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Egyptians on Mubarak: 'We never expected this'

Mohamed Muslemany/ NBC News

Egyptians in Cairo's Tahrir Square cheer the news that former President Hosni Mubarak has been detained while his alleged crimes are investigated on Wednesday.

CAIRO – Hours after it was announced that Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak and his sons Alaa and Gamal had been detained, an animated crowd gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to discuss the news.

Mubarak, swept out after nearly 30 years in power by an 18-day people’s revolt, is being detained in a Sharm el-Sheikh hospital while he is investigated on accusations of corruption and abuse of authority. Investigators are looking into the killing of protesters during the popular uprising, the embezzlement of public funds and abuse of power. His sons are also being held in Tora Prison near a suburb of Cairo. They have all denied any wrongdoing. 

Abdullah Gad, a government employee, said he came every Friday to protest during the revolution. He was so happy when he woke up to the news of Mubarak’s detention that he hopped on a train and traveled two hours to Tahrir Square. His wife, a teacher, left work to celebrate with family. 

“I am very, very happy,” said Gad. “The best thing is that his sons went [to jail] before him because they are the reason for the destruction of this country.” He added: “I hope he is sentenced to death… He was no good. He killed people.”

Those comments were echoed by others in the square.

“I am so happy. It’s like a dream,” said a member of the Youth for Change group who wanted to remain anonymous. “We never expected this. We were only insisting that the regime be changed. The process should move quickly so that we can regain stability and prove that the military is serious about the process.”

Mohamed Abdel Rahman works in the oil sector and believes that Mubarak lined his pockets with profits from the industry.

“We used to pray we would not find oil because the profits went to foreign oil companies and the price of oil and gas was kept low. The money from the Suez Canal, oil and gas, gold mines was transferred to the presidency,” said Abdel Rahman. “The occupation of Egypt for 300 years did not top what Mubarak did in 30. He managed to destroy national unity.”

“Mubarak can’t fool the people” said Mahmoud Shahin, a public relations director, who thinks the former president is faking illness to avoid incarceration. “If the doctors say he is sick, we will know they are collaborating with him.” 

Sabry, who didn’t give his last name, applauded the detentions but warned that the focus on imprisoning ex-officials while allowing the economy to flounder would only hurt the majority. “They will keep arresting one after another. Who will remain? There is nothing left, no work, no food for the kids. I have nothing! After ten years everybody will be arrested and there will be five million without food.”

A show of hands among the 20 bystanders who had gathered to discuss Mubarak with this reporter showed the vast majority in support of the death penalty. 

One lone voice, a sweet-faced university student, spoke up for the former leader.

“Mubarak must be innocent because he never fled Egypt,” he reasoned.
 
A half-mile away, a small demonstration of about 30 people rallied for Mubarak’s innocence in front of the Egyptian state television building.

“The people want the freedom of the president,” they chanted, protesting Mubarak’s detention.  

“He was our president for 30 years. We should first look at the good he has done. There was a conspiracy against him,” a young woman with tears in her eyes defiantly insisted.

“We lived in security when he was there,” said housewife Faten Awa. She blamed a recent rise in crime on Mubarak’s absence. “My house has been robbed. Cars are being stolen, girls are being raped, they have allowed the thugs on us. We want the president back.”

But Ahmed Maher, a leader of the April 6 opposition movement that helped engineer the revolution who was reached by phone, saw the judicial decision as a validation and a warning to other Arab despots.

“We were living for this moment, and because of the arrests and oppression we faced, we knew this day was coming. This is a great message to other leaders. They should know if the revolution starts, nothing will stop it.”  

Related link: NBC's Richard Engel answers readers questions about the Middle East