February 13, 2011
February 13, 2011
It was exactly 6:00 p.m. local time in Cairo when the decision was made public. In a curt statement, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that President Hosni Mubarak, due to the “difficult situation” in the country, was leaving office. Power, Suleiman said, would initially be transferred to the Egyptian army.
The resignation is a triumph for the opposition. Weeks of growing demonstrations continually increased pressure on Mubarak. Three times, the president addressed his people. Three times he said he would not step down.
The 82-year-old Mubarak ruled his country for three full decades, but in the end, even he realized that he could not stand up to the mass protests that have rocked Egypt for the last 18 days. The demonstrators simply refused to give up. And even those who had long stood by Mubarak’s side — United States President Barack Obama; leaders from across Europe — began to abandon him. It was time, they said, for the Egyptian leader to make way for a new beginning.
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators cheered Friday evening’s announcement from Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s pro-democracy movement in the heart of Cairo’s city center. After Mubarak’s Thursday evening speech, in which he said he would stay in office until September, many had almost lost faith that they could push through their central demand. Mubarak, they have said since the very beginning, must go.
For 30 years, Mubarak’s partners in the West have stood by as he ruled Egypt with an iron fist. Called “the smiling cow” prior to his ascent to power — a nickname earned for the grin he often wore as he stood behind former Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat — Mubarak quickly became a powerful leader after his predecessor was assassinated in October 1981. He became a reliable partner to the West — and ruled his own country with force.
His portrait hung in every official office in the country; he was dutifully praised in every speech. Young Egyptians, well over half of the population, have never known a leader other than Mubarak. Indeed, for them, he came to embody all that was wrong with the country: few economic opportunities, little freedom and no right to voice criticism.
An Insurance Policy for the West
But Mubarak was valuable to the West. He never wavered in upholding his peace deal with Israel and played an outsized role in the Middle East. His far-reaching influence in the Arab world also made him indispensable. US presidents, French heads of state, British prime ministers — all maintained close relationships with the Egyptian president.
He was a welcome guest in Germany too and met with almost all of Berlin’s top politicians. Indeed, Germany had even been mentioned as a possible place of exile for Mubarak, before he put such speculation to rest.
When then-German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher visited Cairo in 1982, Mubarak extravagantly praised the politician, “in the name of Allah the Merciful,” as “my dear brother.” When, after their meeting, Genscher complimented the openness of his counterpart, the Egyptian leader made the flattering reply that such things were usual between brothers.
The Mubaraks had a high opinion of Germany. In 2004, the University of Stuttgart awarded “honorary citizenship” of the university to the president’s wife, Suzanne Mubarak, for her social commitment and her dedication to the rights of children and women. When the Egyptian president was treated for a slipped disk in a Munich hospital that same year, he was visited by a number of prominent politicians, including Bavarian Governor Edmund Stoiber, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Schröder justified his visit by saying that, as one of the most experienced politicians in the region, Mubarak was “a particularly important adviser.”
The appreciation of Mubarak’s skill as a diplomat remained as high as ever until very recently. In March 2010, he was received by Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, ahead of having a gall bladder operation in Heidelberg. Nevertheless, the German government continued to broach the subject of human rights in its talks with Mubarak. For example, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he brought up the issue during his visit to Cairo in the spring of 2010.
But it never went further than a cautious dialogue, and Berlin never made genuine demands for reform. Instead, Mubarak was seen as a bulwark in the struggle against radical Islam. The administration of US President George W. Bush also considered Egypt’s hard-line regime useful in the fight against suspected terrorists and their supporters. The most spectacular example of their cooperation was the case of the cleric Abu Omar, who was kidnapped in a public place in Italy by the CIA before allegedly being tortured in Egypt. Abu Omar’s description of his detention in Egypt provided an insight into the horrors that can be found in the regime’s dungeons…
February 13, 2011
At 80, a woman with a fatal disease knows she doesn’t want to die in the hospital and discovers, with her family, what that really means
“Your hands are so wrinkly. Are you going to die?” my nephew asked my mother when he was about three. “Yes I am,” she answered, pausing to stick a knitting needle behind her ear and take his small, smooth hand in hers as they sat on the couch more than 15 years ago. “And you never know when it might happen.” Here she resumed work on the row of whatever it was she was knitting and added, “I’m an old toad, you know.” Daniel looked stricken. Telling this story, my sister rolls her eyes, knowing the rest of the family won’t be surprised by it. “Promise me you’ll pull the plug when my time comes” is a refrain we’d been hearing from my mother for ages.
Two years ago this coming June my mother—“an 80-year-old in a 60-year-old’s body,” the pulmonologist told her—was ambushed by a diagnosis of Stage IV adenocarcinoma of the lungs. It had already spread to her spine and left hip. Barely two weeks earlier, she’d gone out west for another grandchild’s college graduation and hiked along a cliff on the Oregon coast. Could she really have inoperable lung cancer? The pulmonologist, to whom she was referred by a GP alarmed at what he saw on her chest x-ray, needed a CT scan to be convinced. In the windowless examining room at the hospital in Brooklyn, my mother said sadly yet matter of factly, “Well, I guess that’s pretty much what I’ve been expecting to hear. We’ve all got to go somehow, don’t we?”
We all do, of course. But I don’t think there are many bustling, nonbelieving souls like my mother who are ready to face that fact when rudely confronted with it. In her case, facing it meant ruling out treatment—the chemotherapy and radiation that the pulmonologist urged to ease pain and eke out a few more months. “If geezers like me have lots of tests and treatments,” she told the doctor, “there isn’t going to be enough money to spend on the other end. This health-care mess isn’t going to be fixed if we aren’t ready to get out of the way.” Nonplussed on his little stool, he shook his head and raised an eyebrow. “Well, I’ve heard that view before, but never from someone in your situation. People generally change their tune when it suddenly applies to them.”
Actually, I think my mother delivered her pronouncement so she wouldn’t cry. As she sat there, suddenly told she would soon be gone, I imagine it helped a little to take aim at the Medicare cliché. With the nation’s health-care debate heating up in the summer of 2009, those words were at the ready: she could voice the non-interventionist, parsimonious, yet also generous sentiments long lodged in her now “moth-eaten” (the doctor’s words) bones. For she was a rarity—a grandmother in favor of having the plug pulled and ready to live, or rather die, by that all-but-taboo vision of the end of things. But right then, in that airless room, she needed most of all to rise above an abyss. Look at me, a very lucky old lady who has made it to 80; tell me it makes any sense to rack up huge bills trying to add on an extra couple of months (at best) to a life that isn’t likely to last out the year. It was her way of rallying, and relieving us of the awful weight of the moment. My father looked stricken.
Over a late dinner one evening three months after that day in the doctor’s office, I asked her if I might write something, sometime, about her end. An owl had just hooted as we sat at the table on the screened-in porch of my parents’ country place in a tiny Massachusetts town. She nodded, though almost imperceptibly in the candle-lit darkness, and waved away the notion that there was anything particularly notable in her approach to her last months (if only she knew how many). Yet as those numbered days passed at a curious pace, so slow and so swift, the experience of taking no extraordinary measures felt, well, extraordinary. The owls hooted, answering questions with questions. We listened and gazed at the coneflower in the bud vase, picked the first day my mother had arrived up there from New York, two months earlier. She’d had to trim its weakening stem, and the neck of the vase now offered crucial support, but the petals drooped only slightly and the yellow was still vibrant. (“O’Henry,” she had named it.) She savored the last bite of what little had been on her plate and looked at me: “Could I really be dying?…”