By Jack Shenker
The barbed wire fences and forbidding high walls became a horrifyingly familiar sight to those who dared speak out over the past three decades; for many of the thousands who passed through Cairo’s Tora prison complex and were tortured within it, this notorious jail was the ultimate symbol of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt.
On Wednesday, as it has done so many times before, Tora received two more prisoners accused of crimes against the state. Their names were Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, sons of the ousted president, and they arrived in the early hours, handcuffed and clad in standard-issue white jumpsuits. Egypt’s remarkable revolution has boasted many poignant moments, but the sight of the all-powerful Mubarak family being led into the top-security cells which once housed their political opponents will count among the most memorable.
The incarceration of the Mubarak brothers came as their father, the western-backed dictator whose grip over Egypt seemed only a few months ago to be impregnable, was formally placed in detention at his hospital bed in Sharm el-Sheikh, under suspicion of corruption, fraud and ordering the killing of peaceful protesters. Egyptians have become accustomed to old realities being turned upside down, but as celebrations erupted over the arrest of this former political giant of the Middle East, questions were being raised about what comes next, and how the arrest will affect the volatile landscape of Egyptian politics as the nation shudders towards democracy.
Investigators have 15 days to question the 82-year-old and his sons, before prosecutors decide whether to bring charges and force the Mubarak family into the dock. A number of former Mubarak ministers and officials have been through the same process, and in every case a 15-day detention order has been the prelude to the suspect being remanded in custody prior to a formal trial.
“I seriously doubt that after all this the Mubaraks will be released,” said Ragia Omran, a human rights lawyer and pro-change activist. “There’s been a lot of anger in the Egyptian street over the demands of the revolution not being met, and the ruling generals have arrested the Mubaraks in an effort to calm the people. To let them go now would be political suicide.”
The three men are all due for questioning on Thursday at the prosecutor’s office in Cairo’s Fifth Settlement suburb, though a medical committee will assess Hosni Mubarak first to determine whether he is fit to travel following a reported heart attack. If deemed well enough, the former leader is expected to be transferred to a secure medical facility in the capital.
Interrogations are likely to focus on the origin and whereabouts of the Mubarak family’s vast wealth, which has been estimated at anything between $1bn and a wildly improbable $700bn. Last week a document emerged from the office of Egypt’s prosecutor general entitled “request for judicial assistance”, which detailed a series of accusations against the Mubaraks regarding their alleged embezzlement of public money – claims denied by Hosni Mubarak during a TV statement aired on Sunday. The US and other countries have agreed to try to track and freeze Mubarak family assets but legal experts are sceptical of their chances, particularly because of the length of time that elapsed between the president being toppled and Egypt’s interim government formally requesting an asset freeze.
Mubarak and his sons will also have to answer questions regarding the violence meted out by the state against unarmed protesters during Egypt’s 18-day uprising, which left up to 800 dead and thousands more injured. Mubarak’s former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, is already on trial for ordering the shooting of civilians during demonstrations, a charge he denies.
The arrest of Mubarak has been a key demand of protesters since his fall two months ago. Simmering tensions between revolutionaries and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a military body that has in effect been ruling Egypt by decree until elections are held later this year, bubbled over last week when military police stormed a rally in Tahrir Square, killing two civilians. Many analysts believe that the latest moves against the Mubarak family are a politicised bid to mollify angry demonstrators, who have recently shifted their attention to the titular head of the military, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, a long-serving Mubarak-era minister.
“In recent days, we’ve seen explicit calls for Tantawi to be removed, and it is clear that for the military that crosses a red line,” said Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. “Tantawi and other members of the supreme council have been clear beneficiaries of the regime and Tantawi himself was a poodle, completely subservient to Mubarak. So this move against the father and the two sons is a response to public anger and it will go some way to quelling the dissatisfaction of the protesters. People want these men interrogated and brought to justice – for reasons of accountability, but also for reasons of mischief-making and counter-revolution.”
But despite their jubilation at the Mubaraks’ incarceration, pro-change activists told the Guardian the latest developments had merely emboldened them to keep up the pressure on interim authorities. “I’m sad that this is only happening due to our actions on the street, and not for reasons relating to justice,” said Amr Gharbeia, who was charged with libel under the Mubarak regime. “It demonstrates the needs for us to keep up the pressure on the military council, forcing it to take the kind of action it should be taking if it really considers itself the ‘guardian of the revolution’ and wants to lead us through to elections.”
Ahmed Salah, a veteran anti-government campaigner, agreed. “I’ve been jumping around since early morning with this crazy news – but we’re still not allowing ourselves to get comfortable, because this development was only achieved through a lot of pressure and a lot of sacrifices. People were killed by the military before they could see this happen. If we stop now, we could lose everything. How many people must die before this whole regime is taken apart and put in court, and we can achieve our freedom? This is the question that the military council must now answer.”
All eyes now will be on the response in Saudi Arabia, where the monarchy has lobbied hard in Cairo and Washington against Mubarak being put on trial. “There continues to be a major regional element to all this; from the very beginning Saudi Arabia – along with Israel – had been pushing for Mubarak to retain power, and then after he fell for him not be charged. They don’t want to see an Arab head of state held accountable in this way, and have issued thinly veiled threats as to what might happen if he is charged. They are a major source of reaction in the region.”
The Tora jail – where Mubarak’s political prisoners are incarcerated, is dubbed the “new headquarters” of the former president’s NDP party. It holds:
Ahmed Nazif, Mubarak’s PM from 2004 who pushed through aggressive economic reforms that boosted GDP but widened the rich-poor chasm.
Habib al-Adly, [allegedly] responsible for the brutal security apparatus. Arguably the most hated of Mubarak’s clique. He is facing trial for corruption and killing unarmed protesters.
Ahmed Ezz, a steel tycoon-turned leading light of the NDP. He came to symbolise the blurred lines between the political and business elite that characterised Mubarak’s reign.
Safwat El-Sherif, the former NDP secretary-general who raised eyebrows after he called last year’s elections – in which his party claimed 96% of the first round vote – “clean and free of irregularities”.
Zakaria Azmi, Mubarak’s long-running chief of staff and a key figure in his inner circle. He was jailed this month.
Jack Shenker writes for the Guardian newspaper in London. This story and others on Egypt can be read at: