Last week, Middle Eastern leaders gathered in Washington, D.C. to begin a new round of peace talks. Pessimists outweigh optimists in the policymaking circles on the prospects of the peace process, which indeed has a long insurmountable road ahead of itself. The meeting was merely a preliminary photo-op and the above photo, of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, President Obama, President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine, and King Abdullah II of Jordan (l. to r.) walking towards the East Room of the White House was the one widely reprinted.
Except in Egypt, where they published a hilariously altered photo which placed the Egyptian president front and centre (even before President Obama). Egypt’s oldest and the most circulated newspaper, the state-run Al-Ahram altered the image and published it both online and in print. When criticized, the paper’s editor-in chief, Osama Saraya defended it, saying the paper published the original photo on the day talks began and the photoshopped version was to symbolize Egypt’s leading role in the peace process. In the editorial, Saraya wrote: “The expressionist photo is a brief, live and true expression of the prominent stance of President Mubarak in the Palestinian issue, his unique role in leading it before Washington.” The photo is still up on its website as of this moment.
Ironically, the actual photo — with Mr. Mubarak separated from the group at the back — may have more symbolic meanings than any photomontage Al-Ahram came up with. The photo suggests Egypt’s — and her aging president’s — waning role in the Middle East peace process. Mubarak has been a staple of Middle East politics for more than 30 years, but with the presidential election coming up in 2011, and the health of her 82-year old president perilous and the presidential succession unclear, Egypt’s regional influence is dwindling.
Hosni Mubarak is the longest-serving Egyptian head of state in 150 years and he ruled Egypt with a peculiar mix of charisma and brutality. Being one of the United States’ staunchest allies in the region, Egypt has her records seldom scrutinized. Thanks to Mubarak’s Kafkasque bureaucratic machine — Egypt has been under an uninterrupted state of emergency for past 29 years — the voter turnout in 2005 was 3% and in 80% of the elections, Mubarak’s party was unopposed. Mubarak himself got 89% of the vote — and his opponent was later sentenced to five years in prison on dubious fraud charges. At least they had an election in 2005; for his four previous terms, Mubarak has been nominated by Parliament as the sole candidate, then confirmed in a referendum. Mubarak himself has never appointed a vice-president, which could lead to constitutional problems in the future as his health condition worsens.