Interview

The Pharoah's Lawyer

The deposed Egyptian dictator's lawyer explains in an exclusive interview how he plans to defend a man once seen as above the law.

Egyptian pro-democracy protesters took to the streets on Jan. 25 demanding economic and political reform. Eighteen days later, Hosni Mubarak stepped down, ending his 30-year reign as Egypt's unchecked leader. The ailing former president was detained on April 13 on charges of corruption and ordering the killing of protesters, but little was seen or heard from him until Aug. 3, when the world saw a broken Mubarak wheeled into a courtroom on a hospital gurney. His words that day, "Yes, I am here. I deny all these accusations completely," are all Egyptians have heard -- from the man they once called "pharaoh" -- since his resignation Feb. 11.

The ex-president's two sons, Alaa and Gamal, are also on trial, and Fareed ElDeeb, a former prosecutor practicing law since 1971, has represented the Mubarak family since April. ElDeeb is a famous trial lawyer in Egypt, with a long resume of representing high-profile clients, including Azzam Azzam, convicted in 1997 for spying for Israel, and Talat Mustapha, a real estate tycoon currently serving 15 years in prison for killing his Lebanese girlfriend. Over the years, ElDeeb has also represented famous public figures such as the Nobel Prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz; award-winning actress Yousra, belly dancer Fifi Abdo, and the family of late president Anwar Sadat.

But the Mubaraks are without question his highest-profile case yet, and one that has millions of Egyptians glued to their television sets. The trial, which has been postponed several times, is scheduled to resume on Dec. 28. It includes a criminal case and hundreds of civil complaints, filed by lawyers representing the families of those killed during the revolution.

Mohamed Fadel Fahmy caught up with ElDeeb at his home in Cairo. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: How are the former president and the Mubarak family coping with their situation now?

Farid ElDeeb: Mubarak does not comment much. He only asks, "What is the next step?" He is used to secrecy. What amazes me is that I have never heard him badmouth anyone, even those who attack him. I asked him once how it feels not to be free. He responded, "Since when have I been free? I was never able go out freely. The security [forces] surrounded me all the time. I could not walk to the garden, cinema, or take to the streets. I got used to it."

There is no doubt the life of the family that lived in the presidential palace for 30 years has turned upside down. Suzanne Mubarak [the former president's wife] is suffering constantly over the future of her family. She visits Mubarak daily in the hospital, with the permission of the general prosecutor, then returns to her home at night. Alaa Mubarak's son Omar had been studying and taking exams at home but this semester he returned to his American school in Cairo.

In dealing with [former president Mubarak], I realized he is a very kind man who may have made mistakes like any leader but never meant to intentionally damage his country.

FP: The Illicit Gains Authority announced on Oct. 16 that they "discovered" that Mubarak's sons Alaa and Gamal hold $340 million in now-frozen assets in Switzerland.

ElDeeb: You mean the "Oct. 16 television freezing," is what I call it. It is shocking because the general prosecutor froze their assets on Feb. 28. In legal terms it's called a "ban on disposition of assets." I think those behind the second announcement imagine that their media stunt will serve their interest in retrieving the millions from Switzerland. They are taking the wrong path.

I responded to deputy justice minister Asem Al Gohari [who announced the freeze], and reprimanded him for misleading the public. They did not "discover" anything. I gave them the key and the documents that prove that these funds were noted in the financial possession declaration of Gamal Mubarak in 2003, 2008, and 2011. I submitted the sources of the funds obtained from the sons' work in global stock-market consultation with clients outside of Egypt who have nothing to do with Egypt's market. The revenues entered a joint account owned by the two brothers, which was then separated in March 1, 2008. The funds in the accounts, after years of [accumulating] interest, reached over $300 million. Is it wrong for a man to make legal profits?

The sons only face charges of obtaining villas for prices lower than market rates due to their father's political position. If convicted, they may only serve a maximum of three years in prison.

FP: How are the Mubaraks spending money now after the freeze on their finances?

ElDeeb: Hosni Mubarak's health bill is paid by the government, as the law permits with any president or former president. His wife lives off his monthly pension, which reaches up to 93,000 Egyptian pounds (about $15,500). Mubarak and his wife do not own a single dollar inside or outside of Egypt. The total funds in his bank do not exceed 6 million Egyptian pounds.

FP: In your opinion, what role is the media playing in Egypt now? And how is it affecting the Mubarak trial, especially since Judge Ahmed Refaat banned broadcasting of the trial?

ElDeeb: The media has become a dangerous tool for destruction, and the media personalities and journalists are racing to destroy Egypt and defame innocent people. The media in Egypt must face the death sentence because it's not a tool for awareness anymore but only a channel for spreading lies.

I personally support this decision of banning the broadcast of the trial because many of the legal and administrative procedures may not be understood by the general public and by the intellectuals who know nothing about law. I believe that public opinion should not be influenced by media. We have to admit that in reality, it does, be it positive or negative.

FP: The public was shocked to see the witnesses changing their testimonies in court. What was the prosecutor's reaction to that?

ElDeeb: One of the officers in the Central Security Forces gave his testimony, but the prosecutor wanted him to testify according to their "needs." He was charged with "forged testimony" and detained in an adjacent room during the trial. The judge cleared him by the end of the trial. 

The prosecutor of course wants the witnesses to give clear testimony that incriminates the defendants. When a technical person inspects the testimonies of some witnesses stated in the preliminary investigations, you find that the prosecutor notes down information that this witness never said in the questioning. They didn't say what is stated in the evidence list presented to the court by the prosecutor.

The crisis now is that the prosecutor has believed what they have written in the evidence list without going back to the testimonies of those witnesses.

FP: What about the witness who allegedly destroyed a CD containing vital recordings between another of the defendants, former Minister  of Interior Habib el-Adly, and his aides?

ElDeeb: There was no CD. This falls among the list of rumors about a call from the minister to his aides ordering them to "kill or slaughter protesters." This is all nonsense.

FP: The court is expected to hear the testimonies of 1,631 witnesses. How long is this trial expected to last?

ElDeeb: I did not call for the testimony of a single witness. The prosecutor did. They are not eyewitnesses but the prosecutor sees that their testimony serves their case against the defendants. The court must hear all the witnesses with no exception. To be precise, I requested the testimony of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the Supreme Council ruling the country, but postponed it. The court then called him and high-profile witnesses like Omar Suleiman, the former head of Egyptian intelligence and vice president, on the request of the civil rights lawyers.

FP: What was the nature of the testimonials dubbed "secret or behind closed doors" of high-profile witnesses like Marshal Tantawi, especially since there was a ban on the publication of their details?

ElDeeb: There was nothing secret or closed-doors about it. If it was, then the civil rights lawyers should not have been allowed in. The judge avoided the media's manipulation. I didn't ask the witnesses a single question. I was shocked to see some civil rights lawyers chanting against Marshal Tantawi while he was giving his testimony, so I left the courtroom. The judge offered to let Tantawi sit down while giving his testimony out of respect for his old age, but the marshal refused and stood for an hour until he finished.

FP: Some say the testimonies of the high-profile officials under Mubarak's former regime were favorable to your case and may have cleared Mubarak of any wrongdoing. What is your comment on that?

ElDeeb: You know that different people understand things in different ways, depending on how they grasp the information. What the court decides is the only thing that matters. The general testimonies of the high-profile officials state that there no such thing as "awaiting orders." There were previous plans in place to deal with riots or protests, which the security forces are trained to deal with accordingly. There were no specific orders about dealing with protesters on Jan. 25 or 28, and that will be the basis of my defense in the upcoming hearings because there are a lot of missing loops regarding the facts around this issue in the police and armed forces.

FP: The trial has been postponed until Dec. 28 and the civil rights lawyers are calling for Judge Ahmed Refaat to step down. Can you clarify the reasons for this controversy?

ElDeeb: The court has the right to reject the civilian case if it obstructs the process of the criminal case. I was hoping they do that, because honestly the civil rights lawyers don't know what they are talking about. Many of them give exaggerated speeches in court to show off or claim fame. They don't understand that we are in the stages of preparing for the case. The judge warned them once in court, saying, "I can use the right to decline the civilian case so don't force me to do that." They submitted a motion to the Appeals Court claiming that Judge Ahmed Refaat had close ties to Hosni Mubarak and the presidential palace and that he was not treating the civilian rights lawyers fairly. The higher court was supposed to rule on the motion on Sept. 28, then it was delayed until Oct. 22 and ultimately, a final decision was to be taken on Dec. 26.

On Oct. 29, a day before the scheduled hearing, the judge of the higher court stepped down for what is known in legal terms as "avoiding embarrassment." Therefore, Judge Ahmed Refaat reinstated the detention of the defendants and postponed the trial until Dec. 28, since he is not allowed to resume the trial while a ruling has not passed on the motion demanding his resignation.

The civil rights lawyers were not happy with the two-month delay and asked the Appeals Court to take steps toward minimizing the gap. In return, the Appeals Court appointed another court to rule on the motion on Nov. 3, instead of Dec. 26 as announced earlier.

If a new judge is chosen for the Mubarak trial, then we have to start the proceedings from the beginning. I assure you, Judge Refaat has no ties with the presidential palace and he denied this to the higher court. It's comical because Mubarak ruled the whole country and no judge is appointed without his approval anyway.

FP: Why did the judge merge court procedures of Mubarak's case with that of his former Minister of Interior Habib el-Adly?

ElDeeb: They both faces the charges of killing protesters during the Jan. 25 uprising, and the same witnesses will testify against them, so the court will obviously listen to them one time only.

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

Interview

It Ain't Over 'Til the Tan Man Sings

Italy's most outspoken journalist on the secret to Silvio Berlusconi's continued survival -- and why it may be coming to an end soon.

On Oct. 14, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in parliament amid a barrage of criminal cases, sex scandals, and embarrassing taped conversations, not to mention Italy's worst financial crisis in decades. The news prompted many around the world to ask: Just what will it take for Berlusconi to lose his job?

To shed some light on this topic, Foreign Policy spoke with Beppe Severgnini, one of Italy's best-known journalists, a veteran Silvio-watcher, and author of the new book Mamma Mia: Berlusconi's Italy Explained for Posterity and Friends Abroad. We discussed the prime minister's control over the media, the incompetence of his enemies, and whether Italian men are actually envious of their leader's bunga-bunga lifestyle.

Foreign Policy: So let's start with the basic premise of your book. How is it that Silvio Berlusconi has managed to survive half a dozen scandals, any one of which would have ended the career of most democratic leaders?

Beppe Severgnini: Well, there are 10 reasons in my book. At this moment, you can say a few of these reasons are more important than others. Even now, he continues to introduce himself as an outsider and a non-politician, though he's certainly one of the most experienced politicians in Europe -- as shrewd as you can get. He can maneuver in Parliament and get just enough votes -- and the way he actually gets those votes is by offering government posts, as he did last week.

Number two, the alternative is still pretty weak. The opposition is growing, but a lot of people still don't see an alternative. Personally, I think any alternative is better. You and I could form a government, and I think we'd do well compared to what is happening now.

Third, Italy is a very tribal culture. There is a very tribalistic attitude toward politics. There are people who would vote for the devil if it would keep the other side out.

But all of these are kind of thinning out now, and definitely Berlusconi is on his way out. It's a matter of weeks or months.

FP: So what was the turning point? When did his tricks stop working?

BS: I think it's a combination of scandals that are literally beyond imagination. It probably started in 2009 when he attended the birthday party of a girl who was turning 18, which means he was seeing her before she was of age. And then his wife left him and wrote a very vitriolic letter in the newspapers saying, "My husband is sick and is offering virgins to the Minotaur," or whatever. So this opened up a Pandora's box of scandals that have lasted for two years.

He might have survived that too, if not for this massive economic crisis. Italy's got a huge public debt: 120 percent of GDP. The costs of servicing that debt are going up. So it's a combination of bad economic data and this barrage of scandals that probably did it for him.

Don't forget, youth unemployment in Italy is 28.5 percent, which is the highest in Europe after Greece. Are you happy with a government that keeps your kids out of work? During a rare public meeting not long ago, Mr. Berlusconi told a girl who had asked him what she should do about her future, "You're pretty. You should marry a rich husband."

FP: I'm curious what you thought of the argument in a recent article in the New Yorker, which made the case that Berlusconi's attitude toward women -- turning models and dental hygienists into parliamentarians because of their looks and all of that -- is actually normal for Italian men, which accounts for much of his appeal.

BS: I think that's a little unfair. Of course, Berlusconi embodies many things that are lurking behind the national psychology. But to say it's typically Italian, no. Yes, if you tell me that most Italians are flirtatious when they see a pretty woman, even when they shouldn't be; yes, it's absolutely true.

But I don't know any Italian man who has partied with 25 women a third of his age. A, because it's too tiring, and B, because it's too expensive.

FP: One of my favorite chapters of the book is what you call, "the Zelig Factor," Berlusconi's ability to transform the way he acts and presents himself depending on whom he's talking to -- conservative with Bush, a macho man with Putin, a man of God with the pope, etc. How does he get away with this? Don't people think he's a hypocrite?

BS: No, they think he's a great actor. Don't forget that the man knows about television.

He knows nothing about the Internet and social networks. He's completely clueless. He was once sitting next to Mubarak at a press conference (By the way, all his friends in North Africa are gone: Qaddafi, Mubarak, Ben Ali. If I were Putin, his fourth-best friend, I'd be pretty nervous.) But anyway, he was sitting next to Mubarak and said, "Now we can find out anything about anyone. We just have to look it up on ‘Gogol.'" It took the audience a minute to realize he was talking about Google. I quipped that we have the only prime minister who gets his information from Russian novelists.

So he knows nothing about the Internet, but he's really a pro at daytime television. So in terms of appealing to the lower-middle class on TV, he's the master of the universe. He knows what to say, how to dress, how to put on makeup, everything. He's a master salesman.

Zelig, the character in Woody Allen's film, transforms himself so he will be accepted. That's key to understanding Berlusconi. He wants to be loved, but also to sell something to his brothers. He's a very strange combination of a great salesman and a very insecure man who needs to be appreciated.

FP: What's it like for you, as a journalist who's obviously very critical of the government, working in a country where the prime minister has such overwhelming control over the mass media?

BS: I'm very lucky. I work for Corriere Della Sera, which is the largest newspaper, and I can say whatever I want. I write for the Economist and the FT, and I can write whatever I want. On television, I appeared on Sky Italia for many years, and I could say whatever I wanted.

But I'm in my 50s. I'm not your average 20-something journalist. It's not so easy for me to say, "Well, who cares?" Many of my colleagues do care, and they know they won't have any access to public television because he controls it. They won't have any access to private television because he owns it. Of course, there are satellite networks and newspapers that don't belong to him, but still you're talking about a good half of the media being completely enslaved to him.

The sad thing is that many of my colleagues think it's only fair that if you have right-wing views you should work for his papers. I think this is shocking. There are lots of right-wing journalists in the U.S., but I don't think they'd be happy working for a newspaper owned by the politician they support. I think it's embarrassing. But maybe I'm naive.

FP: You talk a lot about the incompetence of the Italian left. How much do you think is their fault and how much do you think is just how difficult Berlusconi has made it for anyone to run against him?

BS: It's about two-thirds their fault and one-third objective difficulties. They are divided, which is unexcusable. They don't have a program. They don't have a leader. And we simply don't know who's going to be Mr. Berlusconi's opponent and what they plan to do if they win. This is disgraceful.

I think Berlusconi is at his weakest now, and they should be a shoo-in.

FP: So even if Berlusconi's out of political power, he has managed to have a profound effect on Italian politics, culture, and media. How long do you think this impact will be felt?

BS: We'll go through a couple of difficult years, I think. Italy, in terms of media, and loyalty, and fair play is wounded. But never forget that Italy is the country of opera. I don't like Mr. Berlusconi's arias, but he's the tenor. In an opera, the audience cheers for the tenor until the very moment they boo him offstage.

ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images