EGYPT/Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s Last Pharaoh. Luxor Massacre (Part 6)

Twenty nine world leaders gather at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh to attend the Summit of the Peacemakers, March 1996. Ph. Norbert SchillerAs Egypt’s former President, Hosni Mubarak, languishes on a hospital bed, who would have ever believed, that the once all-powerful Pharaoh, who ruled for nearly 30 years, would wind up a broken man. Instead of being remembered as a hero, Mubarak last image will be him laying on a hospital gurney, inside the courtroom cage, sporting expensive sunglasses with his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, trying to shield their father from the television cameras.

After being sentenced to life in prison, for not intervening to stop the killing of over 800 individuals, during the 18 days uprising, the former strongman was wheeled out of the court, put on a helicopter and flown to the notorious Torah Prison, the same prison where many of his opponents, were sent.

If history dare repeat itself, whatever good Mubarak did for Egypt will most likely be buried under the achievements of the new regime. Similarly, when Egypt’s revolutionary president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, came to power in 1952, after toppling the monarchy, he literally erased the 140-year rule of the Mohammed Ali Dynasty. It took decades before a new generation of Egyptians even realized that the monarchy ever existed.

Mubarak’s failures on the home front were always overshadowed by his success in the international arena, particularly when it came to his roll as regional mediator. Whether it was trying to intervene between Iraq and Kuwait, or some conflict at the other end of Africa, the west, in particularly America, could always count on Mubarak’s support. Even though in Arab circles he tried to distance himself from his predecessor, Anwar Sadat’s achievements, visa vie Egypt’s peace accord with Israel in 1979, Mubarak, cherished the attention he got trying to mediate a lasting peace settlement between the Palestinians and Israelis. All the attention the different American administrations placed on the Palestinians and Israelis peace process made Mubarak an indispensible entity.

After months of Palestinian suicide bombings that targeted Israeli citizens, followed by Israeli military retaliations against the Palestinians, Mubarak, with the help of then U.S. president Bill Clinton, managed to invite 29 world leaders to attend a conference in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh. The Summit of the Peace Makers, as it was so appropriately called, took place in March 1996 and was attended by a number of influential players. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, German President Helmut Kohl, Moroccan King Hassan II and Jordan’s King Hussein were some of the leaders in attendance. One influential Middle East player who boycotted the Summit was Syrian President Hafez al Assad. For two days Sharm el Sheikh played host to this high-powered meeting that was suppose to come up with some concrete steps to lessen the Palestinian Israeli tension and at the same time further the peace process. However, in the end the only thing all these leaders could do was repeat a lot of the same old rhetoric and pose together for a “class” photo.

Three months following the Sham el Sheikh meeting, Mubarak once again played host, this time to an Arab Summit. With the Israeli Palestinian conflict still on the front burner Arab leaders tried in vain to break the stalemate. When all was said and done all they could do was come out with a communiqué that basically reiterated what had been the Arab position since the Madrid conference in 1991. Israel must cease all settlement activity; Israel must withdrawal to the pre 1967 boarders; Israel must return the Golan Heights to Syria and Arab East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, were among some of the demands already made in past summits.
Even though these to high profile meetings didn’t amount to much in terms of substance it did continue to solidify Mubarak’s roll as the regions peacemaker!

Away from the Palestinian issue, Mubarak was dealing with a disgruntled population spurred on by a growing class of frustrated youth who were graduating university with little or no job prospects. The one sector that was seeing a little growth after years of stalemate, due to Islamists terror campaign, was the tourism industry. Opportunities in the tourist sector were expanding to include other destinations along the Red Sea and to some extent the Western Desert and Sinai.

Mubarak and the interior ministry had finally got a grip on their war against the Islamists, in particular the Gamaa Al Islamiya (Islamic Group) whose mission had been to overthrow Mubarak’s secular government. However, the campaign against the Islamists did not come without repercussions, particularly in Upper Egypt where many innocent fell victim. Indiscriminate raids on villages and arresting people with little or no evidence against them did not go over well with the local population. Also, in order to gain the upper hand in the fight the authorities began burning down large tracks of sugarcane so that the Islamists could not use the fields as a place to hide or stage their attacks. This angered many farmers whose livelihood was dependent on sugarcane. In the short term the heavy-handedness worked, but in the long term it caused a lot of animosity against the police.

The lull in terrorist activities was suddenly broken at 08:45 on the morning of 17 November 1997. At the time I was at the presidential palace covering Queen Beatrix of the Netherland’s meeting with Mubarak. Because I was accredited in Egypt I was not allowed to turn on my cellular phone inside the presidency. However, the traveling press, accompanying the Dutch Queen, did not have to abide by any such rules, so when their cell phones began to ring all at once, it was not hard to tell that something big was happening. Reports began filtering in that a terrorist attack had just taken place in Luxor. When I finally had a chance to speak with my agency on whether I should stay with the queen or try and make my way to Luxor, their orders were pretty clear “stay with the queen, we already have someone else on their way to Luxor!”

When the dust had finally settled the extent of the carnage became clear. Six Islamist entered the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, opened fired and killed 62 mainly foreign tourists from Japan and Switzerland. What really shocked the nation and the world, and to some extent more moderate Islamists, was the brutality of assault. The attackers not only shot and killed innocent victims, but many of the dead were then disemboweled with machetes, including a pregnant woman. According to eyewitnesses the scene inside the temple grounds was horrific with splattered blood everywhere. People also couldn’t understand why it took forty-five minutes for the first police to arrive on the scene.

Queen Beatrix was on a multiday visit of Egypt and it was pretty difficult to carry on as if nothing was happening. Even though things went as planned, I’m sure the queen had some reservations about keeping her regular schedule. The first indication that things were not normal was when we arrived to the Giza plateau after the presidency. Normally at this time of the morning the plateau would be swarming with tourist, however, when we arrived there the only activity one could see were units from the Egyptian military cordoning off the plateau and preventing anyone from getting near.
Zahi Hawass, the charismatic head of the Giza plateau, received the queen at the base of the pyramids and tried to carry on as normal, but it was obvious that the normally charismatic Hawass had other things on his mind.

The first thing Mubarak did was to purge the Interior Ministry and replace the minister, Hassan el Alfy, with the former security chief, Habib El Adly. Adly would remain a loyal servant until the very end and wind up being convicted for the same offence as Mubarak.
Overnight the tourism sector collapsed, particularly in Luxor the scene of the attack, and it wouldn’t be until long after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington that things would pick up in Egypt.

Unbeknown at the time, instead of weakening the government the horrific attack in Luxor actually did the opposite and gave Mubarak a much needed popularity boost. Mubarak now had the excuse to continue is counter attack on the Islamists whether they be extremists or the more moderate Moslem Brotherhood.
It’s ironic that 15 years after the Luxor massacre the Muslim Brotherhood is in the seat of power and Mubarak is wasting away in jail.



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