Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 April - 4 May 2011
Issue No. 1045
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The Mubaraks' journey to the bottom

Dina Ezzat assesses the former presidential family's rise and fall

Click to view caption
The Mubaraks during the days of glory

Hosni Mubarak: From modesty to conceit

When he was selected vice president by former president Anwar El-Sadat in the mid-1970s, Hosni Mubarak, then in his late 40s, might not have thought he would actually end up being Egypt's fourth president after the 1952 Revolution ended the monarchy and transformed Egypt into a republic.

What Mubarak could not have thought when he was sworn in as president on 14 October 1981, after the assassination of Sadat, was that a new revolution, conducted this time not by army officers but by young men and women frustrated with corruption, would force him out, as Egypt's first toppled president.

And when Mubarak was leaving his Heliopolis three-floor home on 9 February to Sharm El-Sheikh, only two days before shortly-appointed former vice president Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak stepped down, he might have remembered the day when he moved to this home from a simple middle-class Heliopolis apartment when Sadat chose him, over genius military and political aides, as a possible successor.

TWO MUBARAKS: In the space of close to four decades, from vice president to president, Mubarak changed considerably. By the account of retired military officers, former cabinet ministers and retired presidential staff, the Mubarak who was put under police custody for questioning over charges of political and financial corruption and the killing of peaceful protesters carries very little resemblance to the man who was startled when informed that he was chosen as vice president.

By the account of one retired co-military officer, Mubarak thought that this assignment was a political scheme on the part of Sadat, and although he never said it outright, the long serving military pilot did not think the job would last for long. "When Mubarak said he never thought he would be president, and that the maximum he was hoping for was to get a job as an ambassador in London, he was being frank, he really was," said the retired military officer.

In 2005, as part of his presidential campaign for a fourth -- and what later turned to be last -- term in office, Mubarak said plainly that he never thought he would be president. What Mubarak did not say, however, is that he never thought he would be president for that long: close to 30 years.

"During his first or second year as president, Mubarak came to a visit to Al-Ahram building and at the time he was asked about his plans for the first and for the second terms in office. And his spontaneous reply was that he cannot do two terms in office," said a retired journalist of Al-Ahram.

At the time, Mubarak, according to the account of a retired presidential staff member, was speaking about introducing a constitutional amendment to suspend the open-ended terms that an Egyptian president could have.

"He was immediately dissuaded by some of his aides; they told him the country is in a state of turmoil after the assassination of president Sadat and that he does not need to change the constitution and if he wants to quit he can quit any time," added the same source.

FROM CAUTION TO REPRESSION: Mubarak's first term in office was marked by some attempts to contain the rifts that Sadat's dramatic rule left on the political scene in Egypt. He released all political prisoners arrested by Sadat and aimed to ease the sense of tension among Copts that were mobilised by Sadat's decision to keep the patriarch of their church under custody.

A definitely cautious Mubarak, however, did not remove the state of emergency that was imposed following the assassination of Sadat, neither during his first, second, third, nor fourth terms in office. Mubarak knew how to selectively apply the regulations of emergency law.

In the beginning of his rule, it was exclusively militant Islamist groups who were targeted with emergency laws. Slowly but surely, the circle expanded to include non-militant Islamists and eventually many figures among his political adversaries.

According to a retired police officer, Mubarak "was right to use the emergency law" against militant Islamists. "You cannot argue with them, because they use force and they are fearless because in their minds they are serving the cause of God." What some of Mubarak's most sympathetic supporters disagreed with, however, was his use of emergency law to quell almost every form of active political opposition.

"As time passed by, many hypocrites were telling him that he is the only source of stability for Egypt," said the same retired presidential staff member. He added that Mubarak was genuinely convinced that he could not show any flexibility towards any serious opposition.

In the eyes of an officer at the now dissolved and previously notorious State Security Intelligence (SSI) department, it was this wish of the president to keep a close eye on, and firm grip over, all forms of opposition that kept the State Security agencies mushrooming.

The application of emergency law and the extrajudicial authorities of the SSI are considered by many critics and sympathisers alike as among the worst things about Mubarak's time in office.

The burgeoning financial corruption that marked the last decade of Mubarak's rule and the scheme to get Gamal Mubarak, the younger son of the president, to succeed him in office are also considered amongst the downs of Mubarak's rules.

THE RISE OF THE YES MEN: For some former aides, however, Mubarak's worst vice was his narrow-mindedness. "He totally lacks imagination," said a former Mubarak minister. This lack of imagination, according to former aides in the presidency, cabinet and ruling party, was reflected in his poor choice of aides and many of his political and economic decisions.

By the account of the same former minister, the uncreative Mubarak could not tolerate -- or for long -- creative aides. "For him, those were the people who were trying to show off. He could not keep them," he said. Consequently, deep economic, social and political ailments in Egypt, "many of which he inherited and was not responsible for," were left unattended.

Eventually, and despite good intentions many say Mubarak had when he came to office, the country was slowly falling apart, despite considerable investment in rehabilitating infrastructure and the success of Mubarak in having written off a considerable part of Egypt's foreign debt as a result of its participation in the US-led effort to liberate Kuwait in 1991.

By the mid-1990s, Mubarak, on the account of some who served with him directly, was falling into conceit.

According to the same retired presidential staff member, "Mubarak would still come across as a simple man, and in some ways he remained so, and he would still be kind to some of his closest aides, and he would joke and be pleasant with them, but he was becoming convinced that he knew what he was doing fully, and that he did not need advice."

Eventually, Mubarak was soliciting less advice and entertaining less criticism. His immediate aides were sensitive to this metamorphosis, and they were reducing the amount of argument they would present before him. "Ultimately, he was mostly surrounded by yes men -- people who would agree with everything he said," noted a once front row member of the now defunct ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

"He chose his aides among those who said yes and yes only; not 'yes, but' and everybody else was qualified a defeatist."

FROM STABILITY TO STAGNATION: Mubarak's immediate circle of aides were quick, according to the same former NDP member, to interpret everything the way Mubarak would want it interpreted. "And they also cut off those who would have dared to tell him that things were not as well as the official media was suggesting, and that some of the stuff reported by Al-Jazeera was very true."

"Hosni Mubarak perceived himself exactly as the official media portrayed him: a hero of war and peace," said another former presidential staff. He added, "Maybe he was not a hero, and maybe he did not care to be a hero, but he certainly thought he was trying his best to serve the nation's stability."

Mubarak, by the account of all his critics and some of his sympathisers, failed to see clearly the disappearing line between stability and stagnation. "During the past few years our foreign policy drew to a halt almost," said a diplomat on condition of anonymity. "We were not taking initiatives and we were always on the reacting side," he added.

By the account of this and other diplomats, the lack of initiative and the conviction that all is well reduced Egypt's regional influence considerably.

"But Mubarak was not really bothered. He was convinced that Egypt was doing well and that what the region needs now is stability, not initiatives," said another diplomat. He added that the president acted "as if everything was under control when nothing was under control" -- not in Egypt's relation with the Nile Basin countries, not in relation to the situation in Sudan or Libya, and not in relation to the situation in Gaza.

This mistaken sense of control itself got control of Mubarak, to the point that when the 25 January demonstrations entered their second week he was still convinced "with the account offered by his senior security and political aides who were telling him that these demonstrations have no support among the public".

The source added: "And when he realised what was really going on, it was too late".

Suzanne Mubarak:

Neither Mother Teresa nor Marie Antoinette

She is coming under much fire as the mastermind of the succession scheme that some say sealed the end of the 30-year rule of her husband, now former president Hosni Mubarak.

Suzanne Mubarak, Egypt's former first lady whose elegant photos were once given prominence by most official papers that portrayed her as akin to Mother Teresa, and younger and prettier, is now depicted as a Lady Macbeth -- a wife who is ambitious to the point of being criminal, and cruel to the point of being disturbed. Marie Antoinette is another reference point for editors: if the people cannot find bread then let them eat cake.

But for those who have known her throughout her years as first lady and before, Suzanne Mubarak is neither Lady Macbeth, even if she keenly supported the political ambitions of her younger son, nor Marie Antoinette, despite her love of beautiful jewellery beyond the grasp of ordinary Egyptians.

Suzanne Mubarak, for many who worked with her, from within or outside of the government, remains a strong lady, indeed a strong-headed lady.

WOMAN OF DETERMINATION: "She has enormous determination; it is fascinating how she would decide to do something, and she would work on it until she gets it done," said one former member of a social work organisation that Suzanne Mubarak chaired.

According to this member, Suzanne Mubarak was not willing to be an image with no influence. "She could not be the first lady that some people wanted her to be; someone who offers an elegant appearance next to the president and who would walk behind the president a few steps and say nothing except for a few words of courtesy."

Suzanne Mubarak, according to several sources who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly since her husband and two sons were put into custody for questioning over criminal charges, was not brought up to be empty-headed and should not have been expected to act like it.

"She wanted to have influence, to leave a print by changing things that she thought were unfair. She wanted girls to have equal opportunities to education and women to have equal rights within the marital context," said a former parliamentarian.

By promoting these issues, the parliamentarian added, Suzanne Mubarak might have been flattered by some compliments that were made in her favour over the introduction of some changes, including the appointment of women judges, but "at the end of the day her real source of pride and satisfaction was that she was changing things to what she believed was the better."

SHY BEGINNINGS: During the early years of Mubarak's rule, Suzanne Mubarak kept a very low profile. At the time, former presidency members comment, Mubarak himself wanted to avoid an over-projection of his spouse out of concern that much of the criticism that his predecessor Anwar El-Sadat got was related to the role of Jihan El-Sadat, whose public appearances and call for adjustment of women's rights were lambasted by conservative quarters in society.

"When her husband first assumed office she was incredibly shy and reserved; she would literally blush when offered a compliment," said a retired diplomat who saw much of the former first lady in the 1980s, Mubarak's first decade in office.

In the 1990s, Suzanne Mubarak's public presence went from minor to non-existent. The former first lady disappeared for a considerable time as she underwent chemotherapy. "She was very, very ill, but she survived her illness and she came back with a strong belief that life is worth investing in," said a retired minister who served in the Egyptian cabinet around that time.

Upon her comeback, Suzanne Mubarak decided -- with the reserved and then relaxed consent of her husband -- to break at least part of the restrictions that were imposed on her.

ASSUMING A PUBLIC ROLE: Suzanne Mubarak, graduate of the Faculty of Social Sciences of the American University in Cairo, started to assume a public role in relation to women and children's rights. This role was in the beginning subject to limited media attention. "At the beginning we had clear restrictions that her appearance in the news should be limited to less than five minutes and that her news should come as number five or six in the news," said a retired TV broadcaster.

At the time, the taboo of all taboos was to call Suzanne Mubarak "First Lady". Over 10 years after the assassination of Sadat, the phobia of Jihan El-Sadat was still haunting the public presence of Suzanne Mubarak who was referred to as the spouse of the president -- no more or less.

In a few years, things changed. Suzanne Mubarak was then being dubbed the "honourable spouse of the president". Her public presence became more visible, to the criticism of many conservatives, and others.

By the mid-1990s, some of the leading figures of the women's rights movement were complaining that Suzanne Mubarak wanted to be the sole decision-maker of the women's rights movement in Egypt. And during the 1995 International Women's Conference in Beijing, where "Madame Mubarak" headed the official delegation, it was common to hear the discontent of Egyptian activists about "her attempt to dominate".

MADAME MUBARAK: For some of those activists, the fact that Suzanne Mubarak was presenting herself as a champion of women's and children's rights was incompatible with the fact that her husband president had launched a scheme of economic reforms that many social activists suggested was insensitive to the needs of the poor.

However, those who wish to credit the former first lady recall that she threw her moral weight at the time behind the long standing calls of many women's activists to penalise the horrendous act of female genital mutilation.

And Suzanne Mubarak decided to expand the scope of her social work: girls-only schools for rural areas to reduce the female school drop-out rate as a result of ultra-conservative social mores; a Reading for All campaign, and women's reproductive health projects were subjects of extensive press coverage.

Critics had their word. They argued that for the most part these projects were designed as public relations schemes for "Madame Mubarak". "They build a one classroom school for girls in rural areas and she goes to inaugurate these schools, but at the end of the day not so many girls go because they are forced into early marriages or menial labour to help their families survive shocking poverty," said one activist at the time.

First lady-chaired campaigns to combat early marriages were in parallel criticised as incompatible with Islamic law.

"I think she was unlikely to get the kind of appreciation that she would have wanted to because people were reading everything she was doing in the context of the policies and long rule of her husband, which was not very appreciated -- rather the opposite," said a Europe-based social worker who assisted Suzanne Mubarak on much of her work during the second half of the 1990s and early 2000.

BEHIND THE SCENES: Suzanne Mubarak was also getting rumoured to have influence in the choice of some of cabinet ministers -- in education, health and other areas of her field of work. She was said to be the leading supporter of former minister of culture Farouk Hosni who served close to two thirds of Mubarak's rule, despite much criticism that was levelled against him.

Some also suggested that her interference went beyond the choice of executives and into the policies implemented. A Western ambassador in Egypt told the Weekly that he was once discussing the implementation of a development project that his government was donating to Upper Egypt when an Egyptian cabinet minister told him that the project would be implemented in Cairo rather than Upper Egypt. "When I asked why, the answer was that because Madame Mubarak wanted it that way," he said.

What Suzanne Mubarak was most disliked for, however, was neither her alleged interference in government affairs nor the policies or authoritarian rule of her husband, but the support that people said she was vehemently lending to her younger son, Gamal, to succeed his father to office.

The call for succession overshadowed all the good work that the first lady was working to support, including the children's hospital for cancer treatment that many thought of as a blessing in a country where poverty makes subsidised healthcare -- especially for costly medication -- a definite life or death issue.

"She supported him and she would have continued to support him to the last breath," said a retired executive. "But do you blame her; Gamal is the apple of her eye and she loves him so much," she added.

THE SUCCESSION SCENARIO: By the account of many on the inside circle of the Mubaraks, the succession scenario was not the brainchild of the first lady. It was rather the idea of some of Mubarak's closest aides who proposed the idea to Suzanne Mubarak while Gamal was happily working and living in Britain -- the country of Suzanne Mubarak's mother.

"She was becoming really unpopular in a way that I could not understand," said the former member of the Suzanne Mubarak Women's Peace Movement. "Every time I said I worked with her people looked at me with disgust, and I never understood why. She was doing a lot of good things, I thought."

After 2000, people started to share stories of a "harsh" and even "rude" first lady whose heart only goes out to her younger son. "To be honest, I never saw anything harsh or cruel of her. I heard the stories, but from what I saw she was never harsh or rude. She was reserved, understandably, and she was becoming abrupt, but that was it," said another retired executive.

True or false, these stories were not stopping the first lady from pursuing her plans -- especially the succession scheme that was being promoted and pushed by many in the immediate circle to the Mubaraks.

According to credible accounts of former presidential staff, up until the end, Suzanne Mubarak "was hoping against hope" that things will be fixed and that "Gamal will become president of Egypt".

But Gamal is in jail today along with his elder brother, Alaa. And Suzanne Mubarak, herself, is sitting next to her old and ailing husband in a military hospital where the former president is held in custody for questioning over charges of financial and political corruption, and the killing of innocent protesters.

Gamal Mubarak:

From glory to grief

He was once the president in waiting. Today, he is the accused who awaits an uncertain fate, in custody for questioning over charges of financial and political corruption, and involvement in the killing of peaceful protesters.

Gamal Mubarak, the younger son of toppled president Hosni Mubarak and the star of the now defunct NDP, was by the account of many foreign diplomats who kept a close eye on the domestic front in Egypt, a firm possible next president.

"Obviously he was being groomed for the job. How else would you explain his participation in meetings between his father and American presidents during the last eight years or so," said a Western ambassador in Cairo.

And according to another Western ambassador in Cairo, the entire foreign diplomatic corps in Egypt looked at Gamal Mubarak through the lens of how leading Egyptian officials, including former prime minister Ahmed Nazif himself, dealt with him: Egypt's next president.

FIRMLY NUMBER TWO: For these two ambassadors and for many foreign diplomats who spoke to the Weekly, the performance of Gamal Mubarak in politics went way beyond the mere participation in generating a new sense of dynamism in the ruling party that was chaired by his father.

"It was clear he was very hands on, and consequently many of our ministers wanted to see him when they came to visit Egypt," said a foreign diplomat. He added that in the presence of foreign officials, Gamal Mubarak did not act as a leading figure of the ruling party but as "effectively number two" in the Egyptian hierarchy: "He spoke of foreign policy, economy and more with authority and with knowledge."

And according to yet another Cairo-based foreign diplomat, some of Egypt's top cabinet ministers and officials suggested to foreign visitors to "call on Gamal" for further discussion on the basis that he was the one who was handling this or that file.

And it was not just in the official quarters that Gamal Mubarak was looked upon as potential president. This was also the case for public life.

When Gamal Mubarak got married to the 20-years younger and beautiful Khadiga Al-Gammal, daughter of a leading businessman, his wedding was dealt with in the press as equivalent to the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, though it was private affair. The same attention was dedicated to the birth of Gamal and Khadiga's first daughter, born in March 2010.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE PRESIDENT: For his part, the mid-40s Gamal never directly denied that he entertained high political ambition. He sometimes joked about it and sometimes offered an eloquently phrased but vague response. But he never said no.

Nor did his father or any of his senior aides, until the outbreak of the 25 January Revolution when then appointed vice president Omar Suleiman said in plain words that Gamal was not planning to run for president. A few days later, Gamal and his clique resigned from the NDP.

"He did want to be president, and he was working very hard to be one; he was acquainting himself with the crucial issues and the crucial people, and he was just waiting for an opportune moment," said one former senior aide.

The moment never came, despite made-to-measure amendments of the constitution in 2005 and 2007, to place Gamal Mubarak as the only logical candidate who would stand a serious chance of following the close to three-decade rule of his father.

A STEP TOO FAR: By the account of presidential insiders and political adversaries, the scheme to make a president out of Gamal Mubarak was what eventually toppled the Mubarak regime.

Since the launch of the 2005 call against the succession of Gamal, or the extension of the presidency of Mubarak himself, the countdown started ticking on the regime. Anti-Mubarak demonstrations were becoming visible, and so were social demonstrations. Critics were being very straightforward.

Meanwhile, little success was secured by the machinations of the pro-Gamal Mubarak campaign conducted by some news and media figures who are now claiming they were opposed all along to the succession scenario.

"It is not true that Gamal Mubarak was without any support; some really wanted him, even on the basis of 'better the devil you know'. But those who wanted him were clearly a minority; we saw this. We warned of the consequences, but nobody was listening," said a retired intelligence source.

TABOO WITHIN THE REGIME: According to this source, who retired less than two years ago, very few dared bring up the subject with the president for fear of his scorn.

"I know that many think that Mubarak did not want Gamal to succeed him -- but that was in the beginning. I guess after 2005, maybe by 2006, the [former] president was won over to the succession scenario," the same intelligence source added.

The fact that Gamal Mubarak had an office at the presidential secretariat and that some of the most promising Egyptian diplomats were keen to serve at this office is seen by some as a clear indicator that the succession scenario was put on track and it was a matter of time before it reached its destination.

According to the account of some senior members of the now defunct NDP, there was debate within the party on whether or not Gamal should run in the presidential elections that were scheduled for autumn of this year. At the end it was decided that the ground was not ready for Gamal, and that the father would have to run.

By the account of some insiders this made Gamal a little impatient, but he was not giving up. They argue that even as the 25 January Revolution was getting into its second week, Gamal Mubarak was still holding on.

Alaa Mubarak:

Business tycoon, grieving father and football fan

Of the four Mubaraks, Alaa, the elder son of the former president, is perhaps the most ambiguous of all.

In his early 50s, Alaa was never subject to much media attention. And according to those who knew him, to an extent, he did not care to get media attention -- he much preferred to keep a low profile.

Unlike his brother, whose news cuttings are enough to fill numerous dossiers in the archives of national papers, cuttings about Alaa are quite few.

Most of the stories written about Alaa are related to the sad and shocking loss of his elder son Mohamed in May 2009: a devastating and sudden affair that earned him -- and for that matter the Mubaraks -- unprecedented sympathy.

Otherwise, Alaa's media appearance is strictly related to sports stories. His highest point of appearance was during the Egypt-Algeria fallout in November 2009 over qualification for the World Cup.

That was one of the very rare occasions that the elder son of the president went on television to criticise the Algerian football team and its fans following Algeria's qualification for the World Cup.

BUSINESSMAN, BUT WHAT ELSE? Apart from being a fan of football and a grieving father who only recently launched -- with his elegant and beautiful wife Heidi Rasekh, daughter of the now questioned businessman Magdi Rasekh -- a charity in the name of their son, Alaa Mubarak remains a mystery.

Everybody knew he was a businessman, but nobody quite knew the nature of his business dealings: exports and imports, construction, brokering, travel agencies; a bit of this and that. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Alaa's name started to be mentioned within rather confused contexts, both in relation to his private and business lives.

However, it was not long before the rumours over his affection towards a leading entertainer dissipated as almost unfounded. The same could not be said about his business dealings.

Some suggested he was soliciting partnerships with leading businessmen. Others argued it was not Alaa, but rather leading figures of the business community who were after the elder son of the president, as a business partner, to facilitate their dealings. A third group argued it was a bit of both.

RESERVED BUT DECENT: "I heard all sorts of stories, but to be honest it is very difficult to verify what could have really happened on any of the accounts that one hears," said one businessman. "And Alaa, from the little I saw of him, does not care much to comment or to deny; he is quite reserved."

Reserved is the most common word that those who knew Alaa Mubarak well tend to use. Pleasant, unassuming and charming also.

Many of the hard to verify anecdotes over Alaa Mubarak include a clear element of decency: he would not ask for privileged treatment when in public places; he was courteous with his children's teachers. He enjoyed fuul and taamiya and basically never carried himself in public as "royalty".

"He might have done so in business, I don't know, but from what I saw he was always nice with people who served him and with people he did not know," said a retired presidential staff member.

This same member denied any familiarity with accounts over the succession of his younger brother Gamal to power after Hosni Mubarak. He also denied any awareness of major falling-outs between the elder and younger son.

The Mubaraks, he said, were not generally in the business of revealing much about their relations or their disagreements, neither in public nor before assistants, guards or aides.

Today, in Tora prison under a 15-day custody order, Alaa Mubarak is the one member of the Mubarak family who has most sympathy, most of all because of the loss of his elder son, something any parent would understand as one of the harshest things anybody could go through.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 1045 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Economy | Region | Opinion | Readers' corner | Press review | Culture | Living | Sports | People | Cartoons | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map