The final indignity

Hosni Mubaraks fall from grace has been spectacular

Originally published in the Independent, April 14, 2011

At the height of the Egyptian uprising, when the crowds in central Cairo were hanging effigies of their president in Tahrir Square, a defiant Hosni Mubarak declared: “I will not leave Egypt or depart it until I am buried in the ground.”

After Egypt’s prosecutor general yesterday ordered that the deposed president be detained for 15 days pending charges of corruption, Mr Mubarak may be wishing he had fled his former dominion while he still had the chance.

The man who ruled his country with an iron fist for three decades is now being held and questioned over alleged abuses of power during his rule and over the deaths of protesters.

Mr Mubarak’s sons, Gamal and Alaa, have also been detained over allegations of corruption. They are being held in a prison near Cairo after being whisked away in a police van from the family home in Sharm el Sheikh under a hail of stones and bottles from angry onlookers. Mr Mubarak’s whereabouts are unknown but, according to state television, all three will appear for questioning in a Cairo court on Tuesday.

News of his detention, coming after a weekend of bloody clashes between the army and pro-democracy demonstrators, was warmly welcomed by Egyptian activists. The blogger Wael Khalil said the move was “a step forward” and that “the revolution cannot now be turned back”. “The people are calling the shots. They are dismantling the regime piece by piece and the army is their instrument for doing that,” he added.

The week leading up to yesterday’s announcement had been marred by violent confrontations around Tahrir Square in central Cairo. A large rally on Friday – aimed at putting pressure on the ruling military council to speed-up the prosecution of former officials – descended into violence when the army fired bullets and tear gas to clear activists who had defied the 2am Saturday curfew. At least one person was shot dead during the clashes.

But on Sunday, the prosecutor general ordered that Mr Mubarak be questioned on a range of charges, including the alleged orchestration of violence during the 18 days leading up to his ousting. He reportedly suffered a heart attack while being questioned on Tuesday night, but doctors have now confirmed he is healthy enough for prosecutors to continue their probe.

Many believe the decision to detain Mr Mubarak is no coincidence as it comes on the heels of mounting criticism of the army’s performance in government. Mohamed Fouad Gadalla, a judge and vice-president of Egypt’s State Council, said he believed the ruling military council pressured the public prosecutor to pursue Mr Mubarak and his family. “The army are doing this now because if they don’t take any strong action against Hosni Mubarak, then the people will march to Tahrir Square again,” he said.

Though no prosecutions have yet been completed, the detention of Mr Mubarak has come as a shock in a region where heads of state are not used to being brought to heel. “It’s rare,” said Jane Kinninmont, a Middle East expert from Chatham House. “I suppose the only similar recent example is Saddam Hussein… [Mubarak] was always taking a risk by remaining in Egypt.”

Bloodshed returns to Tahrir Square

The aftermath of the weekend violence


Originally published at, April 12, 2011

It was one of the chants which defined the Egyptian uprising—“The army and the people on one hand.”

Not any more it seems. At the very least, if the military and the masses ever did fit into one glove then the relationship will need some serious work after this weekend’s violence.

On Friday, central Cairo played host to the biggest demonstration since former president Hosni Mubarak’s ousting in February.

A few thousand protesters lingered on in Tahrir Square after the main rally, but the army was not in a particularly tolerant mood.

At least one person died in the crackdown that followed. Protestors put the tally at three—including, they said, some of the rebel officers who had joined the demonstration in spite of threats by the top brass to court martial any soldiers who attended the march.

The daytime rally, which drew tens of thousands after midday prayers, was intended to pile pressure on the ruling military council, which some believe has been too sluggish in its pursuit of former regime criminals.

But it descended into violence as hundreds of soldiers moved in on the square soon after 2am, peppering the night sky with shots and rounding-up protesters.

A spent cartridge I picked up in Tahrir the following morning is currently perched on my mantelpiece. The military said it was not fired by them as no live rounds were used during the operation.

Nonsense, according to many of the demonstrators who were in central Cairo on Friday night.

“I saw bullets ricocheting up from the ground,” said 47-year-old filmmaker Ibrahim El-Batout. “I feel betrayed. The army’s job is not to shoot at us.”

Another demonstrator held a spent round in his palm as he recounted what happened during the night. “The army surrounded the square at around 3am,” said PhD researcher Mohammed Nabeel. “Then they started firing. I feel awful.”

Amal Sharaf, a spokesperson for the April 6th Youth Movement, one of Egypt’s most influential activist groups, said that many Egyptians were unhappy with the sluggish pace of the prosecution process.

She said: “People don’t trust the army anymore. The longer we leave these prosecutions the more time we give Mubarak to escape from his crimes.”

Sali Moore, a senior member of presidential contender Mohamed El-Baradei’s campaign team, agreed that people were disgruntled with the “illegitimate” ruling military council.

But she added it was important to distinguish between the council and the rest of the army.

“In the streets we said ‘the army and the people on one hand’,” she said. “We still believe that because we see the difference between the army and the council.”

The ruling military council will be hoping she is right. During Friday’s march chanting protesters made clear their disdain for the military top brass, comparing interim leader Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi to Hosni Mubarak and calling on him to resign.

If these sentiments gain traction—and morph into a widespread mistrust of the army—then Egypt’s uprising could be in for stormy weather.

Running scared: Egypt’s Christians looking to leave

Egyptian Copts take to the streets

Fears that Egypt’s revolution could be hijacked by increasingly vociferous political Islamists are threatening to cause an exodus of the country’s minority Coptic population.

Since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in February, large numbers of Egyptian Christians have been making plans to leave the country if political organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood manage to take control in elections scheduled for later this year.

Lawyers who specialise in working with Coptic Egyptians – who account for around 10 per cent of the country’s 80 million citizens – say that in the past few weeks they have received hundreds of calls from Copts wanting to leave Egypt because of the political uncertainty.

Naguib Gabriel, a prominent Coptic lawyer and head of the Egyptian Federation of Human Rights, said his office had been receiving at least 70 calls per week from people wanting to know how they can emigrate.

He said: “Every day people come to me and ask how they can get to the American or Canadian embassies. They are insisting on leaving Egypt because the risks of staying here are too great.

“We’re at a crossroads,” he added. “Many Christians are afraid of the future because of the fanatics in the mosques.”

Though much of the focus on Egypt’s uprising has remained upbeat – especially in comparison to the bloody quagmire developing in neighbouring Libya – the period since Mubarak’s ouster has been marred by vicious bouts of sectarian strife.

At least 15 people, Christians and Muslims, were killed last month in a chain of violence which erupted because of a relationship between a Coptic man and Muslim woman in a village south of Cairo.

This led to a hundreds of Christians joining a prolonged demonstration outside Cairo’s state TV building in a bid to secure better protection for the Copts from Egypt’s ruling military council.

In recent days there have also been clashes involving Egypt’s Salafi movement, a fundamentalist Islamic sect which is considered even more conservative than the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to reports in the Daily News Egypt, a Coptic service centre in Cairo was closed down this week after being picketed by Salafis, while in the Fayoum province south of the capital fights broke out after the sect tried to force the closure of a shop selling alcohol.

It all seems a far cry from the days when demonstrators in Tahrir Square were declaring: “Muslims and Christians are on one hand”.

“The issues now are worse now than in the past,” said Mr Gabriel. “In the past there were problems, but there were long periods between them.

“But after the revolution every day we are seeing new things.”

Mamdouh Nakhla, a Coptic lawyer, said his office was speaking to around 150 people per month who were making plans to leave Egypt because of the political situation.

Some were Muslims, he said, but most were Copts who were worried about the prospects of a Brotherhood-dominated government.

He said: “They want to leave to countries where there is freedom of religion.”

According to both Mr Nakhla and Mr Gabriel, most of the people planning to emigrate want to go to Canada, where there is a large Coptic population of around 50,000.

The Canadian embassy in Cairo said it could not reveal how many Egyptians had applied for visas there since the uprising began.

But Sam Fanous, who runs a company helping Egyptians emigrate and settle in Canada, said that over the past month his office had been “bombarded” with requests from Copts who wanted help in leaving the country.

He added: “I have people coming to my Cairo office until midnight. Often I tell my assistant to shut down the phones because we have so many people calling.”

“The majority of people want to emigrate. Some ask about asylum, but I explain they cannot get refugee status from Egypt.”

Mr Fanous said most of the people coming to him were well-off professionals.

“Some want to go and not come back. Some want to take their families and then come back until it becomes time to leave.”

But he also said there was a difference in attitude between older Copts he had spoken to and the younger generations.

“The young want to fight it out. They were in Tahrir Square and they are not as scared as the older generations.”

Nada Rafik, a 21-year-old Copt from Cairo, said that since the revolution her mother had been making plans to move the family to Canada.

She said: “My mother has been trying to get a Canadian passport for the past year, but since the revolution she’s been saying ‘let’s try and get this done quickly’.

“She is taking precautions and saying that the family has to leave.”

Ms Rafik, a financial analyst, said that she would also consider leaving, but only if the situation got much worse.

“The older generation are more scared than us. They have lived with Mubarak for 30 years and are used to him. Now they are afraid because they see the Egyptian media talking about the Muslim Brotherhood taking over, but they don’t see the other side really.”

Parliamentary and presidential elections are expected later this year after a recent referendum rubber-stamped constitutional changes which the government had argued were necessary for a fair ballot.

Critics have said that holding the polls this year will benefit only the Muslim Brotherhood and formerly-ruling National Democratic Party, as they are the only organisations currently strong enough to fight an election.

But the Muslim Brotherhood has swatted away concerns it will secure too much power, saying it will not contest more than 30 per cent of parliamentary seats and will field no presidential candidate.