The Coiffeur of Cairo

For 50 years, Mahmoud Labib has cut the hair of Egypt's rulers, from Sadat to Mubarak.

CAIRO — Mahmoud Labib put on a dark suit when he received the call. Not his usual hot-pink shirt, open halfway to his navel. He slicked back his silver hair in a Chuck Berry-style conk. Hosni Mubarak was expecting him.

The 75-year-old hairdresser headed to the military hospital in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. It was late August, and Egypt was in turmoil; the former president had just been freed from prison after two years. And the man needed a haircut. Mahmoud says he considers Mubarak a customer just like any other, but the aged former leader stands at the heart of Mahmoud's magic -- the mystique that drew people and presidents to his hair salon's iron latticed door, with a golden "M" at the center.

Mahmoud has cut Mubarak's hair since he was vice president, and Mahmoud knew his sons when they were little boys running around in T-shirts and shorts. And the hairdresser's time with the man who ruled Egypt for three decades provided him with a privileged view of a leader who often proved awkward and secretive toward the public.

"He was a man of very few words. For the first 10 years, it was just salaam alaikum and alaikum as-salaam," Mahmoud says between customers during a recent visit to his salon. "Later, I would go to him and we would spend a couple of hours after I finished [cutting his hair]. There was space. We developed a relationship like I have with any other customer."

While Mubarak's critics paint a picture of a leader obsessed with handing power to his family, Mahmoud describes the former president as desperate to find a way to leave office in his final years but thwarted by his inner circle. "There was too much pressure from those around him telling him the country would slide into chaos without him," he says.

A statue of a naked satyr stands at the entrance of Mahmoud's salon. Inside, Mahmoud projects himself as a fashion avatar: He bathes himself in cologne and walks across his domain, lighter than a feather, rolling his fingers through his customers' hair. His half-dozen stylists wear matching yellow sports shirts emblazoned with Mahmoud's name and a drawing of a more youthful, smoldering barber with a pompadour. He scoffs at hair-styling legends like Vidal Sassoon and Alexandre de Paris, dismissing them as men who lost their hunger for the art.

His clientele of graying, middle-aged men rejoice at any mention of his illustrious former clients. Caricatures and photos of Anwar Sadat adorn the space -- one picture shows Mahmoud trimming the former president's side hairs. Another has the barber crouched in a stylish black outfit behind a seated Sadat.

Mahmoud's walls bear no extravagant tributes to Mubarak. The stylist speaks with affection about his longtime friend -- but denies any deliberate omission. If someone had given him a photo of the two together, he insists, he would have put it up. Mahmoud claims no one ever gave him such a gift, and besides, he insists, he has never liked photographs of himself.

"Others go and get their photographs taken, but I never asked someone to be photographed with them. Even the actors and artists, who have been my customers for decades," Mahmoud explains. "These pictures come by chance. I go for work and work alone."

In the 1960s, his first client from the inner circle of political power was President Gamal Abdel Nasser's teenage son Hakim. Nasser warned Mahmoud not to give the teenager sideburns -- the colonel wanted his son's hair cut like a soldier's ­-- but Mahmoud ignored the Egyptian strongman's advice. The barber knew Nasser would forget his own warning but that his son would never forgive him. Next came then Vice President Sadat's teenage son, whose hair Mahmoud still cuts today. Then Sadat came to sit in his barber's chair, and finally Mubarak, who started visiting the stylist after he became vice president.

Mahmoud still loves Sadat, calling him a "wise man" and "salt of the earth." He traveled the world with the flamboyant Egyptian leader -- including to the United States, for the Camp David Accords. Comparing his work on the Middle East peace process to a hair salon, Sadat told Mahmoud that if the Palestinians were hairstylists and lost their shop, and then were offered a seat back inside, they would be foolish not to take what was available to them.

Mahmoud brags that he never changed his ways for the powerful. "When I was first introduced to Sadat, I told him about all my flaws. That I am a hard drinker and a [marijuana] smoker, that I stay up late every night and so on. I told him all the bad things about me, so that if someone went to inform on me, he'd already know."

He muses that perhaps Mubarak thought he could learn the secrets of Sadat's court from the president's barber. "I knew nothing," Mahmoud chuckles.

When Mahmoud visited Mubarak at the military hospital in late August, it was the first time he had seen his friend in the flesh in two years. They kissed on the cheeks, hugged, and shook hands. He said Mubarak was physically weak but mentally as sharp as a tack. He says the former president continued to maintain a busy, organized schedule -- every inch the air force commander that he had been decades ago.

"You know how these airmen are. If he finds a strand of hair out of place, he'll tell me, 'Don't leave it,'" Mahmoud says admiringly. "Look: He is 85 and his hair looks as healthy as ever."

Mahmoud has watched Egypt struggle after Mubarak's downfall. First the Muslim Brotherhood, which he dreads, won the presidency. Then the country was thrust into chaos when the military deposed the Brotherhood and launched a far-reaching crackdown that has cost over 1,000 lives. Today, the Mubarak years look far better to many Egyptians, even if the ex-president is shunned like a wayward relative.

Taking a break from a client, Mahmoud smokes a Rothman and describes Mubarak's mindset since his release. "Perhaps on the inside he is happy that [the Muslim Brothers] have left, but that's all," he says. "He is unhappy about what has occurred. He wonders how much time will it take Egypt to mend things. He is worried for the country."

Mahmoud also styled the hair of Mubarak's two sons, watching them grow into dapperly attired men who joined their father in the stewardship of the country. When the sons were thrown in prison, Mahmoud urged the general prosecutor, another one of his clients, to let him keep cutting their hair. The prosecutor refused, however, leaving the sons' hair to the care of their prison staff.

Mahmoud expresses sorrow over Egypt's treatment of Mubarak's younger son, Gamal, who had ambitions to succeed his father and today cools his heels in Cairo's Tora Prison on charges of corruption and inside trading. Mahmoud remembers broaching the subject of Gamal's succession to the presidency with Mubarak. "He told me, try as he might, Egypt is too big and Gamal couldn't handle all of it."

Another time, says Mahmoud, Mubarak confided his worry about Gamal's rising profile: "Mahmoud, he could be finished off by a bullet worth less than a piaster."

The fear that Mubarak would pass power to his son ultimately contributed to the popular protests that resulted his downfall in early 2011. But Mahmoud portrays Mubarak as an aging commander who wanted to loosen his grip on power but did not know how. After his favorite grandchild died of an illness in 2009, Mahmoud says Mubarak was vocal about his desire to resign and soon had to be hospitalized in Germany due to his own health crisis. "He was weak; I was fatter than he was," says the rail-thin coiffeur. "We'd have to carry him from the bed to place him on [the] barber's chair, so I could cut his hair."

Mahmoud talks as if it were never Mubarak or Gamal who were at fault -- somehow, they were always the victims, while the men around them sabotaged their efforts. Mahmoud blames invisible hands -- "the movers and shakers" and "the people with interests and money to make" -- for Egypt's struggles and for undermining those whom he sees as good and true, such as Sadat and Mubarak. Mahmoud also mentions Mubarak's belief that he was thrown out because he was standing in the way of an American plan to grab new bases in Egypt -- a charge that the former president voiced in discussions with his prison doctor, which were secretly recorded and released on the Internet in September.

To Mahmoud, these past few years are like a reversal of the best decade of his life -- the 1950s, when he apprenticed in downtown Cairo, which was then alive with writers, musicians, and military officers plotting revolution.

He doesn't recognize his old haunts today. "These are haphazard times," he says, puffing a cigarette between clients. But he swears not to retire. "So as long as I am standing and working I have energy. I can work 12, 13 hours and not tire."

And when Mubarak calls again, he will come -- as he has always done.

Photo: Yassin Gaber


The Fugitive

Meet Abu Omar: Al Qaeda busted him out of Abu Ghraib. Now he has gone to fight in Syria.

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Waiting for the tram in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, Abu Omar is on his way to the mall. No groceries today -- his shopping list includes a Turkish-made tablet computer and a small GPS navigation device loaded with digital maps of the Middle East.

"It's nothing special," says Abu Omar, an Iraqi national, as he puts the goods in his rucksack. "But this stuff might come in handy after I make it to Syria."

Abu Omar, a handsome young man with long black hair, is not the only one making the trek to Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi prisoners -- mostly suspected or convicted jihadists -- were freed in July after al Qaeda-linked militants staged a deadly jailbreak at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. At the time, Iraqi and Western authorities feared that some of those men would travel to Syria, helping to fuel the rise of extremist groups there. Those fears have now become a reality.

Abu Omar is one of the al Qaeda members who escaped during the Abu Ghraib prison break. He says six of his former cellmates have also made it to Syria. "Many more are on their way," he says in a strong Iraqi Arabic accent. "Everybody wants to go for jihad to Syria."

Abu Omar sees the Syrian war as much more than a struggle against a brutal dictator. For him, it's a war against unbelievers, and its ultimate aim is the establishment of an Islamic government that transcends the borders of the modern Middle East. "Syria and Iraq are the same struggle to us," he explains. "Both governments in Iraq and Syria are run by unbelievers, so we will fight both. Syria is currently very weak and close to falling into the hands of the mujahideen [jihadists]."

Abu Omar refuses to give his exact age, saying only that he is in his 20s. We were able to contact him through a Syrian activist in Turkey known for his close links to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), al Qaeda's branch in Iraq and Syria. The jihadi organization, which is an extension of al Qaeda's longtime networks in Iraq, has been growing in prominence in Syria's north and east and has even recently clashed with several more moderate rebel groups.

Abu Omar spent 26 months imprisoned in Abu Ghraib, which gained notoriety in 2004 after shocking pictures were published of American guards torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners. He was imprisoned on terrorism-related charges, but claims he is innocent of any crime. According to him, the experience of being locked up in Abu Ghraib led to his radicalization. "When I was in prison I met a lot of ISIS inmates," he says. "They convinced me of their ideas. Their ideology of creating a caliphate is the best, and I decided to join them in their fight."

The prison break gave him the opportunity to make good on his word. It was a massive operation: Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed that it used suicide bombers, rocket-propelled grenades, and 12 car bombs in the assault on the Abu Ghraib compound, freeing over 500 inmates. According to the Iraqi government, 29 security personnel were killed in the attack.

"The higher-ups within ISIS knew beforehand that Abu Ghraib would be stormed by our comrades," he claims. "So shortly before the attack, we started a huge riot from inside the jail to distract the guards. The mujahideen then entered the prison."

After breaking free, Abu Omar sought refuge in Iraq's western province of Anbar, the traditional heartland of Iraq's Sunnis. The area was once the center of an Islamist insurgency against the U.S. troop presence, and in more recent years it has become a hotbed of resistance to Iraq's Shiite-led government and a crucial gathering point for jihadists bound for Syria.

Abu Omar stayed for a couple of weeks in an ISIS camp set up in Anbar. The camp's leaders provided him with military training and showed him rousing videos of jihadi speeches and operations within Syria.

Later, Syrian jihadists visited the camp. "They explained to us about jihad in Syria," Abu Omar says. "I decided to go there because mosques are being destroyed and Muslim women are being killed by the kafir [unbelievers]."

He considers jihad in Syria "holier" than jihad in Iraq -- a view he says is shared by other extremist fighters. "The Quran and the hadiths already predicted that Satan will be defeated in Damascus," he says.

After Abu Omar made up his mind to leave for jihad in Syria, he was given a cell phone by an Iraqi ISIS member whom he refers to as "my handler." Abu Omar is only allowed to call one number -- that of his handler. The handler, meanwhile, uses his phone only to call Abu Omar's number. It's a precaution designed to protect the jihadi network -- if Abu Omar or his handler is under observation, the authorities can only find one contact from each man's phone.

Before he left for Syria, Abu Omar decided to visit a barber and shave his beard. This way he would not stand out as a religious man. Clean-shaven, he traveled north to Iraq's Kurdish region, snuck into the part of northern Syria controlled by the Kurdish rebels, and then illegally crossed the border into Turkey.

Abu Omar's handler told him to travel to the Turkish city of Gaziantep and gave him the address of an ISIS safe house there. He stayed for a couple of days at the safe house, where he met fellow ISIS members who entrusted him with $10,000. "This money is meant for the mujahideen of Syria. I'll bring it to them," Abu Omar explains.

The day after Abu Omar went shopping, his phone rang again. "Please know that you will go tomorrow to Syria," he says his handler told him. "Be ready; somebody will pick you up."

On Sept. 18, Abu Omar was taken by a Syrian ISIS contact to the Turkish border town of Kilis, just a stone's throw away from Syria. After illegally crossing the border into Syrian territory, he kissed the ground and prayed. Five minutes later, his new comrades picked him up and drove him to the nearby town of Azaz, where he disappeared into the fog of Syria's war.

Photo: Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images