EGYPT/Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s Last Pharaoh. Fear of assasinations (part 5)

PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat stands apart as (from L to R) Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Perez, Russian Foreign Minister Andre Kozyrev, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak try and persuade Arafat to sign the Cairo document after a dispute broke out over the map marking the boundaries of Jericho. 4th of May, 1994. Ph. Norbert Schiller

Ever since Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat, was gunned down while watching a military parade in Cairo, on 6th of October 1981, by Islamic militants, opposed to the Israeli Egyptian peace deal, there was this underlying fear that more assassinations, in Egypt, were eminent.  Nobody was more aware of this, than Sadat’s Vice President, and successor, Hosni Mubarak, who happened to be by Sadat’s side when he was murdered.

From the day Mubarak took office, until the day he was forced to resign, one year ago, Egypt’s Last Pharaoh surrounded himself with a security apparatus second to none. Trained in United States, Mubarak’s personal body guards made it their duty to keep him out of arms way; the days of open roofed limousines and waving crowds, that Mubarak’s two predecessors, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, so cherished, were over.

The next high profile assignation happened nearly 10 years later, when the eyes of the world were focused on Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s unprovoked attack on Kuwait. On the morning of the 12th of October 1990, two gunmen, on the backs of motorcycles, rode up alongside the limousine of the 64 year old Egyptian speaker of Parliament, Rifaat al-Mahgoub, and killed him instantly in hail of bullets, while he was on his way to work, in the center of Cairo. Also gunned down in the attack were his chauffer and two bodyguards.

The initial blame was directed at Palestinian agents, sent by Saddam Hussein, in retaliation for Egypt joining the coalition against Iraq.  However, it was later accepted that Islamic Jihad, the same militant group responsible for Sadat’s assassination, carried out the attack by mistake. Their intended target was supposed to have been Mubarak’s new Interior Minister, Abdel Halim Moussa, who had passed along the same road, earlier that morning.

Rifaat al Mahgoub’s murder was the first in a series of attacks that would rattle Egypt and Mubarak’s secular government. Even though it was Islamic Jihad who initiated the wave, the impetus would be led by the most ardent of the Islamic extremists, Gamaa al-Islamiya  (Islamic Group) whose spiritual leader, Omar Abdel Rahman, would later be convicted for trying to blow up the World Trade Center in New York in 1993.  Over the course of the next decade, the Islamic Group would do more to disrupt Egypt’s economy and undermine Mubarak’s secular regime in pursuit of their sole objective, to turn Egypt into an Islamic State.

At first the Gamaa al-Islamiya targeted secular intellectuals, police, government officials and the minority Coptic Christians, who make up roughly 10% of Egypt’s population.  However, after only securing a few successes, the group broadened their attacks to include a much softer target: Egypt’s tourist industry. Early on in their campaign, the Gamaa al-Islamiya issued a statement warning all foreigners to leave the country or be targeted.  Security was immediately beefed up at popular tourist attractions and hotels, but that didn’t stop the Islamic Group from carrying out their promise. Instead of bold raids on heavily fortified tourist sites, the Islamic Group attacked tourist buses, Nile cruise boats and even the night train that traveled south from Cairo to Luxor and Aswan.

Suddenly, Egypt’s tourist industry, which is the country’s second highest earner of foreign revenue, after the Suez Canal, was under threat.  In an effort to stage a comeback the government hired a foreign PR firm to try and improve the country’s image abroad.  However, as war between the police and the Islamists intensified along the Nile, tour operators steered away from traditional tourist destinations and offered desert adventures and dive tours to the Red Sea, as an alternative.
Even though the actual percentage of foreigners injured and killed was relatively low compared to the number of tourists who visited Egypt, some of that attacks mounted by the Islamic Group were spectacular enough to make the headlines and instill fear in would-be visitors.

Egypt’s Minister of Interior Abdel Halim Moussa made conciliatory overtures to the Gamaa al-Islamiya though some sympathetic Moslem clerics, but, instead of being encouraged for his efforts, Mubarak turned around and relieved him of his duties and put in his place the hard-line former governor of Assuit, Hassan Mohammed al-Alfi ,who had a proven track record in dealing with Islamists.

Two days before Moussa was sacked, on 20th of April 1993, the Islamic Group carried out a brazen attack on the Minister of Information Safwat el Sherif’s convoy, slightly injuring the minister.  Three months later, a bomb connected to a motorcycle detonated in the heart of Cairo injuring the newly appointed Interior Minister and killing four passersby. And in November, yet another bomb exploded, narrowly missing the convoy of the Prime Minister, Atef Setki, but killing a young school girl instead. In retaliation, police swept through the outlying poor districts of Cairo, seen as breeding grounds for the Islamists, and arrested hundreds of individuals. In many incidents gun battles broke out between police and the Islamic Group, resulting in casualties on both sides. At one point the Islamic Group declared the Cairo slum of Imbaba to be an autonomous Islamic Republic.

In an effort to speed up the legal system and convict those responsible for the attacks, Mubarak set up military tribunals, much to the dismay of human rights activists and foreign observers who were fearful that the detainees would not receive a fair trial.  In 1993 alone nearly 50 convicted Islamist were sentenced to death, and of those nearly half had their sentences carried out before year’s end.

In the midst of all the mayhem the Parliament elected Mubarak unanimously for a third six year term as President. And unlike the previous election, in 1987, the Parliament had been purged of the opposition, leaving only members of the National Democratic Party to cast their vote.

If the two previous years were anything to go by, the violence did not abate in 1994. Attacks continued throughout the country including a series of bombs directed at banks, aimed at destabilizing the financial system.   Thousands more Islamists were attested, including Abd al-Harith Madani, a lawyer with Islamist ties. Within 24 hours of his arrest he died in police custody, setting off huge riots in the center of Cairo between remembers of the Lawyers syndicate, their sympathizers and the police.

If a light shown at the end of the tunnel, for Mubarak, it came in the form of the Israeli Palestinian peace process. On 4th of May, 1994 Mubarak, along with Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the historic Palestinian self rule accord, which handed the Palestinian authority control over parts of Gaza – not occupied by Israeli settlers – and Jericho on the West Bank. More importantly, the accord also paved the way for Yasser Arafat’s triumphant homecoming to the Palestinian territories two months later.

In June 1995, while Mubarak was in Ethiopia attending an African Union summit, his convoy came under attack by gunman. The Egyptian President’s bullet proof Mercedes was hit and a gun battle ensued between the attackers and Mubarak’s body guards. In the end a number of the attackers were killed, but Mubarak and his entourage escaped unscathed. The Gamaa Islamiya immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but the Egyptians blamed elements in the Sudanese government which they accused of aiding Islamic extremists. This resulted in a cross border skirmish between the two militaries and the closure of the Egypt border with Sudan.

After three years of continues violence the security forces finally got the upper hand in their fight against the Islamists. Thus far more than 800 people had died; thousands more were injured; the country was in economic shambles and nobody was immune to all the bloodshed, not even the President.







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