On the second-floor balcony, Hassan Mohamed fumbled with the Egyptian flag. He and an embassy official lowered it to half-mast, but on the sidewalk below, two dark-suited men looked up and gestured toward the flagpole. Words were exchanged and the red, white and black flag was returned to the top of the mast.
It symbolized the question that went unanswered throughout the morning at the Egyptian Embassy complex on Sheridan Circle: Was Anwar Sadat dead or alive?
Mohamed, the embassy's 56-year-old butler, who seemed to be singlehandedly taking care of the residence where the ambassador of Egypt lives, could provide no answers. "I heard it on television this morning," he said, peering around the half-opened door.
No one was home, he said, and he had been continually answering the phone.
The callers? "News agencies," he said.
Around the corner, in the chancery on Decatur Place, Ambassador Ashraf Ghorbal was sequestered in meetings with other officials. Reporters could get as far as the tiny reception room, but there they were stopped.
On one wall was a photograph of Mecca, lit up at night. On a second wall, a sailboat on the Nile. On still another wall was an official portrait of Anwar Sadat in military uniform, a portrait partially hidden by a makeshift red screen that cordoned off a dozen reporters from the room where Ghorbal and his subordinates met. It was a vigil the embassy tolerated with a mixture of resignation and diplomacy.
"I don't speak English," one official had to repeat to reporters anxious for some shred of news. The official embassy line was: The ambassador is talking to Cairo, and he'll come out later.
At times it was a drama within a drama as reporters equipped with walkie-talkies huddled around embassy staff people, the color television and each other in the reception room.
"You're not using the phone, are you? Is there any reason I can't use it too?" an ABC reporter asked his CBS competitor, who had called his office on the only available telephone and held the line open for over an hour.
"This is an embassy phone and why can't we rotate?" asked the ABC reporter as other reporters grumbled about lodging protests against CBS.
"We're a 24-hour network," said the Cable News Network correspondent. "We go through this all the time."
Meanwhile, the embassy's seven incoming lines rang nonstop as receptionist Mary Ayers' fingers danced over the buttons. "I didn't know about President Sadat until I came in," said Ayers, who has worked at the embassy nine months.
About 12:50 p.m., Pepper Stevens, in corduroys and lugging a blue knapsack, came to relieve her. Both are Americans. "I didn't think it was serious when I first heard the news," said Stevens, who is studying Arabic. She started having doubts when she heard conflicting reports. "I figured something was going on and they were formulating policy," she said.
While reporters waited for news, the embassy struggled to cope. Telegrams arrived and were delivered quickly to offices beyond the screen. Business-suited Egyptian men with sober faces rushed back and forth across the lobby, ignoring the inquiring glances. A small, thin man slowly carried a tray with one cup of black coffee into an office.
The Egyptians, as dependent on the television news as the reporters, divulged neither information nor emotion.
"Sir, we just had a report that it was announced on the Senate floor that he's dead," an Associated Press reporter told Ali Ghaboy.
He frowned, straightening up his shoulders. "By whom?" asked Ghaboy, a 31-year-old staffer who has been at the embassy one month.
" Sen. Howard Baker," the reporter replied.
Ghaboy frowned again. "Officially?" He walked toward the screen, then turned around. "What network?" he asked.
Finally it was on television -- the voice of Egyptian Vice President Hosni Mubarak being simultaneously translated by a CBS staffer. A half-dozen Egyptian officials emerged from offices to join the reporters listening to the news broadcast of Mubarak's speech. Mohamed El-Rashidi, an administrative attache who had been awakened with the news at 8 yesterday morning, sat watching intently. He checked his watch. The time was about 1:55 p.m.
Fifteen minutes later, Ghorbal was out in front of his residence, where a battery of cameras had been in place for several hours. "It is with deep sorrow and a sense of personal loss that I can now confirm . . . " he read from a prepared statement. The same half-dozen Egyptians who had listened to Mubarak's speech stood behind him. The usually gregarious Ghorbal turned and briskly walked back to the embassy.
Within an hour, the Egyptian flag had been lowered again to half-mast, this time to stay there.