x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Mubarak's fate sealed by camel battle

In the last of a three-part, abridged serialisation of his book, Last Days of the Pharaoh, Bradley Hope describes a regime unable to grasp it was in a fight for its life – until it was too late.

A supporter of embattled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak rides a camel through the melee during a clash between pro-Mubarak and anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square.
A supporter of embattled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak rides a camel through the melee during a clash between pro-Mubarak and anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square.

 

In the last of a three-part, abridged serialisation of his book, Last Days of the Pharaoh, Bradley Hope, Cairo Correspondent for The National, describes a regime unable to grasp it was in a fight for its life – until it was too late

 

"It's our day."

In a bid to restore the Egypt he had known, as it was dissolving around him, Hosni Mubarak went on state-run television three times in 18 days to address the nation.

In each speech, he portrayed himself as Egypt's father-ruler, the man who had devoted himself to the welfare of his children who now, by implication, owed him their thanks and indulgence as he steered them through the Egyptian family's time of crisis.

They were sometimes rambling, self-pitying and - given what was happening in Egypt's streets - dismayingly beside the point.

But at 10pm on February 1, 2011, Mubarak pulled off his last great speech, calibrated to pull at the heartstrings of patriotic Egyptians.

"I talk to you during critical times that are testing Egypt and its people, which could sweep them into the unknown," he began, before promising that neither he nor his son would run for election in 2011, and pledging that during his remaining months in office he would work to establish a "peaceful transfer of power".

Then, stepping oddly into the third person - and appearing to put forward the man he wished to be rather than the man with flagging energies and delusions that he was - he made a promise he would keep: that he would not leave Egypt under any circumstances.

"Hosni Mubarak who speaks to you today is proud of the long years he spent in the service of Egypt and its people," he said. "This dear nation is my country, it is the country of all Egyptians. Here I have lived and fought for its sake and I defended its land, its sovereignty and interests, and on this land I will die and history will judge me and others for our merits and faults."

Buoyed by Mubarak's performance, members of his inner circle - his son, Gamal, his chief of staff, Zakariah Azmi, the information minister, Anas El Fekky, and the speaker of the upper house of parliament, Safwat Sherif - were ecstatic.

Internet access was partially restored the next day and the curfew was eased. The army announced that protesters should leave Tahrir Square so that the country's journey on the path to reforms could begin. Pro-government demonstrations were planned to build on the momentum and to show the world an Egypt united behind its president.

Abdel Latif El Menawy, the head of news for state-run radio and television, walked into the office of El Fekky, on the ninth floor of the national press building, near Tahrir Square.

"It's our day," El Fekky declared.

But within minutes, what he saw below him in Tahrir Square transformed his day into a nightmare.

Men were streaming towards Tahrir Square on camels and horses, some of them carrying wooden clubs and knives.

What happened next rendered moot Mubarak's conciliatory words of the night before and erased whatever tenuous grasp his presidency had left on the future.

Instead of becoming the day that Mubarak was restored in the eyes of the people, it became the Day of the Camel Battle. Al Jazeera and other international television networks and satellite stations over and over again showed enthralling images of men on camels storming into crowds, attacking protesters. It seemed like a scene from a movie about colonial wars in North Africa.

To many Egyptians, who assumed Mubarak supporters were behind the attack, it showed that after years of virtually unchallenged authority - and the promiscuous use of security forces and hired thugs to quell dissent - the regime's political instincts were hopelessly dull and beyond repair.

It is still not known conclusively who hired the thugs. Ali El Dean Hilal Dessouki, the former top official of the National Democratic Party (NDP), denies knowing who organised and paid the camel units.

"The Camel Battle surprised everybody," Dessouki said in his office in Cairo's Mohandiseen neighbourhood. "On Tuesday, the president made this emotional speech that made a lot of Egyptians weep, where he surrendered powers. And by Wednesday evening, you had shooting and battles. It was a fatal day, a provocation."

'We know exactly what we are doing ...'

Despite the fateful images of a stampeding camel corps in Tahrir Square on February 2, the president and his entourage believed they could politically survive.

Hossam Badrawi, the physician Mubarak had appointed head of the ruling NDP in a bid to put a reformist face on the regime, was still out of the loop.

He phoned the presidential palace the day of the camel attack to urge Mubarak to rush ahead with his announced reform plans. He asked to speak with Mubarak but was passed on to the first lady's secretary.

A few minutes later, Suzanne Mubarak called him back.

"I'm calling because I feel the duty to my country to tell you what is happening in Egypt is absolutely wrong," he told her. "I think the president should implement what he said in his speech as soon as possible. Everything is coming too little, too late."

Her response was chilly. "Thank you very much," she said. "We have everything in front of us. We know exactly what we are doing and thank you for your suggestion."

A week later, El Menawy found himself in the office of the information minister.

El Fekky was on the phone with Mubarak and told him that El Menawy had just walked in to the room. The president asked to speak with him.

He was upset and told El Menawy that he did not think that the protests were just reward for his three decades of service as president and another three decades of service as a vice president and military officer.

"When this is all over, I want to have an interview, a long one," Mubarak told him. "I want to tell people about everything I've done for this country over the last 30 years."

El Menawy thought that the president still didn't comprehend how much trouble he was in.

That night, El Menawy later learned, the divisions that beset the regime spread to the heart of Mubarak's own family.

The targets were the president's younger son, Gamal, and his friend, Ahmed Ezz, an Egyptian business tycoon and regime crony.

Alaa, Mubarak's older son, who had stayed out of politics, shouted at Gamal, according to El Menawy's account: "What did you do to our father?"

"You don't understand anything," Gamal bellowed back. "Why did you come here?"

Mubarak barged into the room, saying: "Don't fight! I'm still alive."

But he glared at Gamal. "You've spoiled everything I achieved over the past 30 years - you and that short b******," the president said, referring to the famously undersized Ezz.

'He discovered it was serious'

At 10pm on February 10, Mubarak delivered his final speech as president, looking weary but defiant.

El Menawy, who was in his office watching the live feed of the address - which was being recorded for broadcast later - saw Gamal walk in to the frame to adjust his father's tie.

Badrawi watched with despair. The content was there - the handing over of power to the vice president and constitutional amendments - but it was badly concealed in arrogant rhetoric.

Mubarak committed an especially egregious gaffe, giving his condolences for "your martyrs" - a slip that suggested he was only embracing their cause to save his own skin.

The protesters in Tahrir responded with anger, hurling their shoes at the large screens displaying the address. The next day, thousands of demonstrators started marching towards the Arouba Palace.

What Badrawi and the protesters did not realise was that the president was already en route to Sharm El Sheikh aboard a helicopter.

Once he arrived at his villa there, he picked up the phone and called Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi to tell the head of Egypt's armed forces he was now in full control of the country.

El Menawy believes it was that moment, when Mubarak was alone on a presidential plane without his wife, sons or close advisers, that the truth had finally set in.

"He was completely on his own," said El Menawy. "In these 45 minutes or so, he discovered it was serious, it was the end of his presidency."

Suzanne was found by presidential guards crying in the hallway of the presidential villa in Cairo. She was carried out by the security guards to a waiting helicopter.

'Effendim, I am here'

It was six months before Egyptians would see Mubarak on television again.

Lying on a hospital trolley that was rolled into a cage in a makeshift courtroom on August 3, his face betrayed no emotion. His sons stood beside him holding copies of the Quran, blocking the view of cameras.

Mubarak said just four words when the judge called his name.

"Effendim, I am here," he said, using an Egyptian address of respect that is an Ottoman-era equivalent of "my sir" in Turkish.

Only two days of the trial, which continued for more than five months, were televised. The rest of the proceedings were held behind closed doors.

Mubarak and his interior minister were found guilty of failing to stop the killing of protesters during the first days of the uprising. They were each sentenced to 30 years in prison. Again, there was no reaction from Mubarak.

But he reportedly broke down in tears when the helicopter landed at Tora Prison. He refused to enter for several hours.

According to one prison official, who declined to be named, Mubarak has become a fussy and paranoid prisoner, given to claims about the great conspiracy that led to his downfall.

He drifts in and out of consciousness, dressed in track suits brought by his wife Suzanne, and occasionally watching old Egyptian films on a small television set.

Doctors have discouraged him from watching the news, for fear of exacerbating his depression.

Egypt's last Pharaoh will probably spend the rest of his life isolated in a prison cell, destined to die in ignominy and still unable to grasp how his regime collapsed in just 18 days.

bhope@thenational.ae

* Based on interviews with more than two dozen former and current Egyptian officials,diplomats, scholars, journalists and an extraordinary make-up artist, Last Day of the Pharaoh is available on Amazon's Kindle

 

18 days that brought down the Mubarak regime
January 25, 2011
Thousands of anti-government protesters in Cairo stage the biggest demonstrations seen in Egypt for many years.
January 28, 2011
Mass protests rock Cairo and other cities. Mubarak orders the army out on to the streets in an attempt to restore order.
January 29, 2011
Mubarak appoints his first vice president, Omar Suleiman, in an attempt to appease the protesters. A wave of looting grips Egypt after police withdraw from Cairo and several other cities.
February 1, 2011
Mubarak promises not to seek re-election but says that he will serve out the final months of his term and that he will "die on Egyptian soil".
February 10, 2011
Mubarak refuses to leave office but hands some powers to his vice president during an appearance on state TV that leaves protesters furious.
February 11, 2011
Mubarak resigns and hands over power to the military after protesters flood the streets of Cairo and other cities.

* With the Associated Press

 

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