Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to Cairo’s streets today to demand that Egypt’s embattled leader, Hosni Mubarak, leave power immediately. But new details are emerging in Washington and Paris about how the Egyptian leader has managed to keep his position for so long.
Earlier today, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon admitted that Mubarak paid for a vacation that he and his family took at a resort on the Nile River and lent them a government plane so the Fillons could go sightseeing near Aswan and the ancient temple of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt. The revelation immediately sparked calls for Fillon to resign, a step he has so far refused to take.
Here at home, meanwhile, the Obama administration continues to face questions about why the White House sent retired diplomat Frank Wisner to Cairo to negotiate with Mubarak even though the Egyptian government is a client of Wisner’s law firm, Patton Boggs.
The cases provide vivid examples of the canny ways that Mubarak has long used his nation’s money to build and maintain support for his government in Western capitals.
During Mubarak’s three decades as Egypt’s paramount leader, he has successfully positioned his country as the most important U.S. ally in the Arab world and as a key interlocutor between Israel and the Palestinians. His government has received tens of billions of dollars in U.S. aid since signing the landmark 1979 Camp David accords with Israel, and the Egyptian military has an extensive--and growing--array of advanced American weaponry.
Behind the scenes, Mubarak and his aides have tirelessly played the influence game in Washington, Paris, and other capitals, hiring armies of lobbyists to rebut complaints about Egypt’s human-rights record and working to build personal relationships with influential policymakers.
The Egyptian efforts have heretofore attracted little public notice, but that has been changing in recent days because of the growing scrutiny of Mubarak and his government amid the ongoing mass protests demanding that he step aside.
Mubarak’s government employs numerous powerhouse lobbying shops in Washington, for example, most notably the PLM Group, a joint venture between the lobbying outfits run by Democrat Tony Podesta and former Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La. The firm receives an estimated $1 million a year.
The disclosure of the ties between the administration’s unofficial envoy, Wisner, and the Mubarak regime came just days after Wisner told a security conference that Mubarak’s “continued leadership is critical,” a message that senior administration officials--who have been working to push the Egyptian leader out the door--quickly disavowed.
The White House has pushed back hard at suggestions that Wisner’s employment at Patton Boggs presented a conflict of interest that should have prevented him from being sent to Egypt. Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said that Wisner was “sent to Cairo to deliver a specific, onetime message to President Mubarak” and “is not and was not a U.S. envoy.”
In Paris, the developing scandal ensnaring Fillon--a political ally and close personal friend of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's--could have deeper repercussions.
Fillon admitted on Tuesday that he and his family traveled to Egypt between December 26 and January 2 on a trip entirely funded by the Egyptian government. In a statement released in Paris, Fillon said he was providing details of the trip “in the interests of transparency” and said he had reimbursed the French military for his flights to and from Egypt.
Fillon’s disclosures were the second major political embarrassment for Sarkozy, who is also facing pressure to fire his foreign minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, who vacationed in Tunisia during the uprising there late last month.
News reports in France have disclosed that Alliot-Marie, her partner, and her parents flew to Tunisia on a private plane owned by a prominent Tunisian businessman with close ties to the country’s deposed leader.