that closer ties to the west foster Egypt’s growth and boosts the fortunes of companies like his.
He is, needless to say, sickened by recent developments. He is also alarmed at the response by the Obama administration. “If the transfer of power happens today, the mobs will rule,” he warns. “It will be similar to the circumstances that brought Hamas to power in Gaza.”
Mr. Gabr recognizes the legitimacy of the protests. He is not mindlessly backing the current regime, but says that the peaceful rally that began several days ago on the streets of Cairo has been hijacked by those with vested interests – specifically the Muslim Brotherhood. He reports that the initial group who received official permission from the police to hold their demonstration, focused on four issues: They demanded a path to democratic elections, programs aimed at reducing unemployment, a lid on rising food and fuel prices and an end to corruption. All these ambitions are supported by the majority of Egypt’s people, according to Gabr.
Two days later, seizing the moment, a second group asked permission to demonstrate, and was turned down. That brought on a clash between protesters and the police, which coincided with the torching of 29 police stations across the country. Simultaneously, four prisons were seized and the inmates released. In response, the president addressed the country for the first time, but failed to satisfy the demands of the people.
Mubarak’s second speech, in which he vowed to hand off leadership through elections in September, did meet the expectations of the majority, according to Gabr. It is, he says, the change that the country wants – a peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box. He reports that after the speech many of the demonstrators were willing to disband.
“People are not getting paid” says Gabr. “Ordinary Egyptians want a return to normality.”
Unhappily, the Muslim Brotherhood, which Gabr describes as well organized, refuses to back down. “They want to create upheaval in this country” he says. “Peaceful demonstrators don’t throw Molotov cocktails.”
He is also skeptical of the pro-democracy credentials of the Muslim Brotherhood. “They will not even negotiate with the administration until Mubarak leaves” he notes. “How is that democratic?”
Gabr would like to see an election date set for September, and the contest overseen by international observers. He believes if the country has time to prepare for the changeover, the Muslim brotherhood will be defeated. This is the process that, in his view, should be supported by everyone, including the United States.
If, on the other hand, the United States and others pressure Mubarak to step down now, it will lead to “a long period of instability in the country.” And, not only in Egypt, but possibly other countries in the region as well.
This is not the first time Mr. Gabr has been disappointed by President Obama. Many in the Middle East responded euphorically to the Cairo speech. Six months later, Gabr was distressed that so few of the initiatives contained in that address, meant to reset relations with the Muslim world, had been pushed forward. While never optimistic that peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians would succeed, Gabr hoped to see other programs, such as broader student exchanges and less restrictive visa policies for Middle Eastern businessmen, flourish. Unhappily, as he said at the time, the lack of follow-up led “Arab Main Street to suspect that it was all just rhetoric.”
There are many loud voices in Egypt just now; the United States should not necessarily be responsive to the loudest. Mr. Gabr is not alone in urging caution – the Israelis are also weighing in. In its desire to appear on the right side of populism and democracy, the Obama administration could well end up contributing to a political vacuum in Egypt, and collapse of human rights.