El-Sherif, Sorour and Azmi: Mubarak's top henchmen at jail's doors

Gamal Essam El-Din , Sunday 10 Apr 2011

Safwat El-Sherif, the former secretary general of ousted president Mubarak's National Democratic Party, widely acknowledged as the fallen dictator's top enforcer is finally facing prosecution and jail

Safwat el-Sherif
Mubarak regime strongman Safwat el-Sherif

During the million man demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on the “Friday of Cleansing” on 8 April, protesters held up posters of three of deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s top men, demanding that they all be put on trial for crimes against the people, including financial corruption, electoral rigging and crimes against humanity.

The trio are Mubarak’s longest-serving officials: Safwat El-Sherif, minister of information for 22 years and chairman of the Upper House for seven; Fathi Sorour, the parliament speaker for 20 years; and Zakaria Azmi, the president's chief of staff for 22 years.

The biggest fish

El-Sherif is widely considered to have been Mubarak’s top enforcer in corrupting the nation's political life. When Mubarak took office on 14 October, 1981 one of his first decisions was to appoint El-Sherif as minister of information. 

In 2004 El-Sherif was promoted to chairman of the high consultative committee of the Upper House, which made him by default the chairman of the influential Political Parties Committee and the Supreme Press Council – two watchdogs in charge of licensing political parties and appointing chief editors and board chairmen of state-owned press organisations.

That wasn’t enough for El-Sherif, though. In 2002 he was appointed secretary-general of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), becoming the leader of the regime’s machine.

El-Sherif is accused of exploiting all of his influential positions to manipulate Egypt’s political life in favour of Mubarak’s regime and the ruling NDP. As minister of information, he made sure that television and radio served the needs of Mubarak’s regime, refusing to broadcast the opposition’s views on national issues and isolating them from political life.

As chairman of the Upper House, El-Sherif did his best to strip many serious political forces from the possibility of obtaining a license to establish opposition parties that stood a chance to truly compete with the NDP and pose a threat to its tight grip on political and parliamentary life. El-Sherif also made sure that existing political parties towed the NDP’s line or they were sabotaged until internal divisions ruptured them at the hand of state security.

As chairman of the Higher Press Council El-Sherif peddled strong influence to ensure that state-owned newspapers and magazines drummed up support for the Mubarak’s regime and polished his personal image as the indispensable leader of the nation.

More serious still, El-Sherif is believed to have exploited his 8-year as NDP’s secretary-general to mastermind the murderous attack on peaceful protesters in the so-called “Battle of the Camel” on 2 February. Prosecution officials indicated that El-Sherif will be summoned on Tuesday for interrogation on charges of ordering two former NDP MPs to organise the attack. As many as 26 thugs arrested two hours after the camel battle allegedly admitted that the two MPs – representing the district of Al-Haram (pyramids) in the Parliament and Upper House - had hired them to launch an attack on camelback and horseback against peaceful protesters for LE300 each.

El-Sherif is also to be summoned on Tuesday for exploiting his powerful political positions to secure enormous wealth. The Ministry of Justice’s Illict Gains Office (IGO) estimated that El-Sherif and his family are in possession of at least 20 villas, 12 deluxe apartment buildings and large plots of land in many high-class housing communities around Cairo, such as Tagammu Khamis, Qattamiya Golf Heights and in Marina resort, close to Alexandria on the Mediterranean. El-Sherif is also accused of helping his son, Ashraf, set up a media company, which entered into lucrative business deals with the state run Radio and Television Union. He could be remanded into custody for 15 days pending investigation of charges levelled against him.

El-Sherif could ultimately find himself in jail, not be the first time, however. In 1968, El-Sherif spent one year in jail after being found guilty of exploiting his position as an intelligence officer to spy on the private lives of public figures and use women (often under duress) to blackmail political personages, both foreign and local. Itimad Khorshid, the ex-wife of Salah Nasr, the feared head of Egypt’s intelligence in the 1960s, accused El-Sherif of torturing her. She told “Radio and Television” magazine last week that El-Sherif is behind the 2004 murder of famous actress Souad Hosni in London “because she knew all about his shameful practices in the 1960s as intelligence officer.”

El-Sherif graduated from the military academy in 1951. After being released from prison in 1969 he studied mass communication in Egypt and Germany. In the early seventies and after Anwar El-Sadat became president of Egypt in 1970, El-Sherif made use of his public relations skills, finally being appointed chairman of the state information service.

El-Sherif, 78, was also one of Mubarak’s very few confidantes. He acted several times as Mubarak’s special envoy to several Arab leaders, including Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. To many, El-Sherif holds a wealth of information about Mubarak’s secret relations with Arab and foreign leaders.

Fish number two: Fathi Sorour

Like El-Sherif, Sorour is accused of using his postion as Speaker of Egypt’s Parliament for 20 years for personal gain. Sorour, 79, is also thought to have amassed a large portfolio of prime real estate, villas, and apartments. The IGO is currently investigating his wealth and he is expected to be summoned soon to face charges.

Sorour, however, faces a plethora of charges of political corruption. A case in point is that he exploited his job to help certain cabinet ministers fend off embarrassing criticism in Parliament. One of these is Ibrahim Soliman, a former minister of housing, whom opposition MPs held responsible for misappropriating public funds by selling large plots of land to NDP crony businessmen and construction magnates at below market prices and offering Sorour and other heavyweight officials a number of luxurious villas in Marina resort.

Opposition also accused Sorour of masterminding the 2007 constitutional amendments, which effectively eliminated full judicial supervision of the polls, thus opening the door for the large-scale rigging Egypt saw in the 2010 parliamentary elections and, furthermore, would have paved the way for Gamal, Mubarak’s younger son, to inherit his father’s position.

Last but not least, Azmi

On 7 April, Zakaria Azmi, 73, was put into custody for 15 days pending investigation of charges of illegal profiteering levelled against him. Azmi is widely believed to have used a number of businessmen as “henchmen” to secure illegal gains. One of these is Mamdouh Ismail, a business tycoon whom Azmi helped to monopolise maritime passenger transport between Egypt and Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea. In 2006 Azmi is thought to have helped Ismail escape Egypt after one of his ships – Al-Salam 98 – sank into the Red Sea drowning more than 1300 Egyptians.

Azmi is Mubarak’s closest confidante, having a wealth of information about his secret life and business deals. He was appointed Mubarak's chief of staff in 1989. His job included preparing Mubarak's daily agenda of meetings and visits. Azmi is purportedly still receiving documents and messages sent to the ousted president from Egypt and abroad. He attended most, if not all, of Mubarak's meetings with world leaders, whether public or private. Azmi accompanied Mubarak on all of his foreign trips, including two visits to Germany in 2004 and 2010 for medical treatment.

Assem El-Gohari, chairman of The Illicit Gains Office, which is affiliated to the Ministry of Justice, ordered on 31 March that travel bans be imposed on El-Sherif, Sorour, and Azmi El-Sherif. The order was supplemented by a freeze on all their assets and those of their families.

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