The Pharoah’s Lawyer
The deposed Egyptian dictator's lawyer explains in an exclusive interview how he plans to defend a man once seen as above the law.
Egyptian pro-democracy protesters took to the streets on Jan. 25 demanding economic and political reform. Eighteen days later, Hosni Mubarak stepped down, ending his 30-year reign as Egypt’s unchecked leader. The ailing former president was detained on April 13 on charges of corruption and ordering the killing of protesters, but little was seen or heard from him until Aug. 3, when the world saw a broken Mubarak wheeled into a courtroom on a hospital gurney. His words that day, "Yes, I am here. I deny all these accusations completely," are all Egyptians have heard — from the man they once called "pharaoh" — since his resignation Feb. 11.
The ex-president’s two sons, Alaa and Gamal, are also on trial, and Fareed ElDeeb, a former prosecutor practicing law since 1971, has represented the Mubarak family since April. ElDeeb is a famous trial lawyer in Egypt, with a long resume of representing high-profile clients, including Azzam Azzam, convicted in 1997 for spying for Israel, and Talat Mustapha, a real estate tycoon currently serving 15 years in prison for killing his Lebanese girlfriend. Over the years, ElDeeb has also represented famous public figures such as the Nobel Prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz; award-winning actress Yousra, belly dancer Fifi Abdo, and the family of late president Anwar Sadat.
But the Mubaraks are without question his highest-profile case yet, and one that has millions of Egyptians glued to their television sets. The trial, which has been postponed several times, is scheduled to resume on Dec. 28. It includes a criminal case and hundreds of civil complaints, filed by lawyers representing the families of those killed during the revolution.
Mohamed Fadel Fahmy caught up with ElDeeb at his home in Cairo. Excerpts:
Foreign Policy: How are the former president and the Mubarak family coping with their situation now?
Farid ElDeeb: Mubarak does not comment much. He only asks, "What is the next step?" He is used to secrecy. What amazes me is that I have never heard him badmouth anyone, even those who attack him. I asked him once how it feels not to be free. He responded, "Since when have I been free? I was never able go out freely. The security [forces] surrounded me all the time. I could not walk to the garden, cinema, or take to the streets. I got used to it."
There is no doubt the life of the family that lived in the presidential palace for 30 years has turned upside down. Suzanne Mubarak [the former president’s wife] is suffering constantly over the future of her family. She visits Mubarak daily in the hospital, with the permission of the general prosecutor, then returns to her home at night. Alaa Mubarak’s son Omar had been studying and taking exams at home but this semester he returned to his American school in Cairo.
In dealing with [former president Mubarak], I realized he is a very kind man who may have made mistakes like any leader but never meant to intentionally damage his country.
FP: The Illicit Gains Authority announced on Oct. 16 that they "discovered" that Mubarak’s sons Alaa and Gamal hold $340 million in now-frozen assets in Switzerland.
ElDeeb: You mean the "Oct. 16 television freezing," is what I call it. It is shocking because the general prosecutor froze their assets on Feb. 28. In legal terms it’s called a "ban on disposition of assets." I think those behind the second announcement imagine that their media stunt will serve their interest in retrieving the millions from Switzerland. They are taking the wrong path.
I responded to deputy justice minister Asem Al Gohari [who announced the freeze], and reprimanded him for misleading the public. They did not "discover" anything. I gave them the key and the documents that prove that these funds were noted in the financial possession declaration of Gamal Mubarak in 2003, 2008, and 2011. I submitted the sources of the funds obtained from the sons’ work in global stock-market consultation with clients outside of Egypt who have nothing to do with Egypt’s market. The revenues entered a joint account owned by the two brothers, which was then separated in March 1, 2008. The funds in the accounts, after years of [accumulating] interest, reached over $300 million. Is it wrong for a man to make legal profits?
The sons only face charges of obtaining villas for prices lower than market rates due to their father’s political position. If convicted, they may only serve a maximum of three years in prison.
FP: How are the Mubaraks spending money now after the freeze on their finances?
ElDeeb: Hosni Mubarak’s health bill is paid by the government, as the law permits with any president or former president. His wife lives off his monthly pension, which reaches up to 93,000 Egyptian pounds (about $15,500). Mubarak and his wife do not own a single dollar inside or outside of Egypt. The total funds in his bank do not exceed 6 million Egyptian pounds.
FP: In your opinion, what role is the media playing in Egypt now? And how is it affecting the Mubarak trial, especially since Judge Ahmed Refaat banned broadcasting of the trial?
ElDeeb: The media has become a dangerous tool for destruction, and the media personalities and journalists are racing to destroy Egypt and defame innocent people. The media in Egypt must face the death sentence because it’s not a tool for awareness anymore but only a channel for spreading lies.
I personally support this decision of banning the broadcast of the trial because many of the legal and administrative procedures may not be understood by the general public and by the intellectuals who know nothing about law. I believe that public opinion should not be influenced by media. We have to admit that in reality, it does, be it positive or negative.
FP: The public was shocked to see the witnesses changing their testimonies in court. What was the prosecutor’s reaction to that?
ElDeeb: One of the officers in the Central Security Forces gave his testimony, but the prosecutor wanted him to testify according to their "needs." He was charged with "forged testimony" and detained in an adjacent room during the trial. The judge cleared him by the end of the trial.
The prosecutor of course wants the witnesses to give clear testimony that incriminates the defendants. When a technical person inspects the testimonies of some witnesses stated in the preliminary investigations, you find that the prosecutor notes down information that this witness never said in the questioning. They didn’t say what is stated in the evidence list presented to the court by the prosecutor.
The crisis now is that the prosecutor has believed what they have written in the evidence list without going back to the testimonies of those witnesses.
FP: What about the witness who allegedly destroyed a CD containing vital recordings between another of the defendants, former Minister of Interior Habib el-Adly, and his aides?
ElDeeb: There was no CD. This falls among the list of rumors about a call from the minister to his aides ordering them to "kill or slaughter protesters." This is all nonsense.
FP: The court is expected to hear the testimonies of 1,631 witnesses. How long is this trial expected to last?
ElDeeb: I did not call for the testimony of a single witness. The prosecutor did. They are not eyewitnesses but the prosecutor sees that their testimony serves their case against the defendants. The court must hear all the witnesses with no exception. To be precise, I requested the testimony of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the Supreme Council ruling the country, but postponed it. The court then called him and high-profile witnesses like Omar Suleiman, the former head of Egyptian intelligence and vice president, on the request of the civil rights lawyers.
FP: What was the nature of the testimonials dubbed "secret or behind closed doors" of high-profile witnesses like Marshal Tantawi, especially since there was a ban on the publication of their details?
ElDeeb: There was nothing secret or closed-doors about it. If it was, then the civil rights lawyers should not have been allowed in. The judge avoided the media’s manipulation. I didn’t ask the witnesses a single question. I was shocked to see some civil rights lawyers chanting against Marshal Tantawi while he was giving his testimony, so I left the courtroom. The judge offered to let Tantawi sit down while giving his testimony out of respect for his old age, but the marshal refused and stood for an hour until he finished.
FP: Some say the testimonies of the high-profile officials under Mubarak’s former regime were favorable to your case and may have cleared Mubarak of any wrongdoing. What is your comment on that?
ElDeeb: You know that different people understand things in different ways, depending on how they grasp the information. What the court decides is the only thing that matters. The general testimonies of the high-profile officials state that there no such thing as "awaiting orders." There were previous plans in place to deal with riots or protests, which the security forces are trained to deal with accordingly. There were no specific orders about dealing with protesters on Jan. 25 or 28, and that will be the basis of my defense in the upcoming hearings because there are a lot of missing loops regarding the facts around this issue in the police and armed forces.
FP: The trial has been postponed until Dec. 28 and the civil rights lawyers are calling for Judge Ahmed Refaat to step down. Can you clarify the reasons for this controversy?
ElDeeb: The court has the right to reject the civilian case if it obstructs the process of the criminal case. I was hoping they do that, because honestly the civil rights lawyers don’t know what they are talking about. Many of them give exaggerated speeches in court to show off or claim fame. They don’t understand that we are in the stages of preparing for the case. The judge warned them once in court, saying, "I can use the right to decline the civilian case so don’t force me to do that." They submitted a motion to the Appeals Court claiming that Judge Ahmed Refaat had close ties to Hosni Mubarak and the presidential palace and that he was not treating the civilian rights lawyers fairly. The higher court was supposed to rule on the motion on Sept. 28, then it was delayed until Oct. 22 and ultimately, a final decision was to be taken on Dec. 26.
On Oct. 29, a day before the scheduled hearing, the judge of the higher court stepped down for what is known in legal terms as "avoiding embarrassment." Therefore, Judge Ahmed Refaat reinstated the detention of the defendants and postponed the trial until Dec. 28, since he is not allowed to resume the trial while a ruling has not passed on the motion demanding his resignation.
The civil rights lawyers were not happy with the two-month delay and asked the Appeals Court to take steps toward minimizing the gap. In return, the Appeals Court appointed another court to rule on the motion on Nov. 3, instead of Dec. 26 as announced earlier.
If a new judge is chosen for the Mubarak trial, then we have to start the proceedings from the beginning. I assure you, Judge Refaat has no ties with the presidential palace and he denied this to the higher court. It’s comical because Mubarak ruled the whole country and no judge is appointed without his approval anyway.
FP: Why did the judge merge court procedures of Mubarak’s case with that of his former Minister of Interior Habib el-Adly?
ElDeeb: They both faces the charges of killing protesters during the Jan. 25 uprising, and the same witnesses will testify against them, so the court will obviously listen to them one time only.