x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Hosni Mubarak, a president cut off from his people

In the second of a three-part, abridged serialisation of his book Last Days of the Pharaoh, Bradley Hope describes Hosni Mubarak as incapable of reaching beyond a small circle of family and close aides.

A book on Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's life showing him with his late grandson, Mohammed Alaa Mubarak, on sale at one of Cairo's bookshops.
A book on Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's life showing him with his late grandson, Mohammed Alaa Mubarak, on sale at one of Cairo's bookshops.

In the second of a three-part, abridged serialisation of his book Last Days of the Pharaoh, Bradley Hope, Cairo Correspondent for The National, describes Hosni Mubarak as increasingly detached from the everyday running of his country, isolated from the public and incapable of reaching beyond a small circle of family and close aides. Hope’s account, available on

Amazon.com's Kindle, is based on interviews with more than two dozen former and current Egyptian officials, scholars, journalists, former diplomats and an extraordinary make-up artist.

 

When Mohammed Ashoub, Egypt's most highly regarded make-up artist, picked up his phone that day in 1995, it was not a movie star, singer or celebrity on the other end of line.

Instead, it was a summons to the opulent presidential palace to work his magic on the most powerful man in the country in preparation for a television interview.

The president had started dyeing his hair years earlier, but the contrast between his unnaturally darkened hair and his pale, ageing skin served only to make him look more tired and decayed.

At first, Mubarak resisted. He might dye his hair like other Arab men, but cosmetics? That was too much. But Ashoub persuaded him to let him try out a few dabs under his eyes.

The result was subtle and effective enough for Mubarak to agree to continue that day and many days thereafter. Ashoub became the man the palace called on before any television interview.

Ashoub soon did more than apply make-up. By his second decade in power, Mubarak was surrounded by an almost impenetrable coterie of advisers, sycophants and hangers-on keen to tell the president what they thought he wanted to hear while advancing their own interests.

The make-up man proved an exception. Their sessions were a rare opportunity for the president to interact with a member of the public.

Ashoub remembers deliberately taking his time to prolong their banter, even lingering after the interviews were over. Mubarak loved to tell jokes and hear what was being said about him in the cafes.

"I could tell the president loved to joke and hear the funny stories, the way normal people do, like friends," he recalls.

As time passed, Ashoub noticed that Mubarak was growing weary and disconnected. At the direction of the first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, the palace staff carefully screened the news that reached him.

Some speculate that she was trying to pave the way for her youngest son, Gamal, to take over the country when Mubarak was too old to remain as president.

In such a jealously guarded system where access and information meant power, Ashoub was a threat. Anas El Fekky, the information minister who coordinated Ashoub's visits, told him to stop chatting with the president.

"He has more important things to think about," El Fekky told him.

The breaking point came in August 2005, when Ashoub mentioned the death of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. Zakariah Azmi, Mubarak's chief of staff, exploded with rage when he learnt Ashoub had told the president the news before he did. Such effrontery from a make-up artist could not be tolerated.

A guard walked up to Ashoub and told him, "You have crossed a red line." Ashoub never passed the threshold of the presidential palace again.

Asmi and El Fekky accused Ashoub of using pictures of himself with the president to obtain business, but Mubarak himself was notably left in the dark.

The palace's staff photographer later told Ashoub that Mubarak had been asking about him.

"What happened to Ashoub?" Mubarak had asked, according to the photographer. "Did I anger him?"

The people who formed a bubble around Mubarak, ostensibly to protect and serve him, also took advantage of him. Slowly but surely, they were cutting him off from the public and in so doing, they were weakening his power, as well as their own.

"Every day, Mubarak was waking up alone in the morning," Ashoub recalled in an interview last year. "He had nobody to speak to him. He was taken to his car, placed in his office. The man was lonely and isolated."

Mubarak had enjoyed another relationship uncomplicated by power, only to have it, too, taken away.

He and his eldest grandson, Muhammad, from his eldest son Alaa, were almost inseparable.

One time Muhammed came to the palace after school, complaining that none of his classmates believed his grandfather was the president of Egypt. The next day, Mubarak walked into Muhammad's classroom and sat down next to him.

"I just wanted to check on my grandson," the president told Muhammad's astonished classmates, as he later recounted to Ashoub.

In the afternoons at his villa, Mubarak regularly chased his grandson around the grounds, mimicking the scene in the classic 1972 movie, The Godfather, in which the ageing Don Corleone stiffly stalks his own grandson with an orange peel in his mouth.

But tragedy struck in 2009 when Muhammad suddenly fell seriously ill. He passed away two days later in a Paris hospital. It was never discovered what killed the 12-year-old. The palace initially said it was food poisoning but retracted that explanation.

Whatever the case, the death of Muhammad left the president so distraught that he could not attend the funeral, which was joined by thousands of officials and citizens. For months after, Mubarak wore a black tie in remembrance.

Once the supreme master of stability, the president was becoming increasingly severed from reality as he entered his eighties. The death of his grandson only drove him further into seclusion.

"After Muhammad's death, Mubarak might have well been dead, too," Ashoub remembered. "He wasn't a leader, he wasn't a president. He didn't care about anything."

'They are happy in the villages'

In the weeks and months before the January 25, 2011, protests in Egypt, few officials saw what was coming, let alone knew that it was the beginning of the end of the Mubarak regime.

With its strong security services and the sprawling edifice of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), the government thought itself invincible.

"No one believed that the big construct that was established in the early 1950s could collapse so quickly and so rapidly," said Ali El Dean Hilal Dessouki, a member of the NDP's "Big Six". "That explains a great deal of the havoc and disorder in Egypt. No one was preparing for that."

Hossam Badrawi, a member of the reformist wing of the NDP, felt something ominous was coming.

Yet, he remained steadfast in his belief that it was more noble to change the system from the inside rather than from without.

With the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia on December 17, 2010, the ground on which the Mubarak regime stood was quickly shifting.

In the weeks after the street cart vendor set himself alight to protest against corruption, five Egyptians set themselves on fire in front of the parliament building in Cairo to express their opposition to their own government's fecklessness and graft.

On January 20, 2011, Badrawi requested a meeting with Mubarak to propose that he immediately announce a package of political reforms to neutralise protests scheduled for five days later. He was rebuffed and passed on to Gamal Mubarak, who met him for two hours at the Air Force Club in Heliopolis.

Badrawi told Gamal that there was a small but unique opportunity to pledge more political openness in Egypt.

"We need to prove there are real directions toward democracy," he told him.

But Gamal was perplexed. "What do you mean?"

Badrawi suggested that the government announce that the president would not stand again for office. Elections were already scheduled for later in 2011, so it was an easy move.

Gamal's response gave an insight into just how myopic the Mubarak family had become about Egypt's state of affairs.

"What happened in Tunisia cannot happen in Egypt, it can never happen," he said with his trademark serious stare. "In Tunisia, the army pulled the plug, and this will not happen because the president is in total control of the army."

Badrawi reminded him that members of the same army had assassinated Sadat in 1981. "People are angry," he added.

Gamal was unmoved. He ended the meeting by saying that only in Cairo was there any opposition to the regime. "The rest of the country won't feel this way," he said. "They are happy in the villages."

The message was clear: leave it to Habib El Adly, the tough interior minister and his tens of thousands of officers.

Badrawi left the Air Force Club with a feeling that something bad was on the horizon.

'Cairo was ready to burn ...'

On January 25, Egypt witnessed the largest demonstration in its history. Tens of thousands of people poured into Tahrir Square, shouting "Bread! Freedom! Justice!"

Decades of neglect, political repression, poverty and a feeling that the government was conspiring against its own people had coalesced into a powerful force that caught the entire government off guard.

So swift was the blow that day that neither the NDP nor any government official gave a public statement until three days later, Friday, January 28, which was declared by protesters the "Day of Anger".

It was on that day that Abdel Latif El Menawy, who was then the president for news at state-run television and radio stations, saw the government's countenance change from confidence and disdain to confusion and fear.

A day earlier, he had walked into the information minister's office and saw some of the regime's most powerful figures completely out of touch with the crisis enveloping Egypt.

El Fekky was on the phone with Suzanne Mubarak, going over a new draft of her book about her experience reading with her deceased grandson, Muhammad.

"Even at a time of national crisis, the first lady was still occupying a government minister with her own personal projects," El Menawy later wrote. "Cairo was ready to burn and here they were."

The president had passed to Gamal the responsibility for ending the most dangerous threat to his regime in nearly 30 years, and given him "control of all political decisions", El Menawy said in an interview last year.

The next day, the telecom regulator, under orders from the ministry of interior, shut down the internet and mobile phone networks.

Without the ability to communicate, the protesters would be lost and easily cornered, the logic went.

The plan backfired. Instead of confusing the protesters, it escalated the confrontation in the streets. Dozens more were killed, bringing the death toll to more than 300.

bhope@thenational.ae

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