Cairo, Egypt – “To the palace!” chanted the thousands of protesters who’d already besieged state television offices in Cairo and were beginning a perilous march on the presidential residence in the final hours of Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
Mohammed Abdellah, 64, one of the last living founders of the former president’s National Democratic Party, found himself just yards away from the seething crowds as he returned from an appointment downtown. He rushed home and swallowed a Xanax, terrified at the possibility that Mubarak could order his elite guard force to open fire on the protesters.
“When they moved to the presidential palace, he had two options: leave, or let the Republican Guards clash and have a real massacre. I don’t think he wanted to go down in history as a president with so much blood on his hands,” Abdellah said late Saturday in a three-hour interview that offered one of the first inside looks on the collapse of the regime.
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Just after sunset Friday, Mubarak’s resignation was announced and Egyptian streets exploded in scenes of euphoria. Abdellah watched at home in an opulent apartment where a bookshelf is lined with black-and-white photos of himself with Mubarak and his predecessor, Anwar Sadat.
Through the years, Abdellah said, he’d watched with sadness as Mubarak — whom he first knew as an eager, details-oriented party leader — was transformed into a cocooned authoritarian whose reliance on a tiny group of self-serving advisers led to a deeply divided NDP and, ultimately, the regime’s collapse.
At least, Abdellah thought to himself that night, Mubarak didn’t go out with a massacre of his own people.
“For all his mistakes, Mubarak avoided this last catastrophe,” Abdellah said.
The weakened party structure was slow to react when anti-government protesters took to the streets Jan. 25, and Mubarak didn’t appear to have a crisis manager, Abdellah said.
Decisions such as blocking the Internet, cell phone networks and social media were made without thinking through the consequences. His own Interior Ministry kept on feeding him rosy reports and Mubarak offered concessions, but without a strategy.
Abdellah said the rifts in Mubarak’s regime deepened in 2005, when he surrounded himself with yes-men who reassured him the government was stable even as his closest aides dispatched security forces to crush growing signs of rebellion among Egypt’s impoverished population of more than 80 million.
Abdellah shared his account of the regime’s demise with a candor that would’ve been impossible just days ago. Now, with the NDP in shambles and its top leadership under criminal investigation and travel restrictions, Abdellah had little to lose by revealing the inner tumult of a party that kept a 30-year stranglehold on Egyptian political and economic life.
Abdellah was working as a reporter in Paris when he was recruited by Sadat, who wanted to build a Western-allied Egypt after the death of the charismatic, pan-Arab nationalist President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
In 1980, at age 34, Abdellah became the youngest committee chairman in the Egyptian parliament. After Sadat was killed in 1981 by radical Islamists in retaliation for agreeing to a peace treaty with Israel, Mubarak assumed the presidency and with it, the title of secretary-general of the NDP.
The president was still accessible to the founders, Abdellah said, though security and intelligence chiefs played an ever-increasing role in the country as battles raged against the armed offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We, the historical founders, became, well, marginalized,” Abdellah said.
The internal divisions deepened when a bloc of wealthy businessmen shut out the party intelligentsia and set about grooming Mubarak’s son Gamal for succession in order to protect their interests.
Abdellah lost his seat in the 2005 parliamentary elections, a defeat he blamed on NDP rivals trying to eliminate dissent within his party. “After 2005, Ahmed Ezz took over and was given a free hand,” Abdellah said, referring to the reviled steel magnate. “He approached it as a corporate takeover.”
The internal fights of the mid-2000s paled in comparison to the all-out war that occurred within the party in the aftermath of the most recent parliamentary elections in November.
The NDP leadership was determined to reverse the Muslim Brotherhood’s record win of 88 seats in 2005, a rise that stoked fears in the U.S. and Israel that their longtime ally Egypt was at risk of an Islamist takeover. Abdellah doesn’t dispute that the most recent election was rigged, but the party was split over how many seats to leave the opposition.
Abdellah said he and others in the party’s liberal camp implored Ezz to give the Brotherhood 40 seats and to bolster the more regime-friendly opposition with additional slots. But Ezz, he said, was “too arrogant” to listen and manipulated returns so that Brotherhood-affiliated candidates were left with zero seats, a result so improbable as to be ludicrous.
“You can’t just defeat 88 members of the Muslim Brotherhood overnight,” Abdellah said.
The information minister asked Abdellah to appear on television to explain the results to an outraged Egyptian public, but he balked.
“I told him the maximum I could do was not to criticize the results publicly, but I would never defend them. And then I left for Alexandria for a few days so no one from the media could reach me,” Abdellah said with a small laugh.
With that sham of an election, the party had abandoned any facade of self-reform, infuriated ordinary Egyptians and set Mubarak on a downward spiral that was hastened by the unforeseen uprising that unseated Tunisia’s authoritarian president last month.
The ruling elite was nervous after Tunisia’s revolt, Abdellah said, but Egyptian intelligence and the security apparatus issued internal reports that played down any real danger of a similar revolution in Egypt.
The reasoning was: “Tunisia is only 10 million people, and we are 80 million. We have more freedom of expression than Tunisia, so surely it couldn’t happen here.”
On the night of Jan. 25, the date of the first demonstrations launched by a fledgling anti-government youth movement, Abdellah recalled entertaining a visiting U.S. delegation from the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations at a restaurant in Cairo. The Americans expressed concern and asked how seriously the government was treating the matter.
The security forces seemed optimistic about the days to come, especially after Mubarak gave a speech on Jan. 27, in which he pledged that his government would open talks with the uprising’s leaders.
Abdellah said the interior ministry prepared an “overconfident” report ahead of Jan. 28, “Black Friday,” when hundreds of thousands of protesters in cities across Egypt clashed with security forces, seized control of police stations and torched the landmark Cairo headquarters of the National Democratic Party.
The Interior Ministry assessment before that day, Abdellah said, had “minimized the dimensions” of the protests. Even so, thousands of riot police were ordered to the streets and the security command shut off Internet and cell-phone service throughout most of the country.
“They thought this was the only means of coordination. They hadn’t dealt with the reality that the world had changed,” Abdellah said. “The idea was, ‘Cut it for a few hours, as if it’s something technical.’ Then everything else happened. They’d only planned for one-day action. There was no crisis manager.”
After the deadly clashes that Friday, Abdellah said, “the interior ministry collapsed,” and police vanished from their posts, giving free reign to looters who ransacked whole swaths of the capital. Security was left in the hands of ad-hoc neighborhood patrols, including one on Abdellah’s block of the upscale Zamalek district.
Abdellah, an avid hunter, took a rifle and a pistol and joined the street patrol. Alongside him stood his 25-year-old American-educated son, who was sympathetic to the protest movement and had even joined the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. Abdellah said he and his son debated the merits of the uprising until 7 a.m.
“All the demands put forward by the new generation are legitimate, but I worried this pure movement would be stolen. By the Brotherhood, basically, but also others,” Abdellah said. “When you’ve had (Mubarak) for 30 years, why not have him four more months to ensure stability?”
But Abdellah said he couldn’t argue when his son told him, “We want to be in a free society, we want to feel that tomorrow is for us, and not designed for us.”
Faced with a full-scale revolt, Mubarak named Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief, as his first-ever vice president. He also reshuffled his cabinet and made a public vow to step down by election time in September. The opposition rejected the concessions as too little, too late, and drew record crowds for that Tuesday’s demonstrations.
Emboldened by Mubarak’s defiant speech, his supporters took to the streets the next day for the first time since the uprising began. However, Abdellah said, groups of paid thugs overtook the legitimate pro-Mubarak demonstrations, in a move he thinks was orchestrated by millionaire legislators and elements of the security forces.
“When those people saw there was some real sympathy for Mubarak, they thought, ‘It’s now or never, let’s clean out Tahrir,'” Abdellah said. “And that was a crime. It was the stupidity of those who believe they can defend a regime while killing it.”
The battle for Tahrir Square lasted all night. The protesters prevailed, but suffered heavy casualties: at least three people were killed and more than 1,500 injured, according to news reports.
It became clear that Mubarak’s days were numbered, but his teetering government continued to roll out concessions in hopes that either the opposition would be pacified or the movement would run out of steam.
Abdellah likened the last-ditch concessions, including his own promotion to the party’s leadership Feb. 5, to treating a fatal wound with a dose of antibiotics.
“Each time, they thought, ‘This dose is enough,'” Abdellah said. “But it always came too late, so the ceiling of demands went up. In the beginning, it was just a new generation asking for democratic reforms. If they’d just responded to that, this could’ve been avoided.”
Abdellah isn’t certain what will become of the NDP’s estimated 2.5 million members, who are detested by the new order. If the party manages to retain even a third of the members, he said, perhaps they could regroup and start fresh. That prospect seems unlikely now that many of Mubarak’s former allies are on TV each night disavowing the former ruling party.
“One day I was sitting with President Mubarak and he told me, ‘I respect people who don’t change their stripes every day.’ He said, ‘I don’t like chameleons.’ Unfortunately, at the end of his era, he was surrounded by chameleons,” Abdellah said.
He put out his cigar and walked to his bookshelf to gaze at the photographs and mementoes of his three decades in the Egyptian government.
“C’est la vie,” he said softly. “C’est la vie.”