As Inmates 23 and 24, Stunned Mubaraks Adjust
By Michael Slackman and Mona El-Naggar
The New York Times
April 16, 2011
CAIRO — The prison is called Tora Farm, but there is nothing agricultural about it. It is a two-story block of poured concrete, and for years its massive gray walls have held those deemed enemies of the powerful.
Now they hold the full tableau of state power under President Hosni Mubarak: Gamal Mubarak, a prince of the political scene, now prisoner No. 23, and his older brother, Alaa, leader among the business elite, prisoner No. 24; the prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, a patrician man who once said Egyptians were not ready for democracy; Zakaria Azmi, the president’s closest confidant; Fathi Sorour, the party loyalist and speaker of Parliament; and more.
They make docile inmates, their captors say, still stunned to find themselves behind bars. They eat food brought from outside, the right of any detainee who has not been convicted. But Gamal appears badly shaken and often refuses to eat. He shares a cell with Alaa.
“Bear in mind they are very broken,” said a prison official who described the situation inside and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “They do everything they are asked. They don’t raise their voices.”
The former president is not in Tora Farm, but he has been detained, and if his health improves, he is expected there soon. Officials said Saturday that the elder Mr. Mubarak had been moved to a military hospital in Cairo and that, like all the others, he would be interrogated by a special corruption unit within the state prosecutor’s office. In Tahrir Square, people crowded the newspaper seller, staring at the headlines declaring that on Tuesday Mr. Mubarak would be questioned again.
All over Cairo, Egyptians sat in coffee shops and cafes, they gathered on corners and in their homes, marveling at what not long ago seemed impossible. These detentions, perhaps as much as the day Mr. Mubarak resigned, have captivated the nation, given a sense of hope for the future. The men in custody represent the core of the power structure, not just the head.
With its leaders jailed, the once-supreme National Democratic Party has already been relegated to history, but Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court made it official on Saturday, ruling that the party would be dissolved and its assets seized by the government.
But it is also a bittersweet moment for Egyptians, many people said. They sense that even if these fallen power brokers are tried before a court, and even if they are convicted and sentenced, though it may help settle the past, it will not provide a clearer path to the future.
“I am not sure that this in itself is going to make us move forward, because so far we have not moved forward, we have been walking with our heads backwards, looking to the past, talking about what happened, putting people on trial,” said Mohamed Salmawy, a novelist and head of the writers union. “But the actual constructive effort has not yet begun, and I personally don’t know why it is being postponed.”
Since the popular revolt that toppled the president and redefined the calculus of power, Egyptians have not united behind a vision for the future, many people said Friday. Protesters have grown suspicious of the military, which still rules by decree. Parliamentary elections will not be held until September. Government offices barely function and tourism, the lifeblood of the nation, has dropped sharply. Some people are bitter that it took the military leaders two months to begin interrogating the former leaders, and that then they acted only under the pressure of persistent demonstrations.
“I feel bad about the feeling that is growing in me, this rejoicing about how this guy was caught or that guy is now in prison,” said Mohamed el-Sawy, the founder of a youth cultural center trying to promote a dialogue about the future. “We now need revolutionary ideas; there is so much to change and do on all levels and in all directions.”
Even so, the detentions are the first tangible promise of justice, or at least revenge. “There was so much injustice,” said Khalid Yousef, as he sat with friends in an open-air coffee shop off Tahrir Square. “God is great now that they are in jail.”
Al Ahram and El Akhbar, state-run newspapers once controlled by the men in prison, offered details of their lives behind bars. Some had cellphones hidden from the guards, El Akhbar reported. The tidbits that suggested privilege stoked the outrage of the men at the coffee shop as they smoked cheap, bitter tobacco and sipped sweet tea.
“Why should they be treated special?” shouted Ahmed Hosni, a carpenter angry at the slow pace of change. “It’s true, we are all astonished they are in jail. But they are there because they are corrupt.”
The prison, with about 600 inmates, is in a town called Tora, crowded with uneven brick apartment blocks and dusty, litter-strewn roads. It is part of a complex of buildings — a campus more than a farm — easily viewed from the rooftop of a building on its perimeter. The entire structure is gray but for the black bars on the windows and the sand out back.
“It’s not a five-star residence,” said the prison official, who has worked there for more than a decade. “It is a normal prison. People call it a five-star prison because those who come to it are from the elite of society.”
Inside the walls, the president’s younger son, Gamal, has lost a lot of weight, and Alaa keeps to himself, the officials said. Like all prisoners, they have two beds, a television without satellite service and a small refrigerator. Like all inmates, they wear white track suits and are allowed three or four hours a day to walk around outside their cells.
“I think that Gamal is worse than Alaa,” the prison official said. “He looks a lot more in shock, and he lost half of his weight. He eats very little, doesn’t sleep very well. He is not hanging out with anyone. He is in his cell most of the time and alone.”
The men have for now lost their freedom. But they have not been convicted, or even charged. They are only under investigation, though expected to stand trial.
When the men arrived, there was a familiar inmate, Hisham Talaat Moustafa, a former real estate tycoon and member of the upper house of Parliament convicted of having his former lover, the Lebanese pop diva Suzanne Tamim, killed. Mr. Moustafa has treated his new neighbors to food from the Four Seasons hotel, which he has delivered, newspapers reported, suggesting rules can be bent for some.
“There is a lot of pain and frustration and sadness,” the prison official said. “At the end of the day, they have lost their freedom. They are in a very, very bad psychological state.”
The prison official was not suggesting that these men deserved sympathy. Their incarceration proves, he said, “We are now in a state where there is a rule of law, where the biggest is held accountable like anybody else.”
That point rang true for the former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, once sentenced to five years in that same prison in a case that was widely seen as driven by a political vendetta.
“The tables have not turned; the tables have been set right,” Mr. Nour said. “The thieves are inside the prison now, and the honest people are free.”