Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who arrived in Washington Monday accompanied by a large delegation including his son Gamal Mubarak and several dozen Egyptian journalists, doesn't travel light. Still, with members of Congress back in their districts during August recess and much of the rest of the city out of town, there is a distinct under-the-radar quality to this official Mubarak state visit, his first to Washington in six years.
When the Middle East potentate was scheduled to come to Washington in May, he was due to stay at Blair House, the official residence for visiting foreign dignitaries. But after that visit was canceled due to the death of his grandson, the new trip took a different, less formal cast, with Mubarak no longer a guest at the swank U.S. government mansion but instead apparently encamped at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, where he was scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Monday. And instead of American VIPs coming to have an audience with Mubarak at Blair House as planned in May, the Egyptians have invited groups of former senior U.S. government officials to meet with Mubarak at the Four Seasons as well. (U.S. Jewish leaders met with Mubarak Monday as well). Drivers on Rock Creek Parkway Monday may have noticed the exit to the Four Seasons blocked off at the bottom by police cars.
Mubarak is slated to have a "leaders" meeting -- just him and President Barack Obama plus note-takers -- at the White House tomorrow, followed by an expanded meeting of the two delegations that will include Vice President Joseph Biden, National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones, Clinton, other national security principals and key staff, followed by a working lunch in the White House cabinet room. Mubarak is not scheduled to visit Congress at all this trip. The Egyptian delegation is due to depart Washington directly after the White House meetings Tuesday.
The timing of the visit might be deliberately low key, designed to obscure concerns about Mubarak's heavyhanded rule at home and the uncertain succession prospects for the octogenarian leader, who some Egypt watchers say has been devastated and more frail since the death of his grandson. Mubarak is accompanied this visit by his son and possible would-be successor Gamal Mubarak, 46, who slipped into Washington in March for a low profile, private visit, speaking to small, invite-only meetings at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"The big unanswered question of the Mubarak visit is what, if anything, President Obama will say to Mubarak about Egypt's internal political situation," said one Washington Middle East hand who asked for anonymity. "Concern is rising about Mubarak's longevity and how smooth a transition to Egypt's next president will be. Conditions are poor: Mubarak has made no formal provisions, there is opposition to his son's ascendance, and the country is under increasing socio-economic stress ... The U.S., which relies on Egypt for regional strategic cooperation, is legitimately concerned with these problems -- but Cairo has made it clear they don't want to discuss domestic affairs, or at least not in public."
Several experts said that could well be the reason for the dead of August scheduling. Said Steven Cook, a Middle East hand at the Council on Foreign Relations, "When the Egyptians ... rescheduled this meeting, and they chose the middle of August, ... a week before Obama's vacation, with Obama checking his watch, it seems to me that the Egyptians were heavily involved" in scheduling Mubarak's trip for when Congress and those who might holler about Egypt's record on human rights and democracy would be scant. Nevertheless, a coalition of Egyptian-American groups have planned a demonstration at the White House tomorrow, starring former dissident, now in exile, Saad Eddin Ibrahim.
"In contrast to Obama's stated interest in reaching out to the people of the Arab and Muslim world, the atmospherics of this trip - the behind-closed-door meetings in August, the lack of transparency - all seem to be about excluding the Egyptian and American people from the conversation, not including them," said Andrew Albertson of the Project on Middle East Democracy.
But administration officials gave little indication that Egypt's internal political situation will be as prominent on the Obama agenda with Mubarak as Egypt's regional role and what ideas Mubarak has for trying to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. "In particular, the President will want to discuss how Arab states can help create a context to launch negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, by agreeing to gestures towards Israel in the context of the Arab Peace Initiative," a White House official told The Cable.
"I can imagine the president sitting down tomorrow with Mubarak and saying, 'In a spirit of cooperation, let's figure this out together, how to satisfy everybody here,'" CFR's Cook said. "The key issue is whether they get a deliverable, and what it is. That is the thing that everybody should be watching."
A former senior George H.W. Bush official said the Mubarak delegation is likely to be "tough and consistent ... on what the Israelis need to do i.e. settlement freeze to get talks started." The former official said Mubarak and his key negotiator, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, may also try to leverage a clash last weekend between Hamas and a reportedly Al Qaeda-linked Islamist group in Gaza to try to push the Obama administration to adopt a more flexible formula for enabling Hamas to join a prospective Palestinian unity government.
The Obama administration has said that Hamas can join such a unity government if it agrees to the so-called "Quartet conditions" established by the US, UN, EU and Russia -- recognize Israel's right to exist, agree to honor past agreements, and renounce violence. Cairo wants Washington to consider Hamas members' prospective recognition of the Saudi-backed Arab Peace Initiative as de facto recognition of Israel's right to exist, the former senior official said. "Some in the U.S. administration don't agree."
While Obama's Middle East peace push has taken a back seat in recent weeks to his focus on health care and other domestic issues, it hasn't disappeared from his schedule entirely or his thinking, Middle East hands say. The president met with Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell and members of his team last week. "This is still up there," on Obama's agenda, The Cable was told, referring to Obama's personal commitment to advancing comprehensive peace in the Middle East.