Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Decadence, Arab politics and Islamism
Sex, sleaze and sheikhs
By Kanchan Gupta
What does a modern-day sheikh with oodles of money, lots of connections in high places and political immunity do when his mistress flees his harem after sharing his bed for three years? In times gone by, the jilted sheikh would have had the anatomically deficient keeper of the harem decapitated, summoned his chief spy and ordered him to track down the woman, drag her to his court and have her flogged before doing other unspeakable things to her, for instance, burying her neck-deep in the desert and letting loose scorpions to feed on her pretty face.
But such delights are denied to the rich and the famous Arabs who hold court in today’s Arabia and count their money in billions of dollars. So, Hisham Talaat Moustafa, whose personal wealth is believed to be more than $ 6 billion, earned through real estate projects, head of the awesome Talaat Moustafa Group spanning across Arab countries, decided to settle for something more discreet but equally deadly after his mistress, the stunningly beautiful, green-eyed Lebanese pop star Suzanne Tamim, left him some months ago. He ordered a contract killing.
The man chosen for the job was Mohsen el-Sukkary, chief of security at the opulent Four Seasons Hotel at the Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh, jointly owned by Hisham Talat Moustafa and Saudi Arabian Prince Al-Walid Bin Talal. Sukkary, a former member of the Egyptian security services, probably the mukhabarat, was trained for the task. The fee was settled at $ 2 million, a mind-boggling amount for a former Government employee who perhaps retired with a salary of 400 Egyptian pounds, which would be less than Rs 4,000.
Sukkary tracked Suzanne Tamim to London, but could not accomplish his mission in that city. He then trailed her to Dubai, where she had purchased a luxury apartment in the plush Marina Complex. On July 28, Sukkary, posing as an employee of the agency from whom Suzanne Tamim had purchased the property, entered her apartment and slit her throat. He casually walked out of the complex, dumped his clothes in a garbage bin and took a flight to Cairo.
Meanwhile in Dubai, the police went through the footage of the security camera recording, zeroed in on Sukkary, found the discarded bloodstained clothes, ran a DNA test and despatched a team to Cairo, armed with incontrovertible evidence. Moustafa had overlooked the fact that mukhabarat thugs have brawn but lack brains. Sukkary had mistakenly thought that as in Cairo, security cameras are no more than non-functional gadgets meant to impress people.
Confronted with the evidence, Egyptian officials assisted the Dubai police to arrest Sukkary in late August. Suzanne Tamim was a popular singer and the scandal too big to be suppressed. The man, after getting a taste of what he had meted out to others while still in the mukhabarat, sang like a canary. The Dubai police wanted to arrest Moustafa. The Egyptian officials baulked.
IN Egypt, businessmen in the big league are treated with kid gloves. They have direct access to the presidential palace and their deals are cleared only after, or so it is believed, President Hosni Mubarak’s elder son, Alaa, gives his approval. That assent is not an act of charity and political protection is not a one-night affair.
In Moustafa’s case, the story did not end there. As a member of the ruling National Democratic Party’s Supreme Policies Council and deputy chairman of the Economic Affairs Committee of the Shura Council, the upper House of Egypt’s Parliament, he not only enjoyed political immunity but close proximity to Gamal Mubarak, younger son of Hosni Mubarak and heir apparent to the throne his father has occupied for close to 28 years.
But the Dubai police were unrelenting. The United Arab Emirates, having embarked on a drive to crack down on crime and corruption, wanted to make an example of this case. The Arab media was running lurid stories. The palace did a quick calculation and came to the conclusion that Moustafa was dispensable, if only to shore up Hosni Mubarak’s fading image and deprive the Muslim Brotherhood of yet another stick to beat the regime with.
And so Moustafa was stripped of his parliamentary immunity, arrested and packed off to jail. He has been charged with a crime that could fetch him the death sentence. Even if he were to get off with a lesser punishment, he has been ruined for life – the political clout and prestige he enjoyed will never be his again.
This is not the first time that the high and mighty have been felled by the palace. When I was working in Cairo a few years ago, there was a similar sex and sleaze scandal involving Hossam Aboul Fotouh, multi-billionaire importer of luxury cars. He had used his connections with Alaa and the palace to secure loans from Banque de Caire, which he of course did not bother to pay back; there were other rip-offs, apart from gargantuan tax evasion.
Spicy stories of his corrupt ways and links with the Mubarak clan began to appear in newspapers over which the Government had no control. When the scandal could not be covered up despite the best efforts of the presidency, Fotouh was arrested. But that did not silence the Government’s critics, most of them Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers.
So, to discredit Fotouh and distract attention from his financial misdemeanours, the mukhabarat leaked a tape in the market, of which there was greater demand than copies could be made. It showed Fotouh having torrid sex with famous belly dancer Dina in his villa at upmarket Maadi. Cairenes could not have enough of the sleaze, the real story disappeared from the front pages, the Mubarak clan was spared criticism, and Fotouh’s conviction a couple of years later went almost unnoticed, as did the virtual collapse of Banque de Caire.
THE larger story that emerges from the sleazy details of the scandals involving powerful business barons like Moustafa and Fotouh is one of how Governments function in Arab countries, of the culture of wasta without which survival is almost impossible, leave alone success, and the strained relationship between the palace, or the elite, and the street, the masses. This larger story also explains why Islamism is gaining ground in Arab countries where Islamists view the decadence of the rich and the corrupt ways of the powerful with scornful disdain. When they preach “Islam is the solution”, the seething masses are more than willing to believe them.
Across the Maghreb and the Mashreq, with Egypt straddling the divide, the culture of wasta is the prevalent force: It is not material what or who you are; what is important is whom you know. If you face a problem or a run-in with the authorities, unless you know somebody who knows somebody powerful who knows somebody very powerful, you are in real trouble.
And if you are an entrepreneur or a trader or an investor, you begin with getting your wasta network in place. Once that is done, the right connections are established, nothing or nobody can stop you. And, if the right connections give you access to the presidents, kings, sheikhs and emirs, or their progeny or even their second cousins twice removed, you can soar high. This explains the success of Moustafa and Fotouh, and many others like them who form the wafer thin upper crust of Arab society.
In sprawling countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Moustafas and the Fotouhs remain unseen, shadowy figures who are talked about in hushed tones in smoke-filled cafes. Their dalliances with actresses, singers and belly dancers are the subject of public gossip and much envy, even in staid Saudi Arabia.
The mutaween try to regulate, albeit with decreasing success and at times with horrifying results, the sexual habits and preferences of men and women. During one of my visits to Jeddah, a friend told me how the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which is the official name of the Saudi religious police, has managed to achieve the opposite.
The mutaween may delight in its power to enforce shari’ah, which includes forcing people to pray and businesses to shut down five times a day, but its clout does not extend beyond Saudi Arabia. The princes and their acolytes would earlier head for Monaco, the French Riviera and the Côte d’Azur to live the high life of decadence. The last of the rich still haunt these places; the new rich head for Dubai; those who have fallen on bad days find solace in Bangkok and Manila.
THE glittering, shimmering skyline of Dubai announces the emergence of this former sleepy fishing village, from where dhows would leave for Indian shores laden with contraband, as a formidable power city. Here luxury is defined by million-dollar hotel suites, towering chrome-and-glass skyscrapers where billion-dollar deals are signed by the minute, and fabulous villas, which have jewel-encrusted taps and gold-plated commodes, built on land reclaimed from the sea, with manicured lawns that require a constant drizzle of imported water that is otherwise sold in bottles for human consumption.
After darkness descends and the nightclubs come alive, the Moustafas and the Fotouhs of Arab countries, along with Dubai’s resident Arab elite, the people who work the levers of political power and economic clout, make a crass display of their wealth and might. Hundred thousand dollar bottles of Dom Perignon Pink Gold are uncorked for no other purpose than to spray giggling women attired in haute couture.
This is a lifestyle that Dubai’s authorities first promoted with great enthusiasm. They are now trying to curb it with equal zeal. The last thing the UAE wants is the emergence of radical Islamism on its soil; this is not an impossibility, with the expanding underclass becoming increasingly resentful of the decadent ways of those with wasta – and cash. Dubai is not the UAE.
Hence the crackdown on crime and the pursuit of criminals as powerful and well-connected as Moustafa. Hence also the permission accorded by the Mubarak regime: Since 2005, there has been a surge in the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity as Egyptians, 80 per cent of whom belong to the low-income group and 40 per cent are estimated to be living below the poverty line, discover merit in Hassan al-Banna’s denunciation of the decadent ways of the monarchy and the pashas that have resurfaced to taunt the deprived in a more deplorable form, this time as a powerful mix of sleaze, money and politics, with doses of Western ‘modernism’.
The Arab street is deeply religious. The people are rooted in tradition and culture of which they are fiercely proud. There is also an admirable heightened sense of haram that pits the street against the palace, which is perceived as having lost its moral compass, thus paving the way for what one writer has described as “Western political machinations… (that) have parallels in the social and cultural sphere”.
The West, most notably the US, is seen, and increasingly so, by the Arab street as conspiring with the Arab palace to “strip the nation of its ‘identity and values’, to steer people away from religion and to ‘destroy the Muslim family’.”
Perception and reality may not match, but in the end it is perception that prevails over reality, more so in a society driven by intrigue and unprepared, if not unwilling, to cope with the 21st century. The Arab palace is guilty of keeping the Arab street poor and poorly educated to perpetuate the rule of a corrupt and dissolute elite.
The heat of the blowback has begun to singe the worn-out fabric of social stability. The Sunni Arab palace now faces the spectre of radical Islam feting the Hizbullah and holding up Shia Iran as a desirable model of Islamic republicanism.
HASSAN al-Banna had a simple, faith-based solution to the moral, social and political crisis of his time: “Allah is our objective, the Quran is our Constitution, the Prophet is our leader, Jihad is our way, and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations”. That was in 1928.
Two decades later, Sayyid Qutb, appalled by the “deviant chaos and the endless means of satisfying animalistic desires, pleasures and awful sins”, seconded the views of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, urging the use of “physical power and jihad for abolishing the organisations and authorities of the jahili system”. Seven years ago this month, Mohammed Atta, by all accounts a good boy from a good middle-class class Cairo family, flew a hijacked aircraft into the World Trade Center.
It is this revulsion with a system that promotes a few by suppressing the aspirations of the many, a system that is common to all Arab countries, barring perhaps Jordan – where King Abdullah has been making earnest attempts with limited success to break with the past – the culture of wasta that frustrates those who do not know anybody who knows somebody powerful who knows somebody very powerful that contributed to the making of Ayman al-Zawahiri as the second-in-command of Al Qaeda, the most trusted confidant of Osama bin Laden.
Together they have forged a theme that drives political Islam today and finds a resonance from the Maghreb to the Mashreq among the poor and the poorly educated: Oust decadent regimes, cleanse Arabia of West’s moral rot (symbolised by the Moustafas, the Fotouhs and their sugar daddies) and restore the primacy of Islam as a guarantor of equality and justice.
Hosni Mubarak, for all his perceived faults a ‘secularist’ in the Nasser mould, a ‘pragmatist’ like Anwar Sadat, and a ‘modernist’ who believes democracy must follow development, as is Gamal waiting to take over from his father, can hear the resonance in Egypt. He has banned religious parties and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood. He has introduced political reforms and made elections a participatory process. But that has not halted the march of Islamism.
It is possible that he – more likely it is Gamal -- is now trying to cleanse the system and rid it of parasites like Moustafa. That would explain the powerful businessman’s fall from grace for a crime that would have raised no more than a twitter of mild rebuke in the not-too-distant past.
The pharaohs of Egypt rarely spoke although scribes made copious records on papyrus. They interpreted the momentary raising of eyebrows, the fleeting scowl, the pursing of lips and the casual flick of the wrist. The smallest gesture was the highest command.
For all we know, the reigning pharaoh of Egypt has made his gesture.
Sunday Pioneer, September 14, 2008