I will have to go back to 2000 when between June 6 and 8 Viktor Orbán, György Matolcsy, minister of economics, and Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of the foreign ministry, visited Rabat, the capital of Morocco. According to Orbán Morocco was a stable constitutional monarchy that had a discernible Central European foreign policy. “The politicians of Morocco know the differences among the countries of the region and it chose Hungary as its bridgehead in the region.” He added that while Vienna “is becoming the cultural capital of Central Europe, Budapest is taking over the role of its economic center.” Big words with little meaning.
Business was combined with pleasure. Orbán received an unexpected invitation to a soccer match, the Hassan Cup final, where he met King Mohamed VI who expressed his willingness to visit Budapest. As we know, no such visit took place. After the official part of the trip ended Orbán travelled to Marrakesh where he played soccer (center forward) on the Hungarian team against Argentina in a match between lawyers. I couldn’t find out who won.
A few months later, in February 2001, Orbán visited Saudi Arabia at the invitation of King Fahd bin Abdel-Aziz who received the Hungarian prime minister for about ten minutes in the royal palace. Again, Orbán was accompanied by György Matolcsy and Zsolt Németh in addition to business leaders. Prior to him no Hungarian prime minister had ever visited Saudi Arabia. Here he pretty well repeated what he had to say earlier in Morocco: in the last ten years Hungary had been concentrating on joining NATO and preparing the ground for becoming a member state of the European Union but “now is the time to build relations to the Arabic world.” Orbán met important businessmen in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, where among other things he called attention to historial ties between Hungary and the Arab world, which were mighty slim. The only thing he could come up with were Arabic historians who mentioned the existence of Hungarians prior to their arrival in the Pannonian Basin. The Saudi crown prince Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz was better prepared and could actually name a few Hungarian islamists, among them Gyula Germanusz. At the end of their meeting Orbán invited Prince Abdullah to Hungary. Again, nothing came of that visit.
A decade went by but Orbán’s interest in the Arab world remains strong. First Pál Schmitt was sent to Libya where he held bilateral negotiations with Muammar Gaddafi during a European Union-Africa summit. The meeting was labelled “historic” by the office of the president because no Hungarian head of state had ever visited Tripoli before. Schmitt apparently emphasized to Gaddafi that Hungary holding the rotating presidency of the European Union wants to have “closer relations with Africa and within that with Libya.” Schmitt made it clear that Hungary would welcome Libyan investment in his country and expressed his hope that Hungarian companies would be able to do business in Libya.
The Hungarian ambassador to Libya, Béla Marton, was convinced that “there are considerable economic opportunities” in Libya and not only because of its oil reserves. Apparently, at least according to the ambassador, Schmitt was successful because “one could feel a greater readiness” after his visit to negotiate business deals with Hungarian companies. Apparently, the most important Hungarian firm doing business in Libya was International Vegyépszer Zrt. which received a job constructing roads in Az Zawiyah, the third largest city in Libya. Since then most of the Hungarians working there have been airlifted, and currently fierce fighting is going on Az Zawiyah.
Perhaps the oddest visit to an Arab country was Viktor Orbán’s trip to Egypt between January 22 and 25. The very day he left demonstrations began in Cairo that ended Hosni Mubarak’s long reign in Egypt. I would venture to say that this picture of Mubarak with Viktor Orbán is the very last official photo taken of the Egyptian dictator:
What were these two men talking about? According to Orbán they “talked about the future and the president was very optimistic.” Relations between Egypt and Hungary were discussed at length and they came to the conclusion that “economic cooperation between the two countries must be elevated to a higher level.” Orbán recalled that Hungarians have a very good reputation in the Arab world. “People like us here.” These good relations go back to the socialist period when Hungarian firms were heavily involved in building factories in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. There are still many Egyptians who studied in Hungary, speak the language, and can be useful in rebuilding bridges between the two countries. If ten years earlier in Morocco Orbán was talking about Hungary as a bridgehead for Morocco in Central Europe, this time he emphasized that Hungary could be the distribution center for Egyptian goods. Reading the communiqué that was published at the time of Orbán’s visit, one must laugh a bit: “as far as international relations are concerned, the two men [Mubarak and Orbán] agreed that Egypt has an important stabilizing role in the region.”
Since then there has been total silence about Egyptian-Hungarian relations, Orbán’s visit to Cairo, and the glowing assessments of Mubarak’s regime as the stabilizing power of the region. However, critics of Orbán complain about the Hungarian prime minister’s disengagement from the “revolutions” in those Arab countries he felt were natural partners of Hungary. Sometime in February, Piroslap.blog called attention to a sentence Orbán uttered in the Hungarian parliament. Answering an opposition member’s reference to Orbán’s visit and the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution, Orbán answered thus: “Those who tried to link my name with the Egyptian revolution, I would like to ask them not to believe everything they read. I am not responsible for everything bad in this world.” Piroslap.blog calls this a Freudian slip.
Another rather scathing criticism of Orbán’s reaction to the Arab revolutions appeared today in Népszabadság. The author, Péter Pető, first criticized the Hungarian prime minister for not standing behind the Kálmán Széll Plan but hiding when the new austerity package was announced. However, the author continues, Orbán made a speech elsewhere, at the Forum of Hungarian Soccer. Here he talked about all the tax breaks his government will give to those who invest in soccer, but he included one sentence that had some significance outside of sports. He mentioned that during his recent visit to Cairo he unveiled a memorial in honor of Ferenc Puskás and Nándor Hidegkuti, two famous soccer players of the Golden Team. “The prime minister who is so committed to the revolutionaries of 1956 managed to say only this much about the dramatic events in North Africa: ‘I hope the memorial is still in one piece!'”
Pető found this sentence appalling. The sentence was cold and demonstrates “contempt of the desire for freedom that gave birth to Viktor Orbán as a politician.”