Abdel-Salam Al-Mahgoub (1936-2022): A national hero

Gamal Essam El-Din , Friday 11 Feb 2022

Major-General Mohamed Abdel-Salam Al-Mahgoub, a former Egyptian minister of local administration and former deputy chief of Egyptian General Intelligence, died of a heart attack on 31 January at the age of 86.

A national hero
Abdel-Salam Al-Mahgoub (1936-2022)

Prior to entering politics in 1992, Al-Mahgoub was an officer in the Egyptian army. He graduated from the Military Academy in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in military science. From 1955 to 1992, Al-Mahgoub was appointed military attaché in a number of Egyptian embassies around the world. From 1992 to 1994, he held the post of deputy chief of Egypt’s national security apparatus, responsible for fighting spying activities in Egypt.

In 1994, former prime minister Atef Sedki selected Al-Mahgoub to be governor of Ismailia, and in 1997 ex-prime minister Atef Ebeid named him governor of Alexandria.

Many agree that Al-Mahgoub’s biggest achievements came when he was governor of Alexandria, Egypt’s second biggest city, between 1997 and 2006. By 1997, Alexandria had been suffering from years of neglect and was close to losing its famous name, “the pride of the Mediterranean”.

In his book The Lover of Alexandria, journalist Samir Shehata said once he took office as governor in 1997, Al-Mahgoub led a campaign to modernise and renovate Alexandria. “With the help of donations from Alexandria’s business community, Al-Mahgoub implemented a number of giant projects, the most important of which was expanding the city’s Corniche from eight to 20 metres and building Stanley Bridge which became a landmark of modern Alexandria,” Shehata said.

Senator Dina Al-Hilali eulogised Al-Mahgoub as the founder of modern Alexandria.

In 2006, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif named Al-Mahgoub minister of local administration. In 2010, Al-Mahgoub won the parliamentary seat of Alexandria’s El-Raml district, but in January 2011 and following the outbreak of protests against then president Hosni Mubarak, he was forced to resign and go into retirement.

Al-Mahgoub’s daughter Iman told TV’s MBC Egypt on 1 February that the family did not know that her father had been an intelligence officer for more than 35 years. “For many years he was travelling everywhere and we thought that he was just a military attaché serving in several Egyptian embassies,” Iman said. “But later after he was appointed governor of Ismailia some of my father’s colleagues told us that he was one of the most active intelligence officers during the years of war with Israel between 1956 and 1973.”

Shehata’s book indicates that Al-Mahgoub was the intelligence officer in the popular TV series Tears in Ugly Eyes which appeared in 1980. It told the true story of Gomaa Al-Shawwan, an Egyptian who worked for the Israeli Mossad intelligence agency between the two wars of 1967 and 1973. He, however, provided the Israelis with false military information with the help of Egyptian General Intelligence and under the direct supervision of Al-Mahgoub.

In a press interview, Al-Hawwan, or Al-Shawwan in the TV series, said “when I left Suez after the 1967 War and travelled to Greece to earn a living on a ship, I met a woman with whom I fell in love, and she convinced me to meet with an undercover Mossad agent who promised me a lot of money in return for gathering information about the Egyptian army and navy. When I returned to Egypt, I met Al-Mahgoub who supervised my contacts with Mossad,” Al-Hawwan said.

In one of his rare TV interviews, Al-Mahgoub said “the Al-Hawwan operation which I supervised led the Israeli Mossad to fire many of its intelligence officers after they failed to discover that Gomaa Al-Hawwan was sending them false information.”

Al-Mahgoub was also the intelligence officer who led the Hafaar operation which also appeared as a TV series in 1996. It told the story of an excavator which Israel bought from Canada to use to search for oil in the Sinai Peninsula after occupying it during the 1967 war. In March 1968, Al-Mahgoub led an Egyptian intelligence team that bombed the excavator near the beaches of the Ivory Coast and before reaching the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait at the entrance of the Red Sea.

Shehata’s book also indicates that in 1982 Al-Mahgoub was the officer who led an Egyptian intelligence operation which rescued former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from the Israeli military siege of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, and smuggled him out to Tunisia.

In 1995 and while he was governor of Ismailia, Al-Mahgoub was also deputy chief of the General Egyptian Intelligence Service. He and Omar Suleiman, chief of the Egyptian General Intelligence, played a leading role in saving Mubarak from an assassination attempt in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, in June 1995. “Al-Mahgoub and Suleiman insisted that they take an armoured vehicle to protect Mubarak after news came that Islamist groups living in Sudan might target him after landing in Addis Ababa’s airport,” Shehata wrote in his book.

Minister of Local Administration Mahmoud Shaarawi said Al-Mahgoub’s years of public service as both an intelligence officer and a provincial governor were remarkable in Egypt’s history. “Not to mention that he was one of the most efficient ministers of local administration,” said Shaarawi, adding that “Al-Mahgoub was one of those politicians who played a major role in developing several Egyptian governorates and improving services to citizens and investors alike.”

Speaker of the Senate Abdel-Wahab Abdel-Razek also eulogised Al-Mahgoub, saying: “We lost a great national hero who dedicated his life to his country.”

A large number of current and former cabinet ministers, provincial governors, politicians, public figures and artists joined Al-Mahgoub’s funeral prayers in Al-Rashdan Mosque in Nasr City east of Cairo on 1 February.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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