Embattled yet unbending, President Hosni Mubarak is sending a message that he remains deeply suspicious of reform efforts in Egypt and resistant to the calls from Washington and his own populace for him to step aside.
But this is not just the face of a leader in crisis. This is the way Washington’s relationship has always been with Mubarak. Two years ago, a secret cable from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo described Mubarak as stubborn and stone-faced when pressed to make reform, and maintaining that he is the only barrier standing in the way of disaster.
This is the Mubarak President Obama faces as the United States tries to stitch together a policy that can maintain relations with a key ally while standing up for the rights of citizens demanding change. On Thursday, tensions between the two countries hit a new public low.
The State Department accused Mubarak’s government of orchestrating the violence that erupted this week in Cairo.
Mubarak dug in. “You don’t understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I stepped down now,” he said in an interview with ABC News.
U.S. officials, rebuffed in their efforts to get Mubarak to quit immediately, and angered by this week’s violence, are considering a new tack. Under a new scenario, Mubarak would remain temporarily in a symbolic role, perhaps as “honorary president” while the newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman would take charge and help usher in a more open government.
The scenario underscores the limited and comparatively unappealing options available to the White House. Quiet entreaties by phone and in person have failed to move Mubarak; so have less subtle suggestions that the U.S. might yank billions in military and other aid, threats the officials downplayed Thursday.
Analysts say Washington regards the Egyptian military as vital to counter Egypt’s instability, and is reluctant to cut back aid.
Even Obama’s statement that a transition must begin immediately has had little visible effect on Mubarak.
And there are obvious pitfalls to the latest approach. Though Vice President Suleiman is respected by some regional allies, U.S. officials say he hasn’t yet shown a commitment to the profound democratic changes sought by the protesters and backed by the United States. The State Department openly complained Thursday that Suleiman had not done enough to include opposition groups in planning for Egypt’s future.
The idea of easing Mubarak into a symbolic role has been discussed for days as a way to help the proud 82-year-old former military officer make an honorable exit.
One former U.S. official called the strategy “the only option in the zone of reality.”
The U.S. has always known that Mubarak does not respond well to pressure. A former senior Bush administration official recalled that in his last meeting with Mubarak in 2008, the Egyptian president complained for 90 minutes about U.S. pressure on him to institute political reforms.
Mubarak expressed particular disdain for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who infuriated him with a tough speech in Cairo in 2005 calling for Middle East regimes to democratize.
And though there is little indication that the secret cable written in 2009 by U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey served as anything more than a snapshot of the aging Egyptian leader as he prepared to visit Washington, it is full of anecdotes and insights.
Scobey describes Mubarak as bemoaning the fall of other Middle East strongmen, including Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the shah of Iran.
“We have heard him lament the results of earlier U.S. efforts to encourage reform in the Islamic world,” reads the cable, among the secret documents released last year by WikiLeaks. “Wherever he has seen these U.S. efforts, he can point to the chaos and loss of stability that has ensued.”
In the case of the shah, driven from power in 1979 in a revolution that resulted in an Islamic theocracy, the cable says Mubarak is fond of arguing that it was U.S. pressure to reform that fatally weakened the shah’s regime, a pointed way of reminding Washington that doing so in Egypt could have the same results.
Mubarak also rails against President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, the cable says, because Hussein’s ouster plunged the country into violence and disarray and strengthened the power of Iran, a Shiite Muslim government, at the expense of Egypt and other Sunni-led countries.
“He routinely notes that Egypt did not like Saddam and does not mourn him, but at least he held the country together and countered Iran,” the cable says.
It describes Mubarak as a calculating, isolated survivor, more interested in holding back Islamic militancy than in giving the Egyptian people a genuine voice. Nor does he have a “single confidante or advisor who can truly speak for him,” the cable reads.
The cable also raises questions about whether it was prudent for the White House to announce support for a new Egyptian government that includes “important non-secular actors,” a reference to the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
That Islamic group “represents the worst, as they challenge not only Mubarak’s power but his view of Egyptian interests,” the cable reads. “In Mubarak’s mind, it is far better to let a few individuals suffer than risk chaos for society as a whole.”
The cable did not even contemplate the possibility that domestic unrest could drive him from power. Noting that presidential elections were scheduled for 2011, it concludes that “if Mubarak is still alive, it is likely he will run and, inevitably, win.”
True to character, Mubarak remained defiant Thursday.
In his interview with ABC News’ Christiane Amanpour in the heavily guarded presidential palace in Cairo, he said that he never planned to run for another term in office, and that he never planned to pass on the presidency to his son Gamal, once widely considered to be his successor.
Nor did Mubarak suggest that he would follow other deposed leaders into exile.
“I would never run away,” he said. “I will die on this soil.”
Times staff writer David S. Cloud contributed to this report.