In the new Egypt, many remnants of the Mubarak order lead comfortable lives
CAIRO — Farouk Hosni leads a quiet life these days. He listens to classical music. He paints. He follows politics closely — but he doesn’t dare get involved. And many Egyptians say he doesn’t have the right to.
Hosni served as culture minister for 23 of the nearly 30 years that Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt. When Egyptians rose up to overthrow Mubarak two years ago, many said they expected men like Hosni to land behind bars. And what irks so many now is not just that many of the “felool,” or remnants of the old regime, have evaded jail time but that they continue to lead extremely comfortable lives.
They socialize at luxury villas and country clubs. They cruise through dilapidated Cairo neighborhoods in chauffeured cars. Some have seen their assets frozen and their travel restricted, but that appears to have had little effect on their day-to-day lives.
Mubarak and his two sons are among at least 15 prominent figures from the old order who are in prison. But some, including Mubarak, his sons and his reviled former interior minister, are facing retrials — and the renewed possibility of acquittal. Only two of the nearly 170 police officers charged with killing about 900 protesters during the 2011 uprising are in prison. Many were acquitted.
For most, including Hosni, who was acquitted of corruption charges in January, the world goes on. “In a way, I feel like my life hasn’t changed,” he said on a recent afternoon in the vast living room he uses as an office, surrounded by classical sculptures and books on interior design. Even as culture minister, he said, he spent much of his time painting and reflecting. “I was always a thinker,” Hosni said.
Like many other fallen elites, Hosni is bitter about the way the term “felool” has been used by Egypt’s emerging political forces to sideline the old guard. “Are these remnants just a group that people are referring to, or are they millions? Of course, there are millions who worked within the system,” he said.
To a conspiracy-minded public, the new Egypt looks increasingly like the victim of a cruel collective joke. Islamists are in power, to the dismay of many, and the economy is in a tailspin. And, as before, there is little transparency in politics or justice. Activist groups that oppose the new Islamist order did not celebrate the second anniversary of the revolution on Friday. Instead, they called for nationwide protests to mark the occasion.
But the fallen elites — cast by Islamists and liberals alike as the masterminds of street violence on some days and as obstacles to Egypt’s economic and political progress on others — say they are the victims, the scapegoats of a popular movement, the innocent targets of the deluded and ignorant masses.
Ex-official claims innocence
“All the people I punished before the revolution were against me after the revolution,” Zahi Hawass, Mubarak’s longtime antiquities chief, marveled on a recent afternoon at Cairo’s elite Gezira Sporting Club, where wealthy residents go to mingle, swim and play tennis. He said the media attacked him for being famous — Hawass has starred in documentaries and a reality TV show — and he accused rivals of paying protesters “millions” of dollars to chant against him in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
For years, Hawass led a crusade to locate many of Egypt’s stolen artifacts in collections abroad and bring them home. “What I did for my country was incredible,” he said, bragging that when he took President Obama to the Giza pyramids in 2009, a local camel driver recognized Hawass immediately but didn’t recognize Obama.
But critics say that from his perch, Hawass wasted public money, stole archaeological artifacts and helped raise funds for first lady Suzanne Mubarak’s private charity. Former colleagues and activists also accused him of profiteering from his position by signing a deal with National Geographic to serve as an “Explorer in Residence” for $200,000 a year. They said he violated an Egyptian law protecting antiquities by using the King Tut exhibit at the Egyptian Museum to promote his clothing line.
Hawass has denied the allegations but acknowledged receiving $200,000 from National Geographic. “Yes, it’s true,” he said, adding that the deal had government approval. Accusations that he had misused the Egyptian Museum to promote his clothing line were a misunderstanding, he added.
The National Geographic Society declined to disclose the amount it paid Hawass but defended its arrangement with him, calling the relationship important to its educational and scientific mission and to Egypt. The institution was “not involved nor do we have any knowledge, beyond some press accounts,” of the charges filed against Hawass, a spokeswoman, Mimi Koumanelis, said in an e-mail.
Hawass was initially convicted in a case that concerned bidding for the contract to operate the Egyptian Museum bookstore and sentenced to one year in prison, but last year he was acquitted of all the corruption charges against him.
These days, he largely avoids the public eye. He exercises daily at a hotel gym that is being renovated and is closed to others. He is working on several new books. And he attends dinners with an elite circle of friends. “I’m not a rich man,” he said. “I take taxis because my driver gets off at 3.”
An ebb in hostility
But many Egyptians remain unconvinced that Hawass and other former officials are innocent.
Mohamed el-Shennawy, a filmmaker, said that when he took to the streets two years ago, he assumed that Mubarak and his cronies would face swift trials and, maybe, even execution. “When I compare our expectations to what happened, it’s like a man being in love with a beautiful woman who then finds out that she is the complete opposite of what he thought,” he said.
Even those former Mubarak associates who have landed behind bars lead a relatively privileged existence, said Cherif al-Choubachy, a former columnist for al-Ahram, a state-run newspaper, who counts his cousin Zohair Garana, a former tourism minister, among the prisoners. The former elites are held in the same cell bloc, he said, with televisions and access to cellphones once a week.
Mubarak, 84, is at a Cairo military hospital, where he has been transferred intermittently because of worsening health.
Behind closed doors, the elites still speak in the vernacular of the ousted regime, certain that their fate has been unfair. “Egypt is my country,” said another longtime state newspaper columnist on his way home from a dinner party, the fluorescent billboards atop Cairo’s slums flashing by his car window. How could Egyptians have elected the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, he asked. “They’re peasants,” he said. “They are too small to be ruling Egypt.”
But some activists and political analysts say that the recent backlash against the ruling Islamists over Egypt’s new constitution has prompted a reexamination of the felool.
Since liberal revolutionaries and Mubarak loyalists united in the streets around a common cause, some opposition groups have relaxed their hostility to the old guard, hoping to win its support as they square off against the Brotherhood in upcoming parliamentary elections.
“I think ‘felool’ has evolved a little,” said Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch. Now that they have lived with Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood-backed president, some middle- and upper-class Egyptians see Mubarak and his cronies as a lesser evil, she said. Similarly, when Amr Moussa — a former Arab League chief and foreign minister — ran for president in the spring, many refused to vote for him because of his ties to the old regime. Now he’s seen as an increasingly credible opposition figure, she said.
The new constitution bans former leaders of Mubarak’s party from running for office for 10 years. But it leaves the door open to former ministers and rank-and-file members of the now-disbanded National Democratic Party.
‘We will continue to work’
To go from the inner circle of power to the almost irrelevant periphery of a new, Islamist system is a strange thing, the fallen elites say. Some, like Moussa, have staked a claim in the new political scene. Others remain bewildered by their new twilight zone. Very few are repentant.
“They wake up and they have nothing to do,” said Choubachy, who counts several top members of the former regime among his close friends. “It must be terrible.”
On a recent evening at his villa north of Cairo, a dozen elites, including Hawass, gathered on golden sofas, sipping whiskey amid porcelain vases, oil paintings and enormous crystal chandeliers. They talked about the Islamists, sex and religion. They cursed Morsi as they cut a cake.
This month, Egypt’s attorney general, a Morsi appointee, launched a fresh investigation into the Mubarak family and key associates who he alleged had received millions of dollars worth of gifts from al-Ahram during Mubarak’s reign. Mubarak’s attorney quickly reached a plea deal with the prosecution for about $3 million, and other officials reached similar deals, the local media reported.
Rights groups say Mubarak’s generals, who ruled the country during a bumpy year-and-a-half transition, and felool within the legal system actively thwarted the pursuit of justice, convening kangaroo courts for some to appease the public and ignoring allegations against others.
Moussa said he thinks that the courts have done their job and that, as Egypt marks two years since the revolution, it’s time to move on. “We will continue to work because we are adamant to help the country, regardless of these minority voices who talk about the so-called felool,” he said.
Hawass is hopeful, too. “If you walk with me one day in Cairo, you will see how the poor people greet me,” he said. “Everyone wants me to come back.”
Ingy Hassieb and Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.