(On October 6, 1981, Fabrice Moussus was the only cameraman who remained on his feet to film Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s assassination and, thus, Vice President Hosni Mubarak’s elevation to the presidency. These are his recollections of that day and what it meant to Egypt. Moussus was a staff cameraman for ABC News in Cairo, Frankfurt, and Paris for thirty years.)
On October 6th, 1981, Hosni Mubarak could have died. Instead he became president. He remained president for the next thirty years. In the Egypt of antiquity, thirty years was time enough to build pyramids. What is Mubarak’s legacy? He kept the peace with Israel, but that is of little concern to the average Egyptians who felt their lives devoid of hope. The Muslim Brotherhood has capitalized on the social classes who feel discontent with their daily life’s poverty and corruption. Indirectly, the Muslim Brotherhood brought Mubarak into power.
Roll back the calendar to that day in October 1981:
President Anwar El Sadat arrived with Hosni Mubarak, his chosen vice president, at a parade commemorating the Egyptian Army’s crossing of the Suez Canal in the 1973 war against Israel. Sadat wanted to show that despite the mounting opposition, he was firmly in control.
When French Mirage fighter jets flew low overhead with color smoke trails behind them, everyone, including Sadat, was staring at the sky. That was precisely when the attackers chose to strike. A perfect film scenario. I was there filming for the American television network ABC News when, to my left, I heard a crackling noise. My initial reaction was that blanks were being fired as part of a display, just as I had witnessed during other parades in the Egyptian desert. In the next hundredth of a second, as my head and camera panned left, I knew exactly what it was. A truck had stopped. Two soldiers were firing their Kalashnikov rifles from the truck bed. Another soldier stepped down and launched hand grenades at the podium.
With the camera still running, I quickly decided that the gunmen were too busy shooting in front of them to stop and shoot to their side. That would have left them vulnerable to Sadat’s bodyguards, who were returning fire. I ran parallel to the guards, filming the gunmen advancing toward the reviewing stand spraying bullets in front of them. I heard grenades explode amid the the fleeing crowd’s screams.
As I arrived at the reviewing stand, I found myself facing a gunman not five meters away. We made eye contact. He pointed his rifle at me. There was a meter-high wall between us, and I ducked behind it. I let the camera roll, propping it on my shoulder while covering my head with it. I thought, “At least the camera is thick enough; it might ricochet the bullets away from my head.” The tape ran for six seconds, an eternity. Nothing seemed to happen, so I stood up and saw the gunman fleeing. Behind me, Sadat’s personal photographer was lying on the stairs, now dead.
The attack lasted 45 seconds. On the stand it was chaos. All the chairs were upside-down. People were crouched behind and under them. Many were dead or in shock. Around me, men shouted, “Al Rais, fein?” (The president, where is he?) I saw an officer clearing away the chairs, unhurt. It was Hosni Mubarak. I had to step over bodies in my search for Sadat. He, however, was gone.
That was the opening scene for President Mubarak’s relationship with his main political opposition, a moment you don’t forget when your predecessor is killed next to you.
As part of the Camp David agreement, the United States provides Egypt with military aid totaling over $1 billion a year and the civilian sector about $250 million. Where has all the money gone in 30 years? No one can point to a single school or hospital built with US foreign aid. But Egyptians can name the Abrams tank built in Egypt, the F-16s bought from the USA, and the tear-gas canisters made in Pennsylvania. Not fair criticism? Doesn’t matter; that’s how the Egyptian civilian population sees it. What they see is the explosion of a “nouveau riche” class under Mubarak’s rule.
Israel conveniently holds up the Muslim Brotherhood’s specter to apply pressure and enlist support for its crusade against Iran. Wrong appreciation of Egypt. The young educated are at the vanguard of this upheaval; the Muslim Brotherhood woke up one lap behind. It’s the educated, Internet-savvy generation that has shaken their fear of the “Mukhabarat,” the secret police under whom they have grown up. We’re not seeing poor, uneducated peasants from the countryside on Tahrir Square. This generation wants more freedom, and it is not about to let the Muslim Brotherhood hijack its movement. Neither will the military establishment, which doesn’t want American aid to vanish if Islamists take over the government. Still, for true democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood needs to be represented in parliament. The Islamists represent part of the population who are fed-up with the corruption they encounter at every level of the bureaucracy, as well as the poor quality of health and education for their children. If they sympathize with the Brotherhood now, that support can dissipate with more democracy.
With a population of 85 million, Egypt is still a village. All the people who matter know each other. In good families, home is where Arabic is spoken and you receive Islamic education. Children attend Catholic or foreign schools that offer better education than the state. They know more about us than we do about them. They speak several languages and understand our cultures. The Greeks, Italians, French, and Levantines are all intertwined in Egyptian families so that part of the Egyptian psyche is well anchored in Western culture. The Copts, the original Egyptian Christians who were there before the Arabs arrived in the seventh century, represent about 10 percent of the population.
Egyptians have a strong sense of history and identity. This is their revolution, and they do not want any outsiders deciding their future as happened under Mubarak. Young Egyptians want to shape their new government. This upheaval is the source of tremendous pride, which generates motivation and strength. The cards are being reshuffled in Egypt, though possibly not to the West’s liking.
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