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Hezbollah, Hamas aided 2011 Mursi jailbreak

A Hezbollah flag flutters during a ceremony in southern Lebanon. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

CAIRO: An Egyptian court said Sunday that Muslim Brotherhood members conspired with Hezbollah, Hamas and local militants to storm a prison in 2011 and free 34 Brotherhood leaders, including the future President Mohammad Mursi, as well as at least one top Hezbollah operative. The court statement read by judge Khaled Mahgoub named two members of Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood – Ibrahim Haggag and Sayyed Ayad – as being among the alleged conspirators in the attack on Wadi el-Natroun prison on Jan. 29, 2011.

It is the first statement by a court that holds members of the three Islamist groups – the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah – responsible for a series of jailbreaks during the chaos of Egypt’s 2011 uprising. Two other prisons in which Hamas and Hezbollah members were held were also attacked.

Hezbollah officials confirmed shortly after that Hezbollah cell leader Mohammad Youssef Ahmad Mansour, who went by the name Sami Shihab, was among those freed.

Shihab, who was tasked with smuggling weapons into the Gaza Strip, had been sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of plotting attacks against Egyptian tourist sites frequented by Israelis, and of smuggling weapons into the Gaza Strip. He was imprisoned along with some 22 other alleged Hezbollah members, but the group never confirmed how many of them managed to escape apart from Shihab.

Mursi and other Brotherhood leaders have maintained that they were freed by local residents. Hamas, the Palestinian chapter of the Brotherhood, has denied involvement in the attacks on prisons.

Mursi has not spoken publicly about his escape from Wadi el-Natroun prison since he gave an account of what happened in a frantic phone call he made to Al-Jazeera Mubasher TV moments after being freed.

“From the noises we heard ... It seemed to us there were [prisoners] attempting to get out of their cells and break out into the prison yard and the prison authorities were trying to regain control and fired tear gas,” Mursi said in the call.

By the time they got out, the prison was empty, and there was no sign of a major battle, he said.

The prison breaks took place during the 18-day popular uprising that toppled the 29-year regime of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The breaks led to a flood of some 23,000 criminals onto the streets, fueling a crime wave that continues to this day. Among those who escaped were around 40 members of Hamas and Hezbollah as well as the 34 Brotherhood leaders.

A total of 26 top police, prison and intelligence officials have testified before the court, which held its hearings in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia. Some gave their testimony in closed session.

Haggag and Ayad, the two Brotherhood officials named by Mahgoub, took part in the attack on Wadi el-Natroun with “those [foreign] elements who violated the sovereignty of the Egyptian state and its territory in addition to spreading chaos throughout the republic and terrifying unarmed civilians at their homes by releasing thousands of prisoners who are danger to society,” the court statement said.

In Egypt’s polarized political climate, Mursi’s opponents have been using his escape from Wadi el-Natroun prison against him, saying friends of the Brotherhood violated the country’s security and fed its instability.

The eagerness of some in the intelligence and security agencies to blame Hamas could in part reflect resentment of the Brotherhood’s ties with the militant group, which they have long seen as a threat.

The Wadi el-Natroun prison in which Mursi and his Brotherhood comrades were held is part of a four-jail complex northwest of Cairo. A total of 11,171 inmates were released from the complex. Thirteen inmates were also killed, according to Mahgoub, who said the attackers used machine guns mounted on pickup trucks and SUVs as well as huge earth-moving vehicles that demolished parts of the walls and gates.

Mahgoub said the attackers also seized large amounts of firearms belonging to prison guards. He said allies of Hamas in Sinai prepared for the entry of its fighters into the Egyptian peninsula with attacks on Jan. 25, 2011, against security forces on the Sinai side of tunnels running under the border with Hamas-ruled Gaza. Fighters from Hamas and Hezbollah crossed into Egypt on Jan. 28, he said.

The 34 Brotherhood leaders were arrested early on Jan. 27 and arrived in Wadi el-Natroun shortly before their escape, Mahgoub said.

The last two hearings of the trial witnessed scuffles between supporters and opponents of Mursi. Sunday’s hearing was held amid tight security with stringent control over who gets to enter the tiny courtroom.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 24, 2013, on page 4.

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