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Mubarak told go now, or they'll kill you

The fall of Hosni Mubarak, supposedly a 'president for life', marked one of the most dramatic and pivotal events ever to occur not only in Egypt but in the Middle East, and its repercussions will continue to play out for years.

vice President at the time, Hosni Mubarak (left) and late president Anwar Sadat, attend a military parade on October 6, 1981, in Cairo during which the latter was assassinated. AFP Photo
vice President at the time, Hosni Mubarak (left) and late president Anwar Sadat, attend a military parade on October 6, 1981, in Cairo during which the latter was assassinated. AFP Photo

As the new year dawned over the Nile in 2011, no one in Egypt – or for that matter, anywhere else – could have imagined that in less than six weeks Hosni Mubarak would be pushed from power. The fall of Mubarak, supposedly a “president for life”, marked one of the most dramatic and pivotal events ever to occur not only in Egypt but in the Middle East as well, and its repercussions will continue to play out for years to come. In his book, Last Days of the Pharaoh, Bradley Hope, Cairo Correspondent of The National, recounts those fateful days, during which Mubarak and his circle of advisers and confidants struggled to grasp the previously incomprehensible: that Egyptians, frustrated with his rule, would rise up to demand change and not relent, even in the face of the security forces, until they achieved it. Hope’s account, available on Amazon.com's Kindle, is based on interviews with more than two dozen former and current Egyptian officials, as well as scholars, journalists, former diplomats and one extraordinary make-up artist. In the first of an abridged three-part serialisation of Last Days of the Pharaoh to mark the second anniversary of Mubarak’s fall, Hope describes how one man tried to open the president’s eyes to what was occurring on the nation’s streets.

"You mean they are going to kill me?"

Egypt was seething with unrest when Hossam Badrawi entered the office of the president in the Arouba Palace on the edge of Cairo.

For the 11th consecutive day, hundreds of thousands of people were swarming the streets in cities across Egypt, demonstrating against the regime and clashing with police amid clouds of tear gas and volleys of bullets. The death toll was mounting and the clock was ticking on Hosni Mubarak's 29 years in power.

Badrawi, an obstetrician from a wealthy liberal family who had been appointed the secretary general of Mubarak's National Democratic Party five days earlier, was escorted in, his heart pounding.

"Mr President, I'd like to speak to you alone."

Mubarak pointed to his two closest advisers behind Badrawi, his long-time chief of staff, Zakariah Azmi, and youngest son, Gamal. "Go out."

The two men sat on soft chairs, facing each other. Badrawi gathered all his courage, swallowed and began.

"Mr President, you have to take what I say now as advice from an honest man, outside your circle."

"Go ahead, say whatever you want."

"Mr President, I see in front of me an image of Ceausescu."

Mubarak's face contorted in disbelief. The reference to Nicolae Ceausescu struck a chord as no other briefing during the crisis had.

The president once counted Romania's communist dictator as a friend, meeting him three times during his 22-year rule over the Eastern European nation.

What dismayed Mubarak were not memories of the times the two shared together.

No, it was an entirely different image that horrified him, one of a bewildered old man and his greying wife, their hands bound behind their backs, as they were shoved and prodded towards a wall.

While the 71-year-old Ceausescu sang The Internationale, his wife Elena protested against the right of those she considered their inferiors to put the couple on trial.

They were executed by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989, after a military court sentenced them to death in a brief show trial. The blaze of gunfire took place so quickly that it had to be restaged minutes later to capture the scene on video.

Ceausescu was a casualty of the revolutions that were sweeping the communist-controlled countries of Eastern Europe, uprisings that would result two years later in the collapse of the Soviet empire. Would Mubarak now share his fate, vanquished by similar revolutionary upheaval engulfing the Arab world?

"Mr President, if the situation continues, I can imagine the sounds of the demonstrators in the corridors of your office."

"You mean they are going to kill me?"

"Probably, yes."

Mubarak paused for a beat, then stared directly into Badrawi's eyes.

"I am ready to die for my country."

But Badrawi presented an alternative. He laid out a plan he had devised after five days of deliberations and meetings with opposition leaders and the protesters in Tahrir Square.

To restore stability and allow him to step aside with a note of grace rather than be ousted unceremoniously or worse, Mubarak should go before the nation that very night. He should announce that he was granting full powers to his vice president and would oversee a referendum on changes to the constitution that would allow for early presidential elections.

It was a carefully calibrated proposal aimed at easing Mubarak from power and preventing the country from sliding further into anarchy, yet preserving some semblance of dignity for the chief who had lorded over Egypt as a father figure for nearly three decades.

"If you do this, you can live for your country, not die for it," Badrawi told him.

"If I leave now, there will be chaos," the president said.

"Either the military will rule or the Muslim Brothers will rule. The people will not have a chance."

But minutes later, Badrawi's argument had sunk in. The president would yield to the streets.

"Let's do what you say," he toldBadrawi. "Make the calls. Make it happen."

As Badrawi left, he noticed the expressions on the faces of Zakariah Azmi and Gamal Mubarak, as they made a beeline for the Egyptian leader.

They looked cold and determined.

More ominously, they looked angry.

Little wonder. Badrawi had finally overcome the protective layers of advisers and sycophants around Mubarak to deliver the crucial message from the streets: his time was up.

There was a 50 per cent chance, Badrawi thought, that the plan would steer Egypt towards a free-and-fair presidential election and an orderly transition to real democracy.

'We were in hell'

During his fateful conversation with Badrawi in his office on February 9, 2011, two days before he resigned and handed over power to the military, Mubarak paused for a moment to recall his early days as president.

"You know what the situation was when I came to power?" he asked rhetorically. "No infrastructure, bad electricity, we were in debt, our relationships with all the countries of the region were cut. We were in hell."

How much Egypt changed for the better during Mubarak's rule and what role he played in it will be debated for years. What is certain, however, is that his own life represents a kind of rags-to-riches story.

Born on May 4, 1928, to a poor family in the village of Kafr Al Museilha along the Nile Delta as the son of a minor bureaucrat, Mubarak began his career in one of the only places a teenager of modest beginnings could: the air force. "To be a pilot was something new," he recalled in his characteristically plainspoken way.

His ascent to the pinnacle of the Egyptian state was impressive. After rising through the ranks and distinguishing himself in the October 1973 war against Israel, President Anwar Sadat named him air chief marshall.

For Mubarak, then in his mid-40s, it was an achievement beyond his wildest dreams. After military service, he had no greater ambition than being Egypt's ambassador to the UK.

Married to Suzanne Thabet, who was half Welsh and unlike Mubarak himself, born into a middle-class family, there seemed no better place for a military hero than London.

But in 1975, Sadat appointed him vice president. In his book, The Rise and Fall … from the Throne to the Trial, Egyptian journalist Salah Montasser describes how Mubarak responded to his appointment, revealing a lack of self-confidence that would later be exploited by those closest to him for their own benefit.

"He told his closest friends that he doesn't understand politics and is afraid others will crush him," Mr Montasser wrote.

After becoming president at the age of 53 following the assassination of Sadat in 1981, Mubarak struck a deeply understated note, which played well with a public that had become fed up with Sadat's showmanship and culture of self-worship. He was a welcome change, too, from Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled Egypt as a revolutionary tyrant, tolerating little or no dissent.

This being Egypt, of course, there were jokes. He was frequently referred to as "La Vache Qui Rit" - the laughing cow - because his dopey, smiling look resembled the cow on a popular brand of cheese. But the jokes lacked the sting of those whispered about Sadat and Nasser. His mild manner made it hard to criticise him.


'The best regime is a just despot'

During his first decade-and-a-half in power, Mubarak was mainly a custodian of the system he had inherited from his two predecessors. Yet it was a system that fell into disrepair, and eventually disrepute, under the pressure of a booming population and the spectre of Islamic extremism.

More significantly, the experience of witnessing first-hand the assassination of Sadat drove the president to build an even more far-reaching and powerful mukhabarat than his predecessors.

In 1995, Mubarak narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The attackers, from the Islamist group Gama'a Islamiya, targeted the wrong limousine with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. Mubarak safely sped back to the airport. His return to Egypt that day was marked by a national outpouring of support, except for one, notably foreboding note. During a gathering of religious leaders marking the occasion, a popular television preacher issued a thinly-veiled warning about the consequences of tyranny.

Sheikh Muhammad Mitwali Al Sharawi told the president: "If a ruler is unfair and unjust, he will be rendered hideous by his injustice, made ugly in the hearts of people."

Then, he placed his hand on Mubarak's shoulder.

"If you are our fate, then may Allah grant you success. And if we are your fate, then may Allah help you bear it."

Ali El Dean Dessouki, a member of a group of senior National Democratic Party officials that later became known as the "Big Six", remembers a closed-door meeting with Mubarak at the the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when he offered a rare window into his thinking about power.

To the officials, he recounted how he had advised the Americans to replace Saddam Hussein with a military general. But they resisted the idea. "They don't understand that in our countries, the best regime is a just despot," Mubarak concluded.

Dessouki later recalled his surprise, considering that Mubarak and his government frequently boasted about Egypt's successful democracy in a region of tyrants and monarchies.

"In fact, he did not really believe in political parties," Dessouki said. "He thought they were a necessity because democracy requires it, but that Egyptians did not have a society that would embrace political parties or be divided along party lines… Mubarak believed, to put it lightly, in a strong ruler, but one who was very strong and can do anything."

This is the first of an abridged three-part serialisation of Last Days of the Pharaoh to mark the second anniversary of Mubarak’s fall.

bhope@the national.ae