It was not the first time a US administration wanted to see the back of an Egyptian ruler – and one, moreover, willing to fight Islamist extremism and treat Israel as a strategic partner.
It happened exactly 30 years ago – and was probably instrumental in bringing the current bad guy Hosni Mubarak to power.
In April 1981, seven months before his assassination, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat arrived in Washington and asked President Ronald Reagan for an evening of his time to view movies secretly filmed by Egyptian military intelligence. Reagan gave his consent, which he was later to regret.
The films had caught Egyptian army and intelligence officers plotting Sadat's assassination. The US president made no comment on what he had seen. But after it was over, White House officials confided to members of the Egyptian president's party that in their view, Sadat was obsessed with a fear of assassination and greatly exaggerated his peril.
On September 20, 1981, when he still had 17 days to live, Sadat was given a second batch of Egyptian intelligence films showing the conspirators' plans were maturing fast.
The Egyptian president said nothing. He was thought at the time to have fatalistically resigned himself to dying.
The plotters were easily identified by their uniforms and insignia and were recorded planning to blow up the train scheduled to carry Sadat from Cairo to Mansoura on Sept. 26. Yet he did not order the conspirators' arrest, nor did he cancel the trip. All he did upon boarding the train was to ask for a new railway crew.
Plans for regime change begun a year before Sadat murder
The former crew was to have acted for the plotters by slowing the train down halfway between the two cities. A bomb on the tracks was to explode and gunmen shoot a rocket-propelled grenade into the president's car.
Unaware of this, the replacement crew kept the train going at high speed past the ambush point.
Sadat survived the first plan to kill him – but not for long.
Ten days later, on October 6, 1981, the assassins' bullets reached him while he was watching a military parade in Cairo. An unnamed Egyptian officer turned a chair upside down over his body as a target marker. The Egyptian military committee which went into action straight after the assassination assured the smooth transition of power to Vice President Hosni Mubarak.
A year later, in October 1982, the senior Egyptian journalist Anis Mansour, editor of the 'October' weekly and Sadat's friend and confidant (whose articles were widely read in the West and the Arab world as reliable pointers to Sadat's intentions), wrote that this military committee had been working for a whole year before the president was murdered, in regular consultation with Vice President Mubarak and in step with Washington.
Therefore, 30 years after that Egyptian upheaval and its aftermath, Mubarak should not have been surprised to find himself in the same position as his predecessor in 1991 – with one important difference: Sadat was removed from office by assassins' bullets, he, Mubarak, was meant to survive an operation connived with Washington to drum him out on the back of "spontaneous" protest demonstrations.
Washington's plans to remove Mubarak date back three years
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and Middle East sources report that for four years, Mubarak was in on the plan hatched between Washington, Egyptian army elements and Egyptian opposition groups. It was first put on the White House table in the fall of 2007, towards the end of the third year of President George W. Bush's second term.
The Egyptian ruler had good foreknowledge of its main features and told his associates on more than one occasion that they encompassed the steps for his overthrow and the nature of the regime to replace his. Mubarak viewed President Barack Obama's public demand early on in the current protest campaign for his regime to grant more freedom and institute democratic reforms as a coded signal for encouraging the conspirators.
A US intelligence report dated Sept. 10, 2007 which came into Mubarak's hands revealed Washington's objectives for the post-Mubarak era.
The document outlined the steps the US would promote for engendering democracy in Egypt against Mubarak's will. It showed Washington working for substantial changes in Egyptian society through the very circles which last week rode the popular wave to bring about Mubarak's downfall:
This is how the 2007 US intelligence report phrased it:
"Our fundamental reform goal in Egypt remains democratic transformation, including the expansion of political freedom and democratic pluralism, respect for human rights and a stable, democratic and legitimate transition to the post-Mubarak era… President Mubarak is deeply skeptical of the US role in democracy promotion. Nonetheless, USG programs are helping to establish democratic institutions and strengthen individual voices for change in Egypt… Due to ongoing GOE interference with US democracy and human rights assistance programs, the Deputies Committee decided on April 10 to proceed with offshore programming as appropriate…"
The US and Egyptian opposition groups set early 2011 as target date
The document went on to describe the activity of American bodies within the outlawed Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; American funding for Egyptian organizations dedicated to fighting corruption; and American steps for electoral reform, the strengthening of civil society, civic education, human rights, women's rights, community development, independent media and transparency.
A year later, in 2008, the Bush administration began inviting Egyptian opposition figures to Washington to discuss the preparations for toppling Mubarak with officials of the National Security Council.
According to a top-secret document compiled in late 2008 to sum up their meetings, the two sides agreed they would be ready to go in early 2011:
"X (on the Egyptian side) claimed that several opposition forces – including the Wafd, Nasserite, Karama and Tagammu parties and the Muslim Brotherhood, Kifaya, and the Revolutionary Socialist movement – have agreed to support an unwritten plan for the transition to a parliamentary democracy, involving a weakened presidency and an empowered prime minister and parliament, before the scheduled 2011 presidential elections.
"According to X, the opposition is interested in receiving support from the army and the police for a transitional government prior to the 2011 elections."
This document is highly significant, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources, because it revealed for the first time that the schemers seeking to remove Mubarak from the presidency had collaborated with Egyptian military and police elites in the course of 2010.
Regime change drive carried over from Bush to Obama
The conspiracy and its discovery by Mubarak engendered a deep chill in relations between the Bush administration and his regime. Those ties went into deep freeze in January 2009 when President Obama entered the white House and instructed US intelligence agencies to open up contacts with army factions seeking regime change in Cairo.
From late 2009, Mubarak stopped traveling to Washington and has barely exchanged a word with President Obama in writing or by phone. The Egyptian ruler could not afford to forfeit US aid, which is close to $2 billion per annum, or forego Egyptian-US military ties which give his army access to advanced technologies. He therefore allowed high-ranking Egyptian army officers to stay in touch with their American counterparts and visit Washington.
Each time one of those officers returned from a trip, he would be privately quizzed by Mubarak about whom he met and the nature of American queries. None of those officers forewarned him of the US-Egyptian military-intelligence conspiracy brewing to topple him. All the same, our sources report that although extremely ill in the last two years, Mubarak picked up clues to the plot coming his way.
At his private meetings in the past year with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Saudi King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mubarak sometimes jokingly advised them to make their next appointments with him through Washington because he was not sure how long he'd be around.
He never explained whether he was referring to his failing health or his falling standing with Obama, about whose Middle East policies he was harshly critical.
Mubarak was wont to denigrate the entire gamut of Obama administration policies on Iran and its nuclear program, the Persian Gulf states, Syria and its president, Lebanon and the Palestinians as a series of catastrophes that could only drag the Middle East into armed conflicts and bloodshed.
A nest of US agents in the Egyptian war room?
In the way the uprising unfolded on Jan. 25 and from updates he received from security, intelligence and the army chiefs, Mubarak found confirmation of his suspicion that a military faction in close cahoots with Washington was functioning clandestinely in the Egyptian general staff war room. He, if anyone, would have recognized this situation from the one prevailing in the Sadat era.
Mubarak cited to the few confidants he still trusted at least seven more clues to the cards stacked against him:
1. No single local Egyptian group or faction has the skills or funds for orchestrating and bankrolling popular demonstrations on the countrywide scale seen in the last week. Therefore a foreign hand was at work.
2. There was evidence that the demonstrations were not spontaneous as depicted by the Arab and international media. Each rally suppressed by Egyptian security forces was replaced with several more springing up fully organized at several points nearby.
3. An unseen hand raised and lowered the flames in a tactic designed to frustrate effective riot control by Egyptian security and police forces. Someone was directing the masses in this game of cat and mouse.
4. World media coverage, particularly by the television networks – whose broadcasts the regime could not black out like the Internet and cellular phone networks – fitted the protest organizers' logistical requirements like a glove. This time, we witnessed a television revolution, in Mubarak's view – not an Internet revolution.
The army chiefs were away in Washington at the decisive moment
5. Aside from fairly tardy coverage of events in Alexandria, Western correspondents focused their pens, mikes and cameras for the most part on central Cairo, although riots raged in at least 15 other Egyptian cities in the Delta region. There, the violence and brutality were far greater than in the capital, leaving hundreds of dead in their wake. In Mubarak's opinion, the Americans used the media to show the world a sanitized, idealized version of a non-violent popular uprising they were openly supporting.
6. For the first five days of the protests, the US president deliberately avoided talking to Mubarak. He only put in a phone call after the Egyptian president's first speech Friday, Jan. 28, in which he announced the appointment of Gen. Omar Suleiman as Vice President and a willingness to enact constitutional reforms.
This strengthened Mubarak's conviction that the disturbances in Egypt were being directed by a US intelligence command operating alongside the White House.
His certainty was further bolstered by the condescending, hectoring tone of Obama's terse comments on television about the situation in Egypt.
7. Mubarak and his allies have no doubt at all that it was not blind chance that caused the protest riots to erupt when the chief of staff of Egypt's armed forces, Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan and other general staff members were in Washington as guests of the Pentagon and the US army.
Only four days into the uprising, on Friday, Jan. 28, did the Egyptian generals start wending their way to the airport to fly home. Someone made sure that when the decisive call came for the army to defend the regime its top commanders would not be there to heed it.