Mubarak in 2009
Talk about ripped from the headlines: Did you know Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian once met with deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – together with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords?
It sounds outlandish, but it’s true. Avedisian, Giffords and 22 other up-and-coming officeholders from across the country had the opportunity thanks to their participation in The Aspen Institute’s inaugural class of Rodel Fellows in Public Leadership back in 2005.
The Colorado-based Aspen Institute created the program to bring together “emerging political leaders with reputations for intellect, thoughtfulness, and a commitment to civil dialogue” in order to educate them about important domestic and foreign issues.
In addition to Avedisian and Giffords, that first class of fellows included a who’s-who of youngish politicians, including Artur Davis, Trey Grayson, Tom Kean Jr., Mark Kirk, Kendrick Meek, Paul Ryan, Michael Steele and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
A key part of the program was week-long trips overseas to Asia and the Middle East, and that’s how Avedisian and his fellow fellows found themselves face-to-face with Mubarak – though the conversation left something to be desired.
“It was very difficult, because he did not speak English very well at all – going through the translator was very, very different and very difficult,” Avedisian told me.
The group met Mubarak in his small private presidential office. “It wasn’t what I thought it would be,” Avedisian said. ”It certainly wasn’t like when they took us to India and we met with the president of India – that was very posh, very ornate.”
Mubarak wasn’t the only person they met in Egypt, either; the group also sat down with members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, which was suppressed by Mubarak’s regime. To duck the authorities, the Brotherhood’s representatives arrived at the hotel for their meeting through a back door, and the entire discussion was conducted with them on one side of a partition and Avedisian’s group on the other.
“They wanted [Mubarak] out and they wanted a new constitution that would allow all sorts of other parties to be allowed to be part of the government,” Avedisian said. “Of course, he wasn’t having any of that.”
The group’s travels later took them to Israel, where Avedisian was struck to see the Golan Heights with Syria and Lebanon just steps away. They also made a” trip to see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at Yasser Arafat’s old compound.
Avedisian was understandably shocked by the Jan. 8 shooting that left Giffords, who was a state senator when he first met her, gravely injured. She is now slowly recovering at a rehabilitation hospital in Houston.
“She is absolutely spectacular,” Avedisian said of Giffords. “Smart, bright, bubbly – a real go-getter, a neat, neat person.”