Jonathan Wright worked for Reuters between 1979 to 2010 as a correspondent in the Middle East, Africa and the United States. He began his Reuters career in Egypt and was standing meters from President Anwar Sadat when he was assassinated by Islamist soldiers in 1981.
By Jonathan Wright
CAIRO (Reuters) - This time people leapt for joy, hugged their neighbors and in unison cried “Freedom” and “God is Great.” They waved their Egyptian flags, beat their drums and headed downtown for the party of a generation.
It was a very different scene I witnessed 30 years ago when Egypt last lost a president with the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, which brought Hosni Mubarak to power.
On Friday, the day Mubarak bowed to popular pressure and resigned, the streets outside the presidential palace in northeast Cairo were packed with jubilant crowds, celebrating the success of the popular uprising.
Fireworks lit up the sky and passing cars honked their horns. Groups of young men posed in front of the army’s armored personnel carriers for pictures snapped by mobile phone.
I walked the same streets of the same Cairo suburb of Heliopolis on October 6, 1981, the day I saw Sadat’s body carried out of the back of the grandstand where Islamist militants gunned him down at a military parade.
That day the streets of Cairo were tense and shocked. In the absence of satellite television, mobile phones and the Internet, information travelled slowly and most Egyptians knew very little about what had happened at the parade ground.
I was sitting about 50 meters (yards) to the left of Sadat and Mubarak, then his vice president, both dressed in the fancy Prussian-style uniforms which Sadat favored. When Sadat arrived I noticed his high-heeled cowboy boots, not standard issue but another sign of the man’s sartorial flamboyance.
The army vehicles trundled past, celebrating the performance of the Egyptian armed forces in the Middle East war of 1973, regarded in Egypt as a victory.
Then suddenly one truck stopped. A group of men jumped out of the back and ran toward the podium where Sadat was sitting.
I must have been looking in another direction, maybe at the Mirage fighters swooping down toward the grandstand with colored smoke streaming out behind them.
Then a grenade exploded. This was not part of the normal, predictable act. It was followed by bursts of automatic rifle fire. By then the people behind and above me on the grandstand were taking cover on the floor and metal chairs were spilling down on top of me. I put my arms over my head and crawled away.
When I reached the left end of the grandstand I looked back toward where Sadat had been sitting and saw a scene of pandemonium. I did not know it at the time, but Sadat and 11 others were killed and many injured in the shooting.
Wary of the mayhem and of so many men with guns, I walked briskly around the back of the stadium and ran into a cluster of men in suits carrying a body wrapped in blankets. One was waving a pistol and shouting “Out of the way. The president’s been hit.” I could see Sadat’s distinctive bald crown and the same cowboy boots protruding from either end of the blankets.
I put my hands up and edged to the side as they put the body in a waiting helicopter, its rotors already spinning. The helicopter took off and headed south.
I finally found a telephone at the gatehouse to a company’s compound and the guard let me use it. I told my colleague what I had seen, saying Sadat was wounded and had left by helicopter.
All the streets were closed to traffic for the parade and there was not a taxi in sight, so I set off on foot, finally finding a ride to nearby Heliopolis.
As news of the shooting spread through the city, an atmosphere of gloom and anxiety descended. Sadat’s last weeks had already been traumatic, with mass arrests and long speeches in which Sadat ranted against his enemies.
Hosni Mubarak, who appeared on television later the same day, his hand bandaged from a minor injury he suffered, was a reassuring presence for many Egyptians in troubled times.
As usual in such cases, many predicted he would not last long. A former air force commander, he had little political experience and showed few signs of ambition.
But ruling Egypt became a habit. He never showed any sign that he had any vision of how to steer the country away from the autocratic system he inherited. He said he was merely serving his country but he thought himself indispensable and belittled the qualifications of anyone who challenged him.
As Mubarak aged and new ideas spread among a fresh generation of networked young Egyptians, Mubarak’s paternalistic and authoritarian approach was harder and harder to sustain.
When Tunisians overthrew President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January, Egyptians suddenly realized what was possible. The popular uprising against Mubarak began on January 25 and gathered pace as the barriers of fear came down.
Right up his to last full day in power, Mubarak was offering Egyptians what he offered in 1981 and throughout his reign: stability at any price. In the end Egyptians said the price was too high to pay. Instead they shouted “Freedom” and rejoiced.
editing by David Stamp