The Murder, the Mogul and the Lost Immunity

The home page of the Talaat Moustafa Group (TMG) displays a picture of two people, who seem immensely satisfied with one another. To the left is U.S. President George W. Bush, and to his right, warmly pumping his hand, is Hisham Talaat Moustafa, then chairman of the largest real estate concern in Egypt and member of the Egyptian Shura council, the upper house of parliament. The two met in January at the Four Seasons in Sharm el-Sheikh, which was built by Moustafa's concern. Neither could have known then that in the same year, Moustafa would be arrested on suspicion of murdering Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim in a house Moustafa bought her in Dubai.

Tamim's suspected murderer is former police officer Mohsen El-Sukkary, who allegedly nabbed $2 million from Moustafa for the murder. Sukkary is known for his criminal past. He worked in Iraq for magnate Naguib Sawiris' giant electronics company and "initiated" several incidents, in which workers were kidnapped for ransom.

At the end of July, Sukkary knocked on Tamim's door, posing as Moustafa's representative, and told Tamim he had a message for her. When Tamim opened the door, he allegedly attacked her and stabbed her to death. Within days, Dubai detectives were able to follow the trail of evidence leading to Moustafa; they subsequently demanded that he be arrested and handed over to them. The police found the murderer had used a credit card to buy the murder weapon, the knife. Once caught, Sukkary admitted to the crime, implicating Moustafa in the process.

Egyptian authorities found themselves in a complicated dilemma when Moustafa's involvement was uncovered. They did not know whether to protect "their man," a close friend of Jamal Mubarak, the son of the president; relative of Susan Mubarak, the president's wife; business tycoon of the first order, and member of the policy planning committee of the ruling party - or to avoid a diplomatic conflict with a member of the United Arab Emirates and to arrest the magnate.

Crushing the censorship barrier

While the authorities were pondering what to do, a total news blackout was imposed on Moustafa's involvement in the murder; until last week, Egyptian papers could write about Tamim's career but under no circumstances could they mention the investigation. "The writing of news items and headlines at that time became a dangerous form of craftsmanship," a night editor in an opposition newspaper told this reporter. "I phrased everything in the form of a question: 'Is a most important businessman involved in the murder of Tamim? Will the government provide a haven for a senior murderer?' Perhaps in that way, the public would understand but would not enable the government to bring me to trial for violating the decree," he said.

But the censorship barrier was torn down last week by none other than the chief Egyptian prosecutor, Abdel Magid Mahmoud himself. Mahmoud published the fact of the arrest as well as the suspicions against those involved. As a result of the publication, the shares of the giant concern fell by 30 percent, bringing down in their wake the entire share market in Egypt.

In the days after that, the shock waves rippled out even further and the Egyptian stock exchange was teetering on the verge of total collapse. The economic forecasts were so bleak that the Egyptian government decided to intervene and to buy shares to restore the public's faith in the stock exchange.

There is no one explantion, to date, as to why Tamim was murdered. One of the assumptions is that Tamim had an argument with her second husband, Adel Maatouk, who was also her producer, after he charged her with embezzling funds and not sticking to her work contacts. Following that, it is thought, Tamim fled to Egypt where she met Moustafa. She subsequently divorced Maatouk and moved to Dubai.

Moustafa's associates are claiming Maatouk was behind the murder. But some Egyptian sources had a different version to share.

Their story is that Moustafa and Tamim were married according to the custom of "marriage in practice," a marriage that is not officially registered but to which both partners agree. They claim that the two then had an argument, apparently because Tamim had found a new lover. Moustafa, who was terrified that Tamim might enter a claim with a London court for half, or a considerable portion, of his fortune, then directed Sukkary to kill the singer. In any event, the Egyptian prosecution is certain at this stage that Moustafa is guilty.

Recordings of the telephone calls between Moustafa and Sukkary, which were obtained by the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, bear testimony to the murder plan, the sum of money paid and the manner in which Moustafa proposed the crime be carried out; "perhaps you'll push her over the porch?" Moustafa said in one of the conversations. Meanwhile there is no end to the reports that continue to pour in.

'Egypt had no choice'

The local papers report, among other things, that the murder was planned over a year ago and that Moustafa sent the murderer to London to follow the singer and track her moves.

Now Sukkary claims he tried to persuade Moustafa to make do with planting drugs in Tamim's house and reporting this to the Dubai authorities so she would be arrested, but he says that Moustafa turned down the suggestion and demanded that he kill her.

Moustafa is currently being held in the Sura Prison where other Egyptian businessmen are jailed for corruption.

He is awaiting the trial that is supposed to begin next week or at the beginning of the following week. If he is convicted, he faces a life sentence.

When all is said and done, the surprising thing in this affair is not the act of murder and the way in which it was so quickly solved, but rather the speed with which the authorities decided to bring Moustafa to trial - and their very willingness to arrest him altogether.

Some analysts in Egypt believe that the state had absolutely no choice. "In order to prevent a situation in which Egypt would have to respond to a demand on the part of the emirates to transfer Moustafa to them for trial, Egypt quickly decided to put him on trial itself," a journalist from the Al-Akhbar newspaper said.

The very idea of putting him on trial is new for the Egyptian public because until now they were used to seeing business magnates as people enjoying almost total immunity from the law.

It seems the murder trial will be fixating the citizens of Egypt and the Emirates even more than the Ramadan series playing on TV. And talking about TV, reports have it that Tamim's former husband is in negotiations with one of the largest TV networks to make a movie about the fallen singer.