Thursday, 21 April 2011

My Memories of Torah Prison: Mubarak in Jail

The idea of former president Hosni Mubarak behind bars is not met with unmitigated schadenfreude in Egypt, even among those who demonstrated to end his regime. The first time I stood with the million protesters in Tahrir Square, I saw, strung up on lampposts, a crude effigy I assumed to represent Mubarak. I shook my head.
“That’s not right, that shouldn’t represent the spirit of this movement,” I remarked to the strangers around me in the tight crush of protesters.
A woman in peasant dress, carrying an adorable red-headed, blue-eyed baby girl on her arm, looked at me.
“You haven’t walked in our shoes,” she told me, apparently making a judgment based on appearance, just as I had. 
“You don’t have to walk in someone shoes to feel for them,” I retorted. “But this revolution should stay peaceful. It’s enough to call for Mubarak to leave the country.”
“The effigy is just a symbol, that we want Mubarak tried and brought to justice,” a younger woman explained, bitterly.
But most people didn’t seem to go so far at the time: the banners, the chants, in Tahrir that day and every day until Mubarak finally resigned, only repeated the mantra: “Leave, leave.” “Your plane is waiting.” “Ben Ali is waiting.” “Saudi Arabia awaits you.”
But Mubarak didn’t leave the country after he resigned. He and his sons chose to stay in Egypt, in Sharm-el-Sheikh, no doubt hoping for a comeback, but in effect sealing their fate. Two months later, amid alarms of counter-revolution, and escalating public opinion pressure for bringing them to trial, the last straw was a defiant speech Mubarak broadcast on April 10, misjudging, as always, the moment and the national mood. The Supreme Military Council found itself with no option but to arrest the Mubarak sons and send them to Torah prison; the former president’s health, ostensibly, requires him to remain in hospital.
The sight of the urbane, aloof Gamal and Alaa Mubarak in Torah Prison- where political prisoners are sent- was shocking enough. The very word “Torah” was seared into my childhood memories; it was the word uttered with dread whenever my eldest uncle, or one of my other uncles and relatives, suddenly went missing. Under Nasser, and under Sadat, they were periodically picked up by the “dawn visitors”, the secret police that came in the early hours of the morning; days later, their families were informed where they were being held, usually Torah. Sometimes they were imprisoned for weeks, sometimes for years. One uncle was imprisoned for three years for walking in the funeral cortege of former Wafd leader Mustafa Nahas.
My eldest uncle, Fuad Serageddin, the party leader and statesman, told me once that he was imprisoned under everyone from the British and King Farouk to Nasser and Sadat.
“Which was the worst time?” I asked.
“The last time under Sadat, just before he was assassinated; no contest,” he answered. “For three days I wasn’t allowed to have my diabetes medication, or any food, except for inedible slops they served in a filthy bucket. I survived for those three days on three dried dates that one of the guards slipped me.”
He would have been seventy at the time, I calculated. When he noticed the shocked look on my face, he quickly added, with his usual humor: “Look on the bright side, I lost weight! Remember when I used to go to that weight-loss clinic outside London and they charged me an arm and a leg to starve me on half a grapefruit three times a day? Well I lost weight in Sadat’s prison for free!”
That was the last time my uncle saw the inside of Torah; under Hosni Mubarak, he was never imprisoned. In fact Mubarak tried to co-opt the venerable elder statesman my uncle had become in those later years, inviting him to lunch at Abdin Palace more than once to try to persuade him not to oppose Mubarak’s putting himself up for re-election yet again. Fuad Serageddin accepted the invitations graciously, but continued to oppose the Mubarak regime. When my uncle died, Mubarak even offered to give him a state funeral; the Serageldin family declined.
So I have no personal grievance against Mubarak. But it was not elder statesmen like my uncle who posed a threat to his regime; those who filled his prisons were a younger generation of dissidents of every sort, from Islamists to internet bloggers, and there is documented evidence of the torture and brutality with which countless numbers of them were treated. This was done in Mubarak’s name, and to protect his regime and ensure the succession to his son. These crimes cannot be ignored; there must be a day of reckoning.
But like many Egyptians, I fervently hope that the trials will be conducted as a model of the justice, transparency, order and dignity that the Mubarak regime denied its victims. There is no schadenfreude in watching the Mubaraks behind bars, only a tragic sense that they could have spared the nation this divisive and painful moment, if only they had heeded in time the chants of “leave, leave, leave!”


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