Hosni: This is about more than sausages

August 18, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

So, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt refers to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as "fatso."

"This fatso, Sharon: I hear he eats an entire lamb for dinner," Mubarak reportedly said. "How can anybody fall asleep after that?"

The remark reportedly was made to Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who was visiting Egypt to try to get some positive movement in the wrecked peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It was leaked to the Israeli press, which published it, and it was picked up by The New York Times.

How can Sharon sleep after eating a whole lamb? How can he not? Certainly, Sharon has more matters to lose sleep over than what he had for dinner.

The prime minister is a very large man, and there is no doubt that he eats voraciously, always has. More than a dozen years ago, Charles Glass, an old Middle East hand, and I visited a restaurant just north of Beirut where Sharon used to have secret meetings with Bashir Gemayel, the leader of the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia. They met in the early 1980s, when Sharon, then Israel's defense minister, was planning the invasion of Lebanon, expecting that the Christians would help him drive out the Palestine Liberation Organization and its leader, Yasser Arafat.

Pepe Abed, the owner of the restaurant, remembered Sharon's appetite. "Bashir used to come here all the time," he said. "He brought Ariel Sharon for dinner before the invasion. He had four bowls of hummus himself. And drink! We did not have a chair big enough for him." (The quote is recorded in Glass's book, Tribes With Flags. )

Sharon still is having difficulty with chairs. Recently, the chair he occupies in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, collapsed beneath his great bulk, the exact weight of which is a closely guarded secret.

So, it's easy enough to poke fun at Sharon over all this. But who is Mubarak to be casting these stones?

One of Mubarak's nicknames is "La Vache Qui Rit," after the French cheese of the same trademark that carries a logo of a laughing cow, vaguely resembling the Egyptian president.

Another story that makes the rounds about Mubarak, both in Egypt and among outside observers, is much harsher and goes to Mubarak's appearing to have made himself president for life after more than two decades in office.

As the political joke goes, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic pan-Arabist firebrand who was president after the 1952 overthrow of the British-supported monarchy, wanted to make sure his vice president was stupider than he, so he picked Anwar Sadat. Sadat, who succeeded Nasser, was similarly inclined, so he chose Mubarak. Mubarak succeeded Sadat after his assassination in 1981. So far, he hasn't found anyone to succeed him. Get it?

I think it's fair to say that it was stupid of Mubarak to make the remark he made about Sharon. No matter how much he might have thought Shimon Peres would enjoy the insult to his political rival, Mubarak should have learned after all this time that the relationship between Israeli politicians and the Israeli press would assure the remark would be leaked.

What Sharon might say to Mubarak in return would be something along this line: "Look, old man, I am what I am, and I don't dye my hair. Moreover, Israel is a real democracy - which Egypt is not - and I am elected in free elections in a land where there is freedom of expression and full political dialogue. No one is sent to jail here for criticizing me. It is not only my tummy; my whole political legitimacy outweighs yours."

The difference between political freedom in Israel and Egypt is enormous. Only last month, Prof. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist and teacher at Cairo's prestigious American University, was sentenced to seven years in prison on a variety of trumped-up charges. Ibrahim, 63 and now quite ill, has been devoted to advancing democracy in Egypt, monitoring elections and studying discrimination against minorities, including Coptic Christians. He and his supporters believe that what really infuriated Mubarak's regime was Ibrahim's suggestion that Mubarak, like most other Arab leaders, was grooming his son, Gamal, to succeed him.

Last week, the Bush administration took its strongest step yet to protest the treatment of Ibrahim, threatening to withhold $130 million in supplemental U.S. aid. It's not likely to persuade Mubarak to release Ibrahim; it may even help Mubarak to look less like an American toady, because Ibrahim has U.S. citizenship and is married to an American woman. But it's comforting to see that the Bush admninistration sees the embarassing flaw of Egypt's behavior.

But back to the food chain.

It wasn't just the fatso remark that got into the Israeli press. Mubarak reportedly complained to Peres that on a recent visit to Sharon, an Egyptian general had expected to be well fed, especially given the Israeli prime minister's gastronomic reputation. But all he got was two sausages and a tomato.

"We were so hurt that I could not overlook the incident," Mubarak reportedly told Peres, according to The New York Times. "I complained to Sharon, and he said next time the general would get three sausages."

Something's very wrong with this picture. What's going on in the Middle East these days is a great tragedy. It has devastated Israel and the Palestinians and has had a horrible impact on Egypt. And Mubarak is upset about the number of sausages his general gets. So upset that he brings it up with the foreign minister of Israel, as if there's nothing more important to talk about?

No wonder he doesn't get more respect.

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