Friday, 11 February 2011

2011/1981 Mubarak/Sadat

I've been rather tied up on this historic day, mainly waiting around at the presidential palace for what might have been another prevarication. Instead I ended up walking down Khalifa Maamoun street among a throng of thousands. I doubt the celebrations would be more jubilant if Egypt won the World Cup. I was persuaded to write a story comparing the streets on the demise of Mubarak with those in the hours after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, in my capacity as one of the fairly small group of people, perhaps several hundred, who saw Sadat's dead body on its way from the grandstand to the helicopter which took it to Maadi Military Hospital on that also momentous day. Here it is:
   CAIRO, Feb 11 (Reuters) - This time people leapt for joy,
hugged their neighbours and in unison cried "Freedom" and "God
is Great". They waved their Egyptian flags, beat their drums and
headed downtown for the party of a generation.
    It was a very different scene I witnessed 30 years ago when
Egypt last lost a president, after the dramatic assassination of
President Anwar Sadat, which brought Hosni Mubarak to power.
    On Friday, the day Mubarak bowed to popular pressure and
resigned, the streets outside the presidential palace in
northeast Cairo were packed with jubilant crowds, celebrating
the success of the popular uprising.
    Fireworks lit up the sky and passing cars honked their
horns. Groups of young men posed in front of the army's armoured
personnel carriers for pictures snapped by mobile phone.
    I walked the same streets of the same Cairo suburb of
Heliopolis on Oct. 6, 1981, the day I saw Sadat's body carried
out of the back of the grandstand where Islamist militants
gunned him down at a military parade.
    That day the streets of Cairo were tense and shocked. In the
absence of satellite television, mobile phones and the Internet,
Information travelled slowly and most Egyptians knew very little
about what had happened at the parade ground.
    I was sitting about 50 metres (yards) to the left of Sadat
and Mubarak, then his vice president, both dressed in the fancy
Prussian-style uniforms which Sadat favoured. When Sadat arrived
I noticed his high-heeled cowboy boots, not standard issue but
another sign of the man's sartorial flamboyance.
    The army vehicles trundled past, celebrating the performance
of the Egyptian armed forces in the Middle East war of 1973,
seen in Egypt as a victory.
    Then suddenly one truck stopped. A group of men jumped out
of the back and ran towards the podium where Sadat was sitting.
    I must have been looking in another direction, maybe at the
Mirage fighters swooping down towards the grandstand with
coloured smoke streaming out behind them.
    Then a grenade exploded. This was not part of the normal,
predictable act. It was followed by bursts of automatic rifle
fire. By then the people behind and above me on the grandstand
were taking cover on the floor and metal chairs were spilling
down on top of me. I put my arms over my head and crawled away.
    When I reached the left end of the grandstand I looked back
towards where Sadat had been sitting and saw a scene of
pandemonium. I did not know it at the time but Sadat and eleven
others were killed and many injured in the shooting.
    Wary of the mayhem and of so many men with guns, I walked
briskly around the back of the stadium and ran into a cluster of
men in suits carrying a body wrapped in blankets. One was waving
a pistol and shouting "Out of the way. The president's been
hit." I could see Sadat's distinctive bald crown and the same
cowboy boots protruding from either end of the blankets.
    I put my hands up and edged to the side as they put the body
in a waiting helicopter, its rotors already spinning. The
helicopter took off and headed south.
    I finally found a telephone at the gatehouse to a company's
compound and the guard let me use it. I told my colleague what I
had seen, saying Sadat was wounded and had left by heliocopter.
    All the streets were closed to traffic for the parade and
there was not a taxi in sight, so I set off on foot, finally
finding a ride to nearby Heliopolis.
    As news of the shooting spread through the city, an
atmosphere of gloom and anxiety descended. Sadat's last weeks
had already been traumatic, with mass arrests and long speeches
in which Sadat ranted against his enemies.
    Hosni Mubarak, who appeared on television later the same
day, his hand bandaged from a minor injury he sustained, was a
reassuring presence for many Egyptians in troubled times.
    As usual in such cases, many predicted he would not last
long. A former air force commander, he had little political
experience and showed few signs of ambition.
    But ruling Egypt became a habit. He never showed any sign
that he had any vision for how to steer the country away from
the autocratic system he inherited. He said he was merely
serving his country but he thought himself indispensable and
belittled the qualifications of anyone who challenged him.
    As Mubarak aged and new ideas spread among a fresh
generation of networked young Egyptians, Mubarak's paternalistic
and authoritarian approach was harder and harder to sustain.
    When Tunisians overthrew President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali
in January, Egyptians suddenly realised what was possible. The
popular uprising against Mubarak began on Jan. 25 and gathered
pace as the barriers of fear came down.
    Right up his to last full day in power, Mubarak was offering
Egyptians what he offered in 1981 and throughout his reign --
stability at any price. In the end Egyptians said the price was
too high to pay. Instead they shouted "Freedom" and rejoiced.

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