In a referendum in September 1999, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's reelection was approved by 93.8 percent of the vote. Turnout was reported to be 79.2 percent. But in the confines of the dusty, cat-infested premises of the state-owned newspapers that published these questionable figures, jokes ran rampant among the browbeaten staff.
Working on the copy desk of one such newspaper -- which had been nicknamed the "Gazift" (zift means garbage in Arabic) by the grossly underpaid hacks who produced it -- I asked my colleague: "This pretty much means he's going to be president until he dies, right?"
My colleague smiled sardonically and replied, "No dear, he will be president until we die!"
Another chimed in, "In Egypt, the light at the end of the tunnel has been switched off."
It is the Egyptian way to weep with one eye and laugh with the other. So we all laughed, drank several glasses of overly sweetened tea, finished our work, and scuttled home.Waiting For Gamal
Shortly after this episode, I was commissioned by a magazine in Washington, D.C., to identify and interview some of the "movers and shakers" in Egypt. Without hesitation, I proposed Gamal Mubarak, the president's prodigal younger son, who had recently returned after study and work in the United Kingdom with ambitions of modernizing (nay, upgrading) Egypt.
My colleagues at "Gazift" warned me that the handsome Gamal, who was the most eligible bachelor in town, was not an easy catch for an interview -- especially as the local press had chewed up and spit out his older brother, Alaa, for his dubious business practices.
So we were all taken aback when scarcely a few weeks after making initial contact with the young Mubarak's office, I received word that my request had been approved and I was given an appointment.
After all, I was neither "The New York Times," nor "Le Monde." Why would the rising son of the Egyptian president, whom many whispered was being groomed for the presidency, agree to meet with a rookie journalist from Canada representing a niche-market magazine in Washington, D.C.?
But I set to work on my list of mostly harmless questions on U.S.-Egyptian relations and economic initiatives and included -- upon prodding by a colleague -- one sensitive personal question:
"Many Egyptians lament that the children of those revolutionaries who overthrew the monarchy and the elites in the name of social injustice and anti-imperialism are now behaving in very much the same manner and claiming the same privileges as the former monarchy and elites. Is this a fair criticism?"
Of course, the question did not target Gamal alone, but referred to the offspring of many key revolutionary leaders, who were driving around in slick cars, attending the American University in Cairo, and living the high life, while the average Egyptian was crushed by collapsing exchange rates, the rising cost of living, and the absence of real democracy. At that time, nearly half of Egypt's population lived below -- or barely above -- the poverty line. Glib PR Man
Then came the day of the interview. Gamal Mubarak's office was nothing like the typical public-sector bureau. It was not messy, did not reek of cigarettes, and there were no feral cats in sight. It was quiet, immaculate, and professional, with Western business journals and reviews splayed out on the coffee table of the waiting room.
When the man himself emerged from his office to greet me, I found him a warm, down-to-earth personality who exhibited not a trace of self-importance. He graciously posed for photos in several poses -- by the window, behind the desk, next to the bookshelf, etc. And then we sat down for the questions.
Mubarak spoke perfect English, clearly articulating his words and overemphasizing the consonants as most foreign students of English are apt to do. Most of his answers were generic, and he came across as a glib public-relations executive trying to market his country. But in all fairness, most of my questions were generic as well.
Asked about the impact of globalization, Mubarak stressed the ambitious reform programs geared at morphing Egypt's state-controlled economy into one that was market-oriented and led by the private sector. He outlined the challenges that integration with the outside world would entail, notably upgrading the level of Egypt's human resources to be competitive.
As he spoke, I thought of the dozen or so middle-aged men at "Gazift" who had been left jobless -- but salaried -- since the introduction of computers that usurped their manual page-making functions. Having nothing else to do, they still came to the office every day, idling in the foyer, sipping endless cups of Turkish coffee. (As they continued to collect a nominal salary, they add to the 12 percent unemployment rate.)Sunny Outlook
This led to a question on the young, elite "Internet generation," who contrasted starkly with the majority of the population which did not yet have access to the Internet and other new media. What were his thoughts on this, I asked.
"It's a challenge," acquiesced Mubarak. Reiterating his vision for Egypt to integrate into the global economy, he used catchwords like "maximize," "information age," "multidimensional," and "technology tools."
"The starting point is the education system, the training institutes, and attracting foreign direct investment in IT," he said. He pointed to the stellar role played by the private sector in spearheading and co-sponsoring a national project to upgrade the capabilities of Egypt's youth. It's an area, he acknowledged, that "if not invested in, we will look back in five years and say we are still not ready to compete globally."
This segued into a discussion about Egypt's long-standing brain-drain crisis. Mubarak rejected the assertion that the phenomenon posed as dire a problem as it did in the 1970s and 1980s. His perception was that those who left for greener pastures in decades past were increasingly persuaded to return to Egypt by a plethora of new opportunities.
"A lot of those individuals are coming back because they are seeing a change, because they see Egypt starting to integrate into the global economy. They see that there are solid institutions, there are markets, there's a clear government vision and policy of opening up and reforming the system," he observed. "It is positive because we need their contribution as a necessary shortcut until we upgrade our education system and start to have the output from the educational system to satisfy what we need in terms of human resources."
A necessary shortcut indeed, when according to various disputed studies at the time, more than half of Egyptian males over 15 years of age, and a third of females, were illiterate.
At the suggestion that while Egypt's economy is growing, so is the gap between the richest and poorest members of society, Mubarak hardly raised an eyebrow.
"I wonder whether people who raise [this argument] can really provide some concrete evidence of what the gap was, how this gap is defined, and how you define rich and poor 10 years ago, and how it is defined today," he said. He urged critics to look at the issue from a more practical standpoint and consider the sweeping economic reforms over the past 10 years.
It was hard not to believe Mubarak's sunny outlook for Egypt's future as we sat in his brightly-lit, pristine office, beyond the hubbub and fray of everyday Egyptian life.
"The question that needs to be posed and answered in detail is: Have we gone fast enough? Have we reached targets fast enough to be able to tackle those problems in a successful way," he went on, insisting that the fruits of reform had begun to ripen.
But that wasn't the question that sprung to my mind. The question that haunted me was one my colleague had asked me a week prior, after coming shopping with me at a boutique in the posh Zamalek district of Cairo and watching me try on a pair of designer shoes priced at $200.
"Are you aware of the monthly salary of your colleagues at the 'Gazift'?" she wondered.
"A little less than the price of those shoes," she answered.
I concluded that the fruits of economic reform were not yet in the grasp of the average Egyptian, but I didn't argue with Mubarak.Egypt's 'Driving Force'
Insofar as potential sources of instability in Egypt, the young Mubarak reluctantly cited the unemployment problem and the failure to deal with the problems of society's lower rungs, which he described as "concerns for any developing country."
"If you look at Egypt today, the economy is growing at an average of 6 percent last year , hopefully expected to go up. Population growth from 3 percent growth in the last 15 years has now been curtailed down to about 2 percent. So, at least if you look at those macro-figures, there is strong evidence that we are going the right direction," he said.
Here, I remembered the Egyptian joke about the government building new highways to ease the growing traffic problem, except that the highways would all be one-way, so that motorists could go and never come back. Is that the fast track on which Mubarak was unwittingly betting the future of Egypt?
Finally, we reached the question about the reversal of fortunes and endemic corruption. Here, Mubarak's face changed dramatically, and gone was the agreeable PR executive.
"Who exactly are you referring to?" he asked point-blank.
"Well," I stammered, "you know.... The assertion is that the revolutionaries simply usurped the position of the elites and did not really bring about any real...."
Mubarak demanded evidence backing such an allegation, saying that anyone who makes such a statement does not understand modern Egyptian society and should spend more time studying it before coming to such a conclusion. He pointed to a growing class of businessmen, who, he claimed, were the real driving force behind Egypt today.
Yes, I did see the growing class of businessmen as a "driving force," but I also saw at every level "new bottles, old wine" -- an expression my colleagues at "Gazift" were fond of using to describe cabinet reshuffles.Gamal's Chickens Come Home To Roost
In the years that followed my interview, the growing class of businessmen did drive Egypt -- and eventually, some now argue, they drove the Mubarak dynasty out of power.
More than 10 years after my talk with Gamal Mubarak, much has changed -- and yet so very little has changed. The Egyptian population of 65 million or so at the time has now ballooned to 85 million. In the days that I went haggling for U.S. dollars in the black market, the Egyptian pound was valued at 3.4 against the U.S. dollar. Ten years later, it had been reduced to 5.75.
In the wake of the Egyptian revolution this month, myriad theories are making the rounds to identify what triggered the popular uprising against Hosni Mubarak. The general consensus is that it was a veritable grassroots movement aided by online social-networking sites; a manifestation of decades of frustration and anger over social injustice, oppression, and the lack of opportunity.
Some fringe commentators, however, have suggested that what happened was not a revolution, and that the entire movement was tantamount to a coup, masterminded by the stalwart Egyptian military.
They argue that the traditional authority and influence of the military's high command was challenged by Egypt's nouveau business elite, a group that would form Gamal Mubarak's primary support base should he ever have made a real bid for the presidency. If this is correct, then the use of Egypt's techies to mobilize the masses could best be described as Gamal's chickens coming home to roost.Tanya Goudsouzian is a Doha-based journalist. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL