The Great Escape

20-05-2015 01:05 PM

Mervat Ayoub

The Egyptian media called it ‘the great escape’ and the term was swiftly picked up by the public to denote the escape from prison on 29 January 2011 of a number of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) members among whom was Muhammad Mursi who a year-and-a-half later, in June 2012, became Egypt’s President. He remained in office for one year and was overthrown on 3 July 2013 in the wake of massive public protest against him.

In the 1963 Hollywood blockbuster The Great Escape a group of Allied soldiers held in prison by the Nazis in WWII manage to escape under extraordinary conditions. In Egypt’s ‘great escape’, prisoners escaped prison, also under extraordinary conditions. But here the comparison ends. Whereas some 50 war hero prisoner escaped a Nazi high security prison in the film, the real-life escape from Egyptian prisons freed 11161 prisoners held for various crimes, among them 34 MB leaders. And while the great escape in the film was achieved through the concerted, innovative, near-miraculous efforts of the POWs; the escape in Egypt was engineered by Islamist Palestinians who bombed their way into the country through the notorious tunnels on the Egypt-Gaza border then broke into the prison to free the prisoners. Yet this truth remained a secret waiting to unfold.



Defendant acquitted
The story of the escape of the MB leaders from prison in 2011 may have remained a mystery had it not been for some strange twist of fate that, at first glance, appeared to have nothing to do with the MB. In a routine move, the Interior Ministry issued a directive to all its offices with the names of the fugitive prisoners in order to catch them. This was no easy task since turmoil then gripped the land as the Arab Spring set in, and lawlessness ran unchecked. Even though the police had practically been ‘defeated’ by the uprising and the military temporarily stepped in to maintain the law, rumours circulated that it was the Interior Ministry which had set free the prisoners in an attempt to prove to Egyptians that without the police there would be no peaceful, lawful Egypt. It took more than a year for the truth to leak out.

The police managed to catch 233 prisoners who had escaped in January 2011. They were prosecuted, tried, and returned to prison. One of them, however, took his case to the Appeals Court, claiming that he had been caught by error since he held the same name as one of the escaped prisoners. The case of Al-Sayed Attiya Muhammad Attiya was seen by the Ismailiya Court of Appeals by a judge whose name is now famed for courage: Judge Khaled al-Mahgoub.
Mr Attiya’s case was seen in January 2013; at that time Mr Mursi was President of Egypt. Mr Attiya was acquitted and the matter may have lain at that. But Judge Mahgoub made a stunning decision; he referred the entire folder of the case documents to the prosecution for investigation.

Massive operation
Judge Mahgoub said that, over 120 hours of 19 court sessions, the court had heard the testimony of 26 witnesses and scrutinised documents and CDs of the prison break and escape of the prisoners. All these, he said, led the court to acquit the defendant but, in the process, pointed at a massive operation behind the escape. Evidence, he said, revealed that this operation was executed jointly by foreign elements who belonged to the Palestinian Hamas, Ezz Eddin al-Qassam Brigades, the Palestinian Islamic Army (Gaish al-Islam), Hizbullah, and local Jihadi, Salafi, MB, and Bedouin local elements. The aim, Judge Mahgoub said, was to set free 34 leaders of the MB who were then held in prison. The investigations, he said, revealed that these leaders, among them Mr Mursi, had committed the crime of espionage by conspiring with the foreign movements and practicing terrorism against Egypt.
The investigations revealed that on the evening of 25 January 2011, the day that saw the initiation in Cairo of the Arab Spring uprising, some 50 persons belonging to the Sinai Bedouin attacked the police. They blocked the Rafah road, in North Sinai, using vehicles and all sorts of arms demanding the release of their friends or relatives held by the police on different criminal charges.
The unrest extended till 27 January when, at 11am, 27 vehicles converged on the spot of the unrest as well as some 500 individuals from Hamas, Gaish al-Islam, Hizbullah, and the Iranian revolutionary guard. They gathered in front of the police station at Sheikh Zuwayed near Rafah and started attacking the police station with stones and Molotov cocktails. At 5:30pm 800 more heavily armed militants, then another 900, joined in the fight firing canon fire at the police station. The police caught 15 of the attackers, among them several Palestinians.

The prison break
The armed battle between the Egyptian police and the Islamists escalated till 28 January. Coincidentally, this was the date when the Arab Spring uprising in Cairo turned violent, with the ‘revolutionists’ going on a torching spree of public buildings and police stations.
The court investigations, according to Judge Mahgoub, revealed that on that day the armed attackers in Sinai forced the Egyptian police back and occupied the 60km border between Egypt and Gaza. It must be noted that the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel allowed Egypt a very limited police force in central and eastern Sinai and no military.
The armed attackers broke into Egypt and headed towards the prisons in which the MB leaders and members were held, Judge Mahgoub said. On 29 January they attacked the prisons in a veritable armed battle, and took away the Palestinian, Takfiri, Jihadi, Salafi, and MB prisoners whom they quickly moved out of the country. Among those who were freed were the Hamas leader Ayman Abdullah Nofal, Hizbullah’s Muhammad al-Hadi, Sinai al-Qaeda’s Sami Shehab and Ramzy Muwafi, as well as the prominent MB leaders Muhammad Mursi, Saad al-Katatni, and Muhammad al-Beltagui.

Using Thuraya satellite cellular phones, the escapees contacted their friends and families in Egypt. Some said they were in Gaza, others in Lebanon. Mr Mursi talked to al-Jazeera channel. A recording still posted on YouTube carries his triumphant “I am talking to you from outside the prison walls”.


New Middle East
The key person to carry out the investigations Judge Mahgoub had recommended was Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Mabrouk of the National Security Apparatus. Lt. Col. Mabrouk followed threads that led to other threads that ran as far back as 2004. All revealed incriminating evidence of talks between MB leaders and foreign countries and movements especially the US, Turkey, and Qatar.

The revelations disclosed a MB-US conspiracy in which the MB were to be major players in the US New Middle East Project announced by the then Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in 2005. The implementation of her ‘creative chaos’ theory would be strongly aided by the MB.

As revealed by the investigations, talks between Mr Mursi and foreign intelligence officers and other MB leaders outside Egypt went into overdrive when the Tunisian Arab Spring revolt occurred in January 2011. Calls were intercepted between Mr Mursi and another MB leader resident in Turkey, Ahmed Muhammad Abdel-Ati, in which Mr Mursi said he had been approached by someone in the US intelligence who wished to know if the MB can play a role in mobilising the Egyptian street.

Lt. Col. Mabrouk’s investigations disclosed the active role the MB played in the Arab Spring uprising, starting well in advance by working up public discontent and anger at the Mubarak regime. It also revealed that the MB had in 2008 joined hands with Hamas to foster in Egypt cells that adopt Islamist thought and whose members are trained intellectually and militarily by Hamas. The aim was to use them to stoke unrest in the country; this was actively helped by Hizbullah elements.


Shot to death
Altogether, the investigations revealed how foreign powers planned to destroy then-existing regional regimes and replace them with new regimes in which the MB formed a common factor. The method: fostering local divisions; in case of Egypt by promoting a Muslim-Christian divide. The aim: to wipe out local independent national character in order to make it easy to carve out a new Middle East.

Lt. Col. Mabrouk was assassinated in November 2013, shot to death a few dozen metres away from his office.

Watani International
20 May 2015


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