CAIRO — Tora prison, a sprawling detention complex on the outskirts of Cairo, suddenly has become a symbol of the abrupt reversal of fortune Egypt's political elite has suffered in the aftermath of President Hosni Mubarak's ouster.
Tora cellblocks now house Mubarak's prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, his longtime chief of staff, Zakaria Azmi, his interior minister, Habib el Adly, the chairman of his National Democratic Party, Safwat Sherif, and his friend and longtime supporter, steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz.
And, as of Wednesday, his two sons, Gamal, his one-time heir apparent, and Alaa, a businessman, who each received "four blankets, two mattresses and four white inmate uniforms" as they began a 15-day stay for questioning on corruption allegations, according to the state-backed Ahram newspaper.
"They can have an NDP conference in there," cracked Heba Morayef, a researcher at the Cairo office of Human Rights Watch.
With Mubarak also detained for questioning in a military hospital. Egypt's stop-and-go revolution seemed once again back on, driven by the demands of protesters who gathered in huge numbers over the weekend to pressure Egypt's slow-moving military rulers on the issue.
The military's announcement of Mubarak's detention came as protesters were planning a potentially disruptive rally in Sharm el Sheikh, a Red Sea resort popular with foreign tourists. The former first family has lived in seclusion there since the fall of the regime two months ago.
"The detention of Mubarak and both his sons, investigating them and having them submit to questioning, is the first step toward rebuilding confidence between the military council and the people," said Shaimaa Hamdi, 23, a pro-democracy activist who belongs to a group called Youth Movement for Justice and Freedom.
Mubarak isn't expected to join the familiar faces in Tora; the former president suffered a mild heart attack this week, so his 15-day detention will be served at a military hospital, state media reported. He and his family are banned from travel, and their assets are frozen.
The strict treatment of 82-year-old Mubarak is unprecedented for a former Arab ruler, but Egyptians say they have little sympathy for an autocrat who kept a three-decade stranglehold on this country of 80 million people. Noting Mubarak's poor health, many Egyptians worried that he could die or become incapacitated without ever having to answer publicly for his alleged crimes.
Earlier this week, the Arabic-language al Arabiya satellite television news channel aired a prerecorded audio message from Mubarak, his first remarks since stepping down, in which he denied that he'd abused his office to amass wealth and property. He said the accusations against him were false and "aimed to ruin" his reputation.
"I want to ask Mubarak a question in court," said Makram Aziz, 50, a security guard. "I want to ask him where he was when all those businessmen were stealing the country's resources and using their powers and connections. Where was he when the people were being oppressed?"
The Egyptian public is captivated by stories of their erstwhile rulers languishing in the same prison where the regime had kept scores of Islamists, political dissidents and other anti-regime figures.
No detail is too small for Egyptian reporters to ferret out — the Mubarak brothers refused breakfast Wednesday and requested bottled water from the prison cafeteria, one local paper reported. They had to turn in their cell phones and civilian clothes. When they climbed out of the prison van at Tora, the Ahram newspaper reported, "they were met with a number of angry comments from bystanders."
While Tora isn't by any means Egypt's worst prison, conditions there are still rough, said prisoner rights advocates. Magda Boutros, who studies prisons for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said Tora has several wings and, like other prisons, faced overcrowding and a lack of hygiene services.
Few expect the Mubaraks and their associates to face the typically harsh Egyptian prison experience, however.
"The part of Tora where the VIPs go is where the political prisoners were usually sent. It's the most comfortable part of the prison," Boutros said. "I wouldn't be too worried."
Some skeptics questioned whether the brothers really were in prison, wondering whether the news was just propaganda from military rulers whose popular support is fading fast.
In the past few weeks, the military has come under criticism for mass arrests, subjecting civilians to military trial, and allegations of torture. Meanwhile, progress has been sluggish in the prosecution of regime officials, who face charges in connection with corruption and the killings of protesters during the uprising.
"I only believe what I see, and all I see now are fake trials without a single sentence, so I'm waiting for real change," said Salah Eddin Badr, 54, a shopkeeper. "Plus, why are ordinary people being put in military court and sentenced in one day while others from the corrupt regime are being investigated for weeks and months while they enjoy their lives in palaces or prison?"
That question was echoed by 26-year-old Hani Maher Hanna, who was swept up in a mass arrest of protesters March 9 in Tahrir Square. He and up to 170 others were charged with "disrupting public order" and sentenced to three years in prison after a brief military trial. He spoke to McClatchy by telephone from his cell at Red Scorpion prison, which is in the same vicinity as the Tora complex.
Conditions were good and guards looked the other way as inmates used smuggled-in cell phones, Hanna said, but the March 9 group is still seething with the injustice of their detention because "the army didn't distinguish between revolutionaries and thugs."
News of the Mubarak brothers' arrest only deepened their outrage at a situation in which the army rounded up the former rulers as well as the young protesters who toppled them.
"As for the arrest of Gamal and Alaa, this should've happened at the beginning of the revolution. Instead, they stayed in their villas and palaces under the protection of their bodyguards and government authorities," Hanna said. "Instead of the government arresting the corrupt regime's members, they arrested us for peacefully protesting."
(Special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed.)
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