In a country where the rich and well-connected are virtually untouchable, a judge entered his courtroom in Cairo just two weeks before President Barack Obama’s visit. He was there to announce a life-or-death decision with broad implications for the future of Egypt, a prominent American ally in the Middle East. It involved the fate of local real-estate magnate Hisham Talaat Moustafa, who was charged with ordering the murder of his former mistress, popular Lebanese pop singer Suzanne Tamim.
Few people in Moustafa’s entourage – or in Egypt as a whole – imagined he was really at risk. With a net worth believed to approach $1 billion, Moustafa was, until recently, a member of Egypt’s upper house of parliament, and he is close to the family of President Hosni Mubarak in a country where proximity matters. In short, Moustafa is the kind of man who people in Egypt believe can get away with murder.
Throughout its history, the Egyptian moneyed elite have literally been able to get away with murder. But this case got too big to stage manage.
And what a murder it was. Last July 28, a man named Mohsen al-Sukari entered a luxury apartment tower at the Jumeirah Beach Residence in an exclusive marina-front neighborhood of Dubai. He talked the gorgeous, 30-year-old pop diva into opening the door of her apartment, then stabbed her repeatedly and slit her throat. Within 12 minutes of his arrival, he was gone, but his haste may have been his downfall. He left with traces of Tamim’s blood on his clothes, and his face was caught on security cameras. After his arrest, Sukari told authorities that Moustafa, his former boss, had paid him $2 million for the hit.
Investigators later obtained recordings of conversations in which Moustafa ordered the hit man to push Tamim out the window of her 21st-floor apartment. But even those did not guarantee that Moustafa would be prosecuted. Egypt doesn’t extradite its citizens, and its own courts take their cues from a powerful elite that controls both business and politics in the country. Moustafa is a prominent member of that elite; Tamim, in contrast, was seen as little more than an exotic plaything, easily discarded.
Across the Middle East, however, she was more than that. Soon after gaining fame in a 1996 appearance on the local equivalent of American Idol (a Lebanese TV show called Studio al-Fan), Tamim became that sultry singer that teenage girls wanted to be like, and that countless men simply wanted. Her videos, replete with crotch shots and hip gyrations, might look tame on Western MTV, but they remain risqué for most of the Middle East.
Egyptians, disgusted by the killing, were happily surprised when Moustafa’s parliamentary immunity was stripped last fall. After all, the opposition newspapers that initially reported that evidence pointed toward a prominent Egyptian official simply disappeared the night before they went on sale. And five reporters were later fined merely for writing about the case, even as journalists elsewhere in the Middle East fixated on the salacious crime, publishing articles – along with graphic photos of the slain pop star -- that Egyptians accessed on the Internet.
On May 21 the public was stunned to learn that Moustafa was sentenced to hang. When the sentence was read, the courtroom erupted in chaos as the accused’s employees, friends, and family sat in shock, wept, or shouted their disbelief. At least two people fainted. Moustafa, who had written a letter asserting his innocence before the trial (saying he was being victimized because of his success in business), sat expressionless in a barred cage in his prison jumpsuit. (Sukari, the hit man, who was also sentenced to the gallows, simply stared at pages of the Koran.)
Moustafa’s conviction suggests that Egypt – which is routinely bashed in the U.S. State Department’s human-rights rankings for rampant torture, abuse of political prisoners, censorship, and an unwillingness to hold legitimate elections--is being dragged toward the 21st century by a confluence events in the region.
For one thing, the riveting crime encouraged an increasingly competitive national and regional press to communicate across national borders, despite the best efforts of Egyptian authorities, who are unable to wrap their censors around the Internet. It helped, too, that Moustafa’s jet-setting three-year affair with Tamim happened on three continents, which made it difficult for Cairo to squelch the story, as it might have done for a murder committed at home.
But the most crucial element surely is the growing clout of Dubai, the self-consciously 21st-century epicenter of the United Arab Emirates, which is also a key investor in Egypt. The emirate, which has arisen on a pharaonic scale from the desert in less than a generation, thanks in part to international investment, faces multiple challenges in this global recession. It is eager to assure these investors that it respects the rule of law, and to demonstrate that it is not a place where a young woman can be murdered with impunity in the sort of luxury apartment building where many expatriates live.
So Dubai put the squeeze on Egypt, in a move that pitted a declining old-school Arab state’s culture of influence against a modern Arab nation’s need for justice. “And Egypt sacrificed one of their own,” according to Tariq Elseewi, an Arab media scholar in the University of Texas at Austin’s Communications Department. “Throughout its modern history, the Egyptian moneyed elite have literally been able to get away with murder,” he said. But this case “got too big to stage manage.”
President Obama’s scheduled visit on June 4 might also have been a factor, because this sentence appears to mitigate those years of bad human-rights report cards from the U.S. State Department, presenting a more open and just Egypt to the outside world.
After the Obama hoopla, it is still possible that Moustafa will be cleared. (Few Egyptians would be surprised.) His lawyers have vowed to appeal within the 60-day time limit. But if he hangs, it won’t really be because he ordered the murder of a Tamim; it will be because he did it beyond the borders of a world that he and his ilk still tightly control.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek Magazine since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel, Shake Girl, which was inspired by one of his articles. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Vibe, Le Courrier International, Salon, Los Angeles and others. He is based in Paris.