CAIRO - It was Jan. 19, 2011, and Hosni Mubarak's regime was strong and confident. The Egyptian president was playing host to an array of Arab presidents at his beachside resort in Sharm el-Sheikh. Hundreds of construction workers had been evacuated from the area, lest they mar the spectacle.
But those listening carefully could make out the first rumblings of discontent. The Tunisian foreign minister had to scramble back to Tunis hours before the summit's opening, as his country dealt with the fallout of a revolution that had already toppled its long-serving dictator. And Egyptian Facebook pages were spreading news of demonstrations on Jan. 25, which would seek to replicate the drama of the Tunisian revolution on the streets of Cairo.
As the summit drew to a close, Mubarak headed to the airport to see the foreign dignitaries off. Trailing closely behind him were Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's feared domestic enforcer. Aboul Gheit asked Suleiman if he had raised the potential protests with the president; the intelligence chief replied that he had left Mubarak alone during the summit, but that it was high time to discuss the issue.
When the last dignitary had left, Suleiman approached the president and told him that he had a very important topic to discuss. It was then that Mubarak learned of the uprising that would sweep him from power in a few short weeks.
At the time, however, Mubarak was nonplussed. "The president didn't show much interest," Aboul Gheit wrote in his recently published memoir, My Testimony. When Suleiman suggested a meeting with top officials to coordinate responses to potential protests, Mubarak "didn't respond, and didn't react in a way that we understood as suggesting he was worried."
Two years after the Jan. 25 protests, the small clique of officials around Mubarak is finally starting to go public about the debates within the Egyptian government as the revolution unfolded around them. In addition to Aboul Gheit's account, top Egyptian officials gave their account of the unrest in journalist Bradley Hope's Last Day of the Pharaoh. Both tales provide a glimpse into the tensions at the very top of the Mubarak regime and the reason it failed to crush the protest movement.
Mubarak, in all these former officials' stories, is portrayed as a largely passive figure -- a leader who was at the mercy of the last person to offer his advice. "The president is very old, and consequently he is dependent on the vision of Gamal Mubarak," Aboul Gheit wrote, referring to Mubarak's younger son, who had been conspicuously active in the presidential palace since the beginning of the uprising. Gamal, he added, "stays with [the president] all the time in the palace or in the house."
Such explanations could be an effort by high-ranking officials to deflect blame away from the Egyptian state and on to their bureaucratic rivals. But the accounts are remarkably consistent: Hossam Badrawi, then the top official of the ruling political party, told Hope he had convinced Mubarak to relinquish power on Feb. 9 -- but the president then reversed his decision after being confronted by Gamal and other members of his inner circle. He would relent two days later.