Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 December 2003
Issue No. 667
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Bringing the temple down

A gruesome murder-suicide in Zamalek reinforced the public's impression of businessmen as an repugnant breed. Shaden Shehab reports

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Zikra during a concert in Dubai; with El-Sweidi during better times; Kholi's son in disbelief; and thousands bid Zikra farewell
"Did you hear about what happened to Zikra?"

The Tunisian singer, murdered in cold blood by her businessman husband, who also gunned down his business manager and his wife before shooting himself, was the talk of the town this week.

"The whole thing is bizarre -- it's like a bad movie."

These kinds of comments could be heard wherever you went in Cairo, inspired in no small part by the extensive coverage of the murder-suicide that was splashed all over the front pages of Saturday's papers.

The intricate details of the "insane" events that took place in the wee hours of Friday 28 November, in the posh Zamalek apartment where Ayman El- Sweidi and Zikra lived, may never come to light.

Talking to police sources and friends of the deceased, however, have helped Al-Ahram Weekly piece together most of the horrid story, and correct some of the misconceptions that appeared in the initial coverage of the bizarre crime.

Thursday night began relatively normally for 42-year-old Zikra and her husband El-Sweidi, the 40-year-old business magnate. Along with El-Sweidi's business manager Amr El-Kholi and his wife Khadija Salaheddin, the couple went to Blues, a fancy Giza pub owned by El-Sweidi. A couple of hours after they arrived, an argument erupted between El- Sweidi and Zikra, inspiring the popular singer to head home with Salaheddin in tow.

Back at the apartment on Mohamed Mazhar Street, Zikra played a couple of rounds of Playstation, one of her favorite pastimes. She then called her friend, the relatively unknown actress Kawthar Ramsey, and asked her to come over. Ramsey arrived at around 2am, immediately following the conclusion of Adel Imam's play Bodyguard, in which she plays a part.

About an hour later, Zikra's distribution manager, Fouad El- Sha'er, also came by to let the singer know that her newest tape -- released just three days earlier -- was doing well.

At dawn, El-Sweidi and El- Kholi arrived. According to testimony provided to police by El- Sweidi's two maids, El-Sweidi immediately began arguing with his wife. The crux of the dispute was El-Sweidi's insistence that Zikra quit singing. Zikra's response was that she had never promised to do so, and never would.

As the argument heated up, El- Sweidi ordered the two maids to go to their room, and demanded that Ramsey go to the balcony. He said he wanted to discuss this personal matter with his wife in the privacy of their drawing room. The maids -- 17-year-old Umm Hashem Hassan and 19-year-old Amal Ragab -- told police that they then overheard El-Sweidi accuse Zikra of cheating on him. They also said Zikra responded by insulting El-Sweidi.

At this point, according to the maids, El-Kholi and Salaheddin took Zikra's side, telling El- Sweidi that his allegations were false, and that a wife shouldn't have to bear such abuse.

By 7am, El-Sweidi had kicked Ramsey out of the apartment, and retrieved three of his guns from another room. Apparently, Zikra and the couple's friends were not alarmed since El-Sweidi had a history of shooting at bottles, vases, and chandeliers when angry.

Instead, El-Sweidi pointed his weapons -- two pistols and a machine gun -- at Zikra, and began firing.

According to the preliminary forensics report, blood clots in Zikra's stomach indicated that the first two shots -- from one of the pistols -- hit her in the stomach, but did not result in death.

Zikra fought for her life for a few minutes while El-Sweidi began shooting at Salaheddin and El-Kholi. He soon switched to the other pistol, and finally the machine gun, as he unleashed a torrent of bullets into his wife and friends' bodies.

Zikra was hit by a total of 25 bullets, although only five ended up lodged in her body. El-Kholi was hit 29 times, with six shells remaining inside his body. Salaheddin was shot 26 times, with eight of the bullets remaining inside her.

El-Kholi then used a third pistol -- placing it inside his mouth and pulling the trigger -- to end his own life.

The silence that descended on the apartment did not last for long. The maids soon appeared in the room, saw the blood bath, and rushed to the balcony, screaming for help.

Policemen stationed at the Safir Hotel next door rushed over, and along with the building's security guard, hurried up to the apartment to find out what was going on. They found the four bodies drowning in blood, the two frantic maids, and Zikra's three dogs hovering near their dead mistress.

Initial press reports claimed that Zikra had been pregnant. This, along with initial allegations that El-Sweidi and his victims were drunk, proved false. The forensic report revealed that there was no sign of alcohol in the blood samples taken from the bodies during the autopsy.

The assumption had clearly been that only a drunk and out of control person could have committed such a crime. As the Weekly went to print, forensic doctors were still trying to determine whether any of the victims had taken drugs.

"El-Sweidi usually drinks alcohol," composer Hani Mehanna told the Weekly, "but he doesn't like to drink alone, and his companions that night did not drink." Mehanna, who is credited with 'discovering' Zikra back in 1992, said he had been meant to join the four friends that night, but didn't have the time. "It's God's will," he said.

Mehanna was Zikra's musical godfather. He had encouraged her to come to Egypt after seeing her perform in Tunisia, and had also produced many of her early tapes. It was also Mehanna who introduced Zikra to El-Sweidi at Mehanna's birthday party in July. The composer said, however, that he and "other friends had advised her not to marry him because their personalities were totally different".

In August, the couple got married anyway, orfi-style (unofficially). Just two weeks ago, El-Sweidi won a court case that he had filed against Zikra, which enabled him to officially register their marriage. It remains unclear why she had refused to make the marriage official, and why he had pursued a legal route to get her to do so.

Mehanna said that El-Sweidi and Zikra were very much in love, but that El-Sweidi was a very jealous man who wanted to own Zikra and control her every move. He recalled that during their honeymoon in Sharm El- Sheikh, El-Sweidi hit one of Zikra's fans because the latter placed his hand on her shoulder while posing for a photograph. In November, while Zikra was performing in Qatar, a fuming El- Sweidi told Mehanna that he planned on forbidding her from travelling. Mehanna said he reminded his friend that he had married Zikra while fully aware that she was determined to pursue her singing career. He also told El-Sweidi that the singer was clearly not after his money. "He once told me that he had paid his previous wives $5000 a month to quit their jobs," Mehanna said, "and did not understand why Zikra was different."

Although El-Sweidi had been married several times before -- both officially and unofficially -- he had not fathered any children. Amongst his official ex-wives were two belly-dancers, Hendiya, and Nadia, who is Moroccan. Most of these relationships had only survived for a few months. His marriage to Nadia -- who, like Zikra, had lived in the Zamalek apartment -- lasted three years. He had just divorced her when he married Zikra.

El-Sweidi comes from a very wealthy and prominent family. His father Awni, a member of the Shura Council, is a businessman who, like the younger El-Sweidi, deals in electrical cables. His paternal cousin Talaat is a member of parliament representing the ruling National Democratic Party for the Diarb Negm district in Al- Sharqiya. Ayman El-Sweidi's electrical cable business was based in the 10th of Ramadan City, and was affiliated with several European and American cable companies.

All was not well, however, with El-Sweidi's finances. He apparently owed various banks some LE140 million, and had been banned from leaving the country until the money was paid back.

As investigators examined the crime scene on Sunday, they found five letters signed by El- Sweidi and addressed to his brother Mohamed. According to the police, El-Sweidi asked his brother for forgiveness, since he would have already committed suicide by the time the letters got to him. El-Sweidi said he was planning on killing himself because of his major debts, and because he was fed up with life in general.

According to the police, El- Sweidi had written that he intended to "bring the temple down on everybody's heads".

He had also recommended that his brother fire El-Kholi, which indicates that El-Sweidi did not intend to kill the business manager and his wife. He also urged his brother to marry a "faithful woman" and to name his future son Ayman.

On Monday, Mehanna accepted condolences for Zikra at the Omar Makram Mosque in Tahrir Square. Although the composer did not seem to mind talking to TV stations, he was hesitant to speak to the press, because "most of the information that has been published is wrong, and it is shameful to sully the reputation of this respectable woman, who is also dead." Mehanna was referring to insinuations in the papers that El-Sweidi had killed Zikra because of her alleged extra-marital relations.

Zikra's friends were also reluctant to talk. One of her best friends, however, agreed to speak to the Weekly under condition of anonymity. She said the main problem was that El-Sweidi and Zikra did not really "know each other" in the true sense of the word. "He never understood what it meant to be a singer, nor did he understand her delicate nature. He would sometimes insist that she sing to him as soon as she woke up, or whenever he felt like listening to her." Zikra's friend, a pianist, said that despite this, the couple seemed very much in love, and that Zikra would always forgive El-Sweidi because, "as she told me, 'he loves me very much'. But what happened proves that he never really understood what love meant."

Nearly a week after the gruesome crime, the atmosphere around the apartment building in Zamalek remains strangely subdued. Neighbours said they had not heard the bullets, probably because the apartment had soundproof walls. They also said that they had had no contact with the couple while they were alive.

When asked why all the apartment's lights were on, the security guards said it was "to scare off ghosts".

Zikra's family demanded that she be buried in Tunisia. On Sunday, her coffin left for her homeland in a private plane, accompanied by Egyptian and Arab stars. Thousands of people attended her funeral.

Earlier this year, Saudi Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Khudairi, a judge at Riyadh's Islamic High Court, called for Zikra to be killed because she had been quoted in a magazine comparing the hardships she faced while launching her career with the sufferings of Prophet Mohamed. Zikra adamantly denied having made the comment, prompting Al-Azhar's Grand Imam -- Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi -- to declare that her denial was enough of a reason to call off the death sentence. The Saudi cleric agreed.

Her latest tape, Youm Lik wi Youm 'Alaik (A day with you, and a day against you), had hit the market just three days before she died.

El-Sweidi's business manager El-Kholi and his wife are survived by two children -- a 15- year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter -- who were immediately whisked out of the country by their maternal aunt following the crime.

The event was a shock for most people, reinforcing stereotypes of "corrupt" businessmen who borrow millions in bad loans from banks, and often times end up either behind bars or escaping abroad. Many couldn't help but paralleling the story to that of businessman Hossam Abul-Futuh, who not only owed banks money, but also ended up scandalised by the videotapes he had made of his sexual exploits with famous starlets.

"Too much money and power drive people to madness," said one young man when asked his opinion of the grisly murder.

"Their problems are very different from ours," said Attiat Ahmed, a housewife. "Our main problem is trying to make ends meet. Even when the poor end up committing crimes, they do so using simple weapons like knives because guns are too expensive," she said.

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