Mubarak of Egypt: the U.S. Meets the Surprising Man Who Succeeded Sadat

updated 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

He was Anwar Sadat's handpicked successor, but when Hosni Mubarak travels to Washington this week for scheduled talks with President Reagan, Americans will find that the new President of Egypt is a strikingly different figure from his mystical mentor. Rising to power in the military, Mubarak commanded the Egyptian Air Force in its dramatic opening attack on Israel in the 1973 war. Yet he has shown no reticence, and indeed considerable skill, in putting his mark swiftly on his nation's domestic policy. He has freed political dissidents imprisoned by Sadat and purged his Cabinet of members close to a government official arrested for corruption. His stewardship of foreign policy has been equally surefooted, if not always to American taste. Though Mubarak remains committed to the Camp David Accords, he informed Secretary of State Alexander Haig last month that he would not meet the April deadline for signing an agreement on the Palestinian issue without further Israeli concessions. Just last week he invited the Soviet Union to send back to Cairo the 66 technical advisers whom Sadat expelled along with the Soviet Ambassador last September.

Mubarak thrived under the presidencies of Gamal Nasser and Anwar Sadat, but he kowtowed to neither man. He once refused Nasser's brother admittance to the Air Force Academy for failing to pay the registration fee, and when Sadat's brother—a pilot who was killed in the 1973 war—first came under his command, Mubarak was notably hard on him. "I didn't want anybody to think that he had privileges," Mubarak says. "I hate people who exploit the fact that anybody in their family is important." In that and other ways, Mubarak is far less the autocrat than Sadat was. After Sadat's funeral, newspaper editor Hassanein Heikal, who had been imprisoned by Sadat, asked what the new President had worn to the rites. "A plain dark suit," he was told. "That makes me feel better," said Heikal, who has since been released by Mubarak. "It means that he will not put emphasis on uniforms and decorations, like his predecessor."

Mubarak differs in other ways. He avoids both the rhetoric that Nasser used to whip crowds into hysterics and the political manipulation practiced by Sadat. Though Sadat openly attacked Arab leaders for their intransigence on the peace process, Mubarak has ordered conciliation—even to the point of forbidding the Egyptian press to criticize his country's archenemy, Libya's Col. Muammar Qadaffi. He has made it clear that peace with the rest of the Arab world is as important to him as peace with Israel.

Most remarkably, Mubarak has shunned the cult of personality that Egyptian Presidents in the past have encouraged. A no-nonsense man who grew up as the son of a court employee in a small village near Sadat's birthplace, Mubarak still answers his own phone and spends almost all his time within one square mile, shuttling between his office, his modest two-story home and the Air Force Officers' Club. He is not given to the cumbersome motorcades in which Sadat traveled daily. "Suddenly there are no more traffic jams in the center of Cairo," says one prominent industrialist. "Sadat used to cause them by driving through the city to his offices, houses and palaces." Mubarak also keeps his family life intensely private. When a Cairo newspaper reported that his half-Egyptian, half-Welsh wife of 23 years, Susanna, was studying for a master's degree at nearby American University, the President personally excoriated the editor-in-chief. "I don't want to see anything personal about my family—not my wife, not my children, and not me," barked the father of two college-age sons. "I don't want you to call me an Air Force hero or my wife the First Lady. There is no First Lady—there is Mrs. Mubarak, and my children are not the President's children. They are two boys—themselves."

It is not surprising, then, that the new President of Egypt has shunned the press—especially the foreign press. However, as he prepared for a journey that would take him through Western Europe before his arrival in Washington, Mubarak—wearing a pin-striped suit and short Air Force boots—received Mira Avrech of PEOPLE for the only interview he gave an American magazine before the trip.

You have released nearly 100 of the 1,536 dissidents whom President Sadat had imprisoned in the months before his death. Why?

When President Sadat started the democracy, he started too quickly. Many people advised him to move slowly, gradually, until the people could absorb this freedom, but he wanted to give everything to everyone immediately. Then things went sour and he suddenly began to impose restrictions. He arrested many people, fundamentalists and politicians, but his assassination changed the situation. I have to start another way of dealing with the people. I have to release those who are not dangerous. I have to release the politicians. I have to confer with the other parties here so that all of us can work for the benefit of the country.

Are you more conciliatory than Sadat?

I like always to be fair, but at the same time I am very strict. Whenever something's wrong, I don't leave it. I like to give warnings once or twice. I tell the people this is wrong, this is right, and if they have other ideas or opinions, I can discuss it with them. But whenever a decision is made, everyone should respect that decision.

Israel is scheduled to withdraw from the last occupied Sinai territory in April. Are you worried about domestic Israeli opposition to that withdrawal?

It is an internal problem of the Israeli government. It is not my concern. When Premier Menachem Begin was here I asked him, "Peace forever?" And he replied, "Yes. Peace forever." To have peace, we must respect our commitments.

How can you assure Israel that you will honor your commitments after your land is returned?

What can I do to reassure the Israelis? I guess I'll have to order a big placard saying "No change, no change, no change" for everyone to see.

Would you renew Egypt's large-scale affiliation with the Soviet Union even though you have implied publicly that the Russians' coming into the Middle East would be disastrous?

I like to deal with any country who will deal with me on an equal basis. To deal with a country which thinks it is a superpower and I am a weak man, this doesn't go in the present time of the world. Our relations with any country depend on the kind of cooperation they offer.

Suppose Syria decided to declare war on Israel. You said recently that if they don't consult you first, you are not going to come to their aid. Suppose they did consult you, what would you do?

I would discuss the problem with them. What's war going to lead them to? We have tried war several times. It led to nothing. All over the world, war never led to peace. The war between the United States and Vietnam—where did it lead? To sitting at a table and negotiating until they reached a settlement. Why not do it directly, without war? We are not ready to go through another war.

What are your greatest domestic problems as President?

The most important point is the economic problem. I will be tackling that with my Cabinet right away. I have also asked some experts to prepare a paper for me so that I can discuss the best ways of dealing with the population problem.

Every nine months you have one million new mouths to feed. Would the Muslim fundamentalists let you adopt birth control as a solution?

We will try to find a way.

You dissolved your Cabinet recently after some members were implicated in scandal. What did you mean by calling for "a new order"?

I was planning to make changes in the Cabinet anyway after the [Israeli] retreat from Sinai in April. When I realized that some of my ministers were involved in the case of a contractor convicted of corruption, I decided to make a complete change right now. I want the Cabinet to serve the majority of the people, not to work for the interest of a few.

As President, do you find your friends ask you for favors?

I never let friends take advantage. There are some friends who will try to have some profits or ask for favors. I have never accepted this in my entire life. When I was in the Air Force I had many friends, very close friends. Whenever they asked me for a promotion, I refused to intervene.

How do you spend a typical day?

I get up early in the morning—6 or 6:30. I have my tea and sometimes see my boys. One of them gets up earlier than me to go to the university. Then I read the newspapers. Every day I have a briefing about the international newspapers. I'm usually dressed by 8. I come to work here. My meetings, discussions, everything takes till 1, 2, 3 o'clock. Sometimes I have to come back here in the evenings when I have urgent meetings. If not, I go to unwind at the small Air Force Officers' Club, where I play squash and meet with Air Force officers and civilians. All those who have troubles can go there and wait for me. Sometimes I find a long row of people waiting for me.

Don't you feel lonely as President?

No. I have many friends from different classes and I constantly talk to people. One day I was standing with a man who was paving the road and started a discussion. I answer the phone myself. Sometimes I even take wrong numbers. Once a telephone operator called and asked if I had placed a call to Alexandria. I told her, "No, thank you, I did not." She asked me my name. I told her Hosni Mubarak. She told me, "Go to hell! You are not the President. If you really were the President, you wouldn't answer your own phone." I could not persuade her.

How much time do you devote to your family?

My children are busy with exams most of the time in the university. When I have time—one hour or two hours a day, or in the evening, whenever—they come and sit with me. I don't like to go anywhere without my family.

You have objected angrily to newspaper reports about your wife. Why?

My wife works hard and did so before I became President. She doesn't like publicity. She hates to be followed by television cameras or reporters. My children, too, want to live a private life and keep a low profile. That's what they are used to. We can't change ourselves just because my position has changed.

What influence did your own parents have on your life?

Whenever I was with my father before he died, he used to spend hours advising me and teaching me. He'd say, "You should not do this," or, "You should do this," and explain that these are the teachings of the Koran. His advice was truly impressive, and since that time, I have acted according to it.

How about your mother?

My mother lived in the country most of her life. She was the type of village woman who looks for ways to help the poor. Even if she had only one dollar in her pocket, she would give it to the poor. Sometimes we had no food in the house because she gave the money to a beggar in the street.

What are your ambitions?

I am not an ambitious man at all. I didn't ask to be President. I just accepted it because it is in the interest of the country—not for the fame of being President, or its name or its luxurious life. I look to the post for its responsibilities, how to tackle the problems and solve them. This is my only interest.

Your style is so different from Sadat's. Is that deliberate?

I act according to what the people want, to make them feel at ease. I never changed my character since I've been working in the government or the armed forces. My character did not change as my rank increased.

Unlike Sadat, you don't keep opulent palaces. Recently you announced a visit to the lake resort of Ismailia, then suddenly canceled it. Why?

I decided to have relief for one day, a very short vacation. I had hoped for a quiet 24 hours in the country, just sit in the sun, have something to eat, walk in the garden. But then too many people found out I was going. People wanted to meet me, from the governor of the district to this man or that. They prepared receptions. It seemed it would not be relaxing. I was supposed to leave here at 4 p.m. At 31 canceled the trip.

So what will you do to relax?

Nothing. I do not know where to go.

Do the responsibilities of office ever awaken you at night?

Whenever I sleep, I sleep. I never get up, only in the morning.

So many Egyptians live in poverty. Can you improve their lives?

I shall do my best. I have only my salary. I possess nothing but my feelings. Believe me, I shall do my best.

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