Insider accounts are shedding new light on the 18 days that brought down a pharaoh.
- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
CAIRO – It was Jan. 19, 2011, and Hosni Mubarak’s regime was strong and confident. The Egyptian president was playing host to an array of Arab presidents at his beachside resort in Sharm el-Sheikh. Hundreds of construction workers had been evacuated from the area, lest they mar the spectacle.
But those listening carefully could make out the first rumblings of discontent. The Tunisian foreign minister had to scramble back to Tunis hours before the summit’s opening, as his country dealt with the fallout of a revolution that had already toppled its long-serving dictator. And Egyptian Facebook pages were spreading news of demonstrations on Jan. 25, which would seek to replicate the drama of the Tunisian revolution on the streets of Cairo.
As the summit drew to a close, Mubarak headed to the airport to see the foreign dignitaries off. Trailing closely behind him were Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s feared domestic enforcer. Aboul Gheit asked Suleiman if he had raised the potential protests with the president; the intelligence chief replied that he had left Mubarak alone during the summit, but that it was high time to discuss the issue.
When the last dignitary had left, Suleiman approached the president and told him that he had a very important topic to discuss. It was then that Mubarak learned of the uprising that would sweep him from power in a few short weeks.
At the time, however, Mubarak was nonplussed. "The president didn’t show much interest," Aboul Gheit wrote in his recently published memoir, My Testimony. When Suleiman suggested a meeting with top officials to coordinate responses to potential protests, Mubarak "didn’t respond, and didn’t react in a way that we understood as suggesting he was worried."
Two years after the Jan. 25 protests, the small clique of officials around Mubarak is finally starting to go public about the debates within the Egyptian government as the revolution unfolded around them. In addition to Aboul Gheit’s account, top Egyptian officials gave their account of the unrest in journalist Bradley Hope’s Last Day of the Pharaoh. Both tales provide a glimpse into the tensions at the very top of the Mubarak regime and the reason it failed to crush the protest movement.
Mubarak, in all these former officials’ stories, is portrayed as a largely passive figure — a leader who was at the mercy of the last person to offer his advice. "The president is very old, and consequently he is dependent on the vision of Gamal Mubarak," Aboul Gheit wrote, referring to Mubarak’s younger son, who had been conspicuously active in the presidential palace since the beginning of the uprising. Gamal, he added, "stays with [the president] all the time in the palace or in the house."
Such explanations could be an effort by high-ranking officials to deflect blame away from the Egyptian state and on to their bureaucratic rivals. But the accounts are remarkably consistent: Hossam Badrawi, then the top official of the ruling political party, told Hope he had convinced Mubarak to relinquish power on Feb. 9 — but the president then reversed his decision after being confronted by Gamal and other members of his inner circle. He would relent two days later.
President Barack Obama’s administration reached out to Aboul Gheit on several occasions to express its views on how the Mubarak regime should handle the crisis. The Egyptian foreign minister believed the U.S. government was attempting a good cop-bad cop approach: "The White House appears very strict against the government, while [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton and the State Department show some flexibility," he told Suleiman.
The intelligence chief replied, "It is the traditional distribution of roles."
As the revolution gained momentum, Aboul Gheit describes a regime paralyzed by infighting. On Jan. 31, he attended the swearing-in of the new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, a career military man brought in to restore order. Mubarak, he says, was bored and quiet: "He pretended to be very busy reading some papers."
Other players, however, were already maneuvering to protect their interests. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, then defense minister and the future head of the military junta that would replace Mubarak, informed Aboul Gheit at the ceremony that the military would not sacrifice its reputation to preserve Mubarak’s rule. "Some told me that people are talking about using the army to control the situation by force," Tantawi said sternly, according to Aboul Gheit. "And I said from my side the army doesn’t strike people at all, or else it will lose its legitimacy."
Gamal, meanwhile, was intent on protecting Mubarak’s hold on power, whatever the cost. Gamal was widely believed to have designs on the presidency himself — though the aging dictator denied that he would orchestrate Gamal’s inheritance of power. "Do you think I’m crazy?" Aboul Gheit wrote that Mubarak told him. "To put my son … my son … in this jail? Impossible."
While Gamal indisputably played a powerful behind-the-scenes role, Mubarak resisted efforts to place him in the public eye. Aboul Gheit wrote that he suggested to the president in 2010 that Gamal run for a seat in parliament. At the time, the opposition Muslim Brotherhood held nearly 20 percent of parliament, though their presence would be decimated in the 2010 election, which was widely viewed as rigged.
"This is nonsense," Mubarak responded sharply. "They will cut him into pieces. Don’t you know what is happening in parliament?"
On Feb. 1, with the police forces helpless to control the swelling protests, Mubarak delivered a late-night speech announcing that he would not run for another term in office. "[The speech] was late … it was late … and then I fell asleep," Aboul Gheit writes, mirroring the frustrations of many protesters. The foreign minister was awakened afterwards by a phone call from Gamal, who said that the speech had sparked a "new spirit" and popular sympathy for Mubarak.
Gamal, however, had overestimated the sea change. On Feb. 2, Aboul Gheit was ensconced in his office in the Foreign Ministry when he looked out the window to see a crowd, interspersed with horses and camels, moving toward Tahrir Square. His phone rang: "They are going to burn the country." shouted a relative. "The unity of Egypt will be gone!"
It was the beginning of the Battle of the Camel – a failed attempt by regime loyalists to clear the square by any means necessary. The cavalry charge with horses and camels, as well as attacks with stones and Molotov cocktails, left 11 Egyptians dead and more than 600 injured.
But the attack also marked the beginning of the end for the Mubarak regime. Aboul Gheit frantically called Suleiman to discuss the bloodshed in Tahrir: The two officials agreed that the president now had no choice but to step down. Suleiman, however, said that he could not say this publicly — he would be accused of forcing Mubarak out in order to ascend to the presidency himself.
From this point, the fractures within Egyptian regime widened quickly. Aboul Gheit recounted a conversation with Suleiman, in which the intelligence chief said "there was a real plan" to make Gamal as president, but that "the national security apparatus will not agree on this" and that he would not work for Gamal. "They want to get rid of me, and they exerted a lot of effort in this respect," Suleiman added. Aboul Gheit added that he believed Suleiman was referring to Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne.
This conversation may also contain a hint for understanding why Suleiman was shunted aside by the military establishment after Mubarak’s fall. The intelligence chief suggested that there was a disagreement between him and Tantawi over Gamal, saying that in the event Mubarak’s son became president, "it is only Tantawi who will work with him." In any event, Suleiman’s bombastic statements blaming foreigners for the uprising and claiming that Egypt was not ready for democracy had made him extremely unpopular among the protesters – and a liability to any transitional government.
By Feb. 9, Mubarak’s position was clearly untenable. At this point, Badrawi — after receiving Suleiman’s blessing — was granted a one-on-one meeting with Mubarak. "Mr. President, I see in front of me an image of [Nicolae] Ceaucescu," Badrawi said, referring to the Romanian dictator, a former friend of Mubarak’s, who had been executed by firing squad during the country’s anti-Communist revolution.
"You mean they are going to kill me?" Mubarak asked.
"Probably, yes." Badrawi responded.
"I am ready to die for my country," the president said.
According to Badrawi, Mubarak soon opted for a better course: He agreed to delegate power to Suleiman and pave the way for early presidential elections. This path out of the crisis, however, was quickly undermined by Gamal and other loyalists in the president’s inner circle.
Even as the regime crumbled, Gamal embarked on a last-ditch attempt to preserve his father’s rule. On Feb. 10, Mubarak announced that he would give another speech, in which he was widely expected to announce his resignation.
"It was late … it was late," Aboul Gheit wrote. "And then the statement came, but it did not have anything good in it. And I understood then that the son of the president was trying to shape the statement so that it pleased everyone."
Egyptian protesters, shocked that Mubarak was attempting to cling to power, took to the streets in huge numbers on Feb. 11, dubbed the "Friday of Departure." Aboul Gheit said that he spent the morning working the phones between Suleiman and Shafiq, trying to negotiate Mubarak’s exit. Suleiman told him that the president would retreat to his home at Sharm el-Sheikh — where he had first learned of the protest movement — that day, before noon prayers.
In an attempt to salvage the situation, Suleiman summoned Aboul Gheit to a meeting at Cairo’s Ittahadeya Palace at 1 pm. The palace, however, was besieged by protesters — the army warned that it could be stormed at any moment, and the officials had to relocate to a nearby military base. "And finally I came to the logical conclusion: The world has changed," wrote Aboul Gheit.
A three-way conversation between Mubarak, Suleiman, and Tantawi laid bare the disagreements between the formerly tightly knit officials at the top of the Egyptian government. Suleiman first received a call from Mubarak, who had by then relocated to Sharm el-Sheikh, in which the president ordered him to tell Tantawi that he had been granted the power to oversee the administration of the country. When informed of the order, however, the defense minister balked: "I understood from the phone call that Tantawi doesn’t want to put the army in office," Aboul Gheit wrote.
Suleiman then told Mubarak that he needed to appeal directly to Tantawi. In the end, he and Shafiq headed in person to the Defense Ministry to inform the military chief of his new role. His job done, Suleiman delivered the announcement that charted the first, tentative steps of Egypt’s post-Mubarak future.
"In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate, citizens, during these very difficult circumstances Egypt is going through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down," the once all-powerful intelligence chief declared. "May God help everybody."