In January 2011, as the anti-Mubarak uprising gathered pace, many Muslim Brotherhood figures broke out of prisons in Egypt. The key role Hamas and Hizbollah members seemed to have played in organising the escapes is now being revealed, Bradley Hope, Foreign Correspondent, reports
CAIRO // It was an event easily overlooked during the pandemonium that engulfed Egypt in the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak and his regime.
Shortly after 2am on January 30, 2011, Mohammed Morsi and 31 other members of the Muslim Brotherhood escaped from a maximum-security prison complex 120 kilometres north of the capital, Cairo.
Mr Morsi, who was elected president in June 2012 and then forced from office last month, was among the more than 20,000 inmates who broke out of Wadi Natroun and 10 other jails around the country following a series of orchestrated attacks that began two days earlier.
Besides senior Brotherhood officials, some 40 members of two other prominent regional Islamist groups – Hamas and Lebanon's Hizbollah – also escaped.
Once considered a footnote to the cataclysmic events that were then sweeping Egypt, the prison break and its hints of regional Islamist involvement are now set to take centre stage in legal efforts by Egyptian authorities to prevent the jailed Mr Morsi and other senior members of his Islamist-led government from returning to political life. If convicted on charges of espionage, Mr Morsi and his top aides could be sentenced to death.
The trial also is expected to provide some Egyptian military officers and members of Mr Mubarak’s government with a publicity-lit platform to promote their contention that the uprising against Egypt’s longtime ruler was not the sole result of smouldering local grievances against his rule, but instead owed its success mainly to foreign interference and meddling.
Mr Morsi, who has admitted he escaped from jail that night, was one of dozens of Brotherhood leaders arrested without charges as street protests swept Egypt and Mr Mubarak’s government teetered on the brink of collapse.
Joining him were some of the Brotherhood’s most senior figures, including members of its governing Guidance Council, many of whom rose to public prominence after Mr Mubarak was forced from office.
Last month, the judge overseeing the prison break case announced that Mr Morsi would be detained pending investigations into charges that he committed espionage and conspired to kill Egyptian police.
He has not yet been transferred to a prison for the case. The military has held him and several of his aides at an undisclosed location since he was removed from power last month.
Hisham Barakat, the public prosecutor in the case, alleged that Mr Morsi secretly colluded with Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip, in planning an assault on the prison in 2011.
The validity of the charges against Mr Morsi is hotly disputed in Egypt.
For those Egyptians who view the military’s intervention on July 3 as a necessary step to save the Egyptian state, the prosecution is a sign that justice finally is being delivered to men who conspired with foreign militants to destabilise the country in preparation for imposing Islamic rule over the country.
For those who view the removal and detention of Mr Morsi as an illegal and unjust military coup, the charges against him are baseless.
Yet it is not only Mr Morsi who is on trial in the case of the Wadi Natroun jailbreak. In a sense, regional experts say, the origins of the 2011 uprising also are being judged, as Egypt veers back towards the security climate that marked much of nearly three decades of Mubarak’s rule.
The theory that foreign powers were essential to the protest’s success, once discredited, is enjoying new-found support, said Nathan Brown, a professor at Georgetown University who has closely followed Egypt’s political transition.
The allegations of Mr Morsi’s plotting in the Wadi Natroun prison break, once ridiculed as merely a incorrigible bias against the Islamist leader, “are now taken seriously by otherwise serious people,” Mr Brown said. “There can be no clearer indication that a counter-revolution is under way than this case.”
The far-fetched explanations from the Muslim Brotherhood on how its members escaped from Wadi Natroun have only raised more questions and give more credence to speculation of foreign involvement in the upheaval of 2011.
In an interview with Al Jazeera the day after his escape, Mr Morsi said that he and his fellow prisoners were freed by hundreds of "unknown" people who laid siege on the prison.
"Once we were out we found the courtyard was empty, and we only saw the group that for a long time had been trying to break the door," he said.
The Brotherhood's official website, Ikhwanonline.com, said after the escape that local residents and "revolutionaries" freed the prisoners.
Hamas and Hizbollah, while admitting that their members were among those freed from Egyptian prisons, have vehemently denied any role in the prison breaks or in the 2011 uprising that forced Mubarak from office.
Yet Egyptian court records suggest a far more complex - and for Mr Morsi and his supporters - a possibly more incriminating version of how he came to be freed on the night of January 30, 2011.
According to the testimony by Omar Suleiman, the powerful former director of Egypt's national intelligence directorate, the Wadi Natroun prison break may have been part of a well-planned operation to liberate jails across the country, carried out by Egyptian Bedouins with the help of Islamists in Egypt and abroad.
Testifying on September 14, 2011, in the trial of Mubarak on charges of complicity in the deaths of protesters during the 2011 uprising, Suleiman said Egypt's spy agencies started monitoring communications between members of Hamas and Bedouins in Sinai on January 26, 2011 - one day after mass protests broke out.
"Hamas communicated with the Bedouins and agreed that they would provide them with ordnance in exchange for assistance in freeing their comrades from Egyptian prisons," said Suleiman, according to a transcript of his court testimony.
The Al Qassam Brigades, the militant wing of Hamas, "created a diversion so that the border guards would not pursue the smuggled ordnance. Thus the weapons, ammunition and explosives were successfully smuggled and given to the Bedouins," he said.
With up to 90 Gaza-based members of Hizbollah, Hamas militants then entered Egypt illegally and led the assaults on prisons across the country, said Suleiman, who died in July last year.
Suleiman left room for doubt, however, whether his depiction of foreign interference in Egypt included the Wadi Natroun jailbreak.
In his testimony, the former spy chief did not mention the arrests of Mr Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders in Cairo. He also said that Hamas and Hizbollah operatives succeeded in freeing their "comrades" from prison by midnight on January 28 - the day of Mr Morsi's detention and two days before he fled Wadi Natroun.
Still, Suleiman's account of foreign involvement in the tumult of 2011, including the prison breaks, was echoed throughout the Mubarak trial by other senior Egyptian officials.
Mahmoud Wagdy, who served briefly as interior minister in early 2011, said in the Mubarak trial that "certain elements" from the Gaza Strip stormed prisons, released prisoners and then "proceeded to Tahrir Square".
Mr Wagdy declined during his questioning in court to elaborate on what role Hamas played in the events other than to echo Suleiman's assertion that there were "Palestinian elements in Tahrir Square on January 28, 2011."
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the former head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), said Hamas and Hizbollah were conducting operations in Egypt during the upheaval.
Asked if he was informed about the "infiltration" of Hizbollah and Hamas agents into Egypt during the protests, he said it was a continual problem.
"This event was not limited to only demonstrations," he said. "Before this we had been combating this issue. Whatever we discovered we destroyed. If we found anyone we arrested them. This was not limited to the time the demonstrations were taking place, but before them and after them."
At stake in the new focus on the Wadi Natroun prison break is how the history of those momentous 18 days in 2011 is written.
In his court testimony, Suleiman, acknowledged that unequal income distribution, unemployment and other legitimate grievances of Egyptians brought about Mubarak's downfall. He insisted, however, that external actors exploited these wrongs to help bring his former boss down.
This view is now being taken further by some Egyptians as they seek to explain their country's zigzag course back to a state of emergency, one of the most reviled pillars of Mubarak's rule. The role of foreign influences, including United States funding for civil society groups in Egypt, looms ever larger in their attempts to explain and justify it.
To many former members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party such as Ali El Dean Hilal Dessouki, it seems increasingly plausible to suggest that foreign Islamists, with the aid of the Brotherhood, infiltrated the protests and hijacked the revolution, setting Egypt on a path that culminated with the military's intervention on July 3.
This "second revolution", as the coup against Mr Morsi is sometimes referred to, is more meaningful and legitimate than the first, he said.
It is, Mr Dessouki said, the first "exclusively internal Egyptian uprising."
Asked why the Mubarak regime collapsed so quickly, he said it was too soon to know for certain. But he pointed to many signs of foreign intervention, including the prison break and foreign funding of non-government organisations.
"The situation was much more complicated then," he said.