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Mubarak's long walk to jail

How a once humble president ended up reviled and detained on charges of killing his own people

Dina Ezzat, Thursday 14 Apr 2011
Hosni Mubarak
Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak (Photo: Reuters)
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“This is unbelievable — it really is. I just cannot believe that this is the end of Mubarak,” said a former political assistant to the ousted, and now jailed, former president Hosni Mubarak.

Speaking to Ahram Online amidst speculation over the declining health of the 82-year old former president, who is now being held in custody for questioning on charges of corruption and ordering the killing of peaceful demonstrators, this former member of his staff added that “those who have known Mubarak in his early years would have never thought of the turn of events that is currently unfolding.”

On 6 October 1981, then President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamist soldiers angered by his 1979 peace deal with Israel. In less than a week, Mubarak was president of Egypt, following a referendum that gave him a comfortable majority.

Mubarak, who was born in the poor Nile Delta village of Kafr Moselha and joined the military academy before fighting in two wars against Israel, had publicly stated that he never thought he would one day be president.

Neither Sadat nor Nasser

“My name is Hosni Mubarak,” goes the famous quote of the former president during his early weeks in office in answering foreign press questions over whether he would pursue the policies of his predecessor, Sadat, or of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

From the outset Mubarak offered a mix of what both Sadat and Nasser had to offer. Of Sadat he followed the policies of economic liberalization, except at much faster pace, and of close relations with the West. Of Nasser he adopted, especially in the first two of five terms in office, an unassuming profile.

Unlike both Sadat and Nasser, Mubarak was no fan of dramatic actions. His political positions and statements were often qualified as over calculated and his call for stability amounted to what many critics qualified as stagnation.

Throughout close to 30 years in office Mubarak made hardly any surprise moves, on any front. He kept everything in check. Political reforms were spaced out and never fully achieved; economic reforms were advanced but with some caution; relations with Arab countries were resumed following the fallout during Sadat last years, but were never really taken further into full cooperation; and relations with the West and Israel were always stable, despite occasional frosty moments.

Two phases, two presidents

Mubarak did not keep a promise made during his early months in office of limiting his presidential terms to two. And it was only during the days leading to his ouster after the 25 January uprising that Mubarak called for the amendment of relevant constitutional articles.

By the account of ministers who served with Mubarak during his close to three decades in office, it would be wrong — some say unfair — to see his long rule as all negative. They also speak of Mubarak, at least in his early years, as “someone who is eager to listen” and who “makes his decisions carefully.”

However, those who served with Mubarak during the 1990s observed a tendency of conceit, impatience and stubbornness.

Age seemed to have taken its toll on him, especially during his last five years in office. And cabinet ministers speak of a not so well informed president who, in the words of one, “thought he knew everything” and that he was fully in control, forever.

“But whatever he did, he did out of true conviction, for right or wrong, that he was serving the country’s best interest,” said another former presidential officer. “This man made so many mistakes, it is true, but he was never a traitor; he was misguided.”

Bad advisors

According to both former presidential assistants, as well as former ministers, there are two men who are primarily responsible for Mubarak’s latter day illusions: Safwat El-Sherif, the former secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party and previously a long-serving minister of information, and Zakaria Azmi, Mubarak’s long time chief-of-staff.

The role of El-Sherif, they say, was to sell Mubarak a wide range of ideas such as the indispensability of the former president for the stability of the region and the need to remove advisors who dared to disagree with him.

El-Sherif is widely known to be the first to propose the idea of the “succession” of Gamal Mubarak to power after his father. Sources suggest he first sold the idea to former first lady Suzanne Mubarak, and then started working with her to convince the president. And despite apparent unease between Gamal and El-Sherif, sources add, the former was willing to play along.

Gamal found many people around him — especially Ahmed Ezz, the former NDP business tycoon — who were willing to support the succession scenario and to promise it would pass, despite wide public and intellectual dissent.

Hiding the truth

“The protection of everyone in the regime necessitated that someone from within the regime follow Mubarak in ruling the country; there was no question about it,” said a third presidential assistant who took leave a few years ago. “It was clear that things were taking a turn towards a very unfavourable direction, and nobody was telling this to the president.”

The biggest culprit, according to every source that worked at the presidency or served in the cabinet, was Azmi. This went beyond keeping facts from the president to actually lying to him, sources say. “The (president) trusted him so much and that was a big mistake,” said one former presidential assistant.

And while Mubarak’s rule took a firm dictatorial turn after the amendments of constitutional articles in 2005 and 2007 to make nominations for the presidency made to measure for Gamal, his elder son Alaa was expanding his business amidst speculation over the legitimacy of his deals and against a backdrop of clear signs of widespread corruption among associates, many of whom ended up as cabinet ministers.

The many and increasingly social, cultural and humanitarian activities chaired and championed by Suzanne Mubarak failed to secure sympathy for the increasingly disliked president and his family. Advice offered now and then to family members to pay more attention to public resentment was not heeded.

Fall from grace

Occasional moments of public sympathy occurred, especially after the death of Mubarak’s eldest grandson Mohamed Alaa Mubarak in May 2009. However, this was short-lived and was quickly overshadowed by tough living conditions and a widening chasm between the poor and rich.

The last moment of sympathy that Mubarak had was on the evening of 1 February — a week after the beginning of the January 25 Revolution — when he addressed the nation in an emotional speech and promised deep reforms, an end to dictatorship and to succession plans.

However, the following day, some of Mubarak’s men instigated a bloody attack against peaceful demonstrators in Tahrir Square. The overnight sympathy disappeared, anger increased and Mubarak’s ultimate ouster was all but inevitable.

Two months later, Mubarak found himself held in Sharm El-Sheikh International Hospital under a two-week custody order on charges of financial corruption and ordering the killing of protesters, accompanied by a devastated wife who is also to be questioned for financial irregularities.

Meanwhile, the two Mubarak sons are being held in Tora Prison, along with most of Mubarak’s closet aides.

Left behind are the wives of Alaa and Gamal: Heidy Rasekh and Khadiga El-Gammal, the beautiful daughters of two prominent businessmen who are also being investigated on allegations of corruption as well as the mothers of 11-year old Omar Alaa Mubarak and one year old Farida Gamal Mubarak whose first birthday on 23 March was celebrated away from the Orouba presidential residence in Heliopolis.

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