Over the course of the coming week, dignitaries from around the globe will be arriving for the International Conference on Population and Development, their limos gliding down a grand circular drive lined by palm trees and a colorful cornucopia of national flags. They will stop at the VIP entrance to the conference center, a sleek white circular building featuring arched windows—a design reminiscent of a space-aged Roman Coliseum. When the passengers exit their cars, they’ll look out upon a wide expanse of green lawn and manicured trees. Peeking up above those treetops, they’ll be able to see the point of a contemporary pyramid marking Anwar Sadat’s grave—a poignant reminder of the risks those dignitaries will face when they enter this facility.
Egyptian president Sadat may have won the Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic efforts, but that didn’t save him from dying in a pool of his own blood when terrorists machine-gunned him as he sat a short distance from this conference center, watching a military parade. In the reviewing stand alongside Sadat that day were the future secretary-general of the UN, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and the man who would become the new president of Egypt before that day was done: Hosni Mubarak. Thirteen years later, as this Arab nation’s head of state, he would be responsible for protecting twenty thousand dignitaries from violence by the same type of fundamentalists who had murdered Anwar Sadat.
So for Mubarak—who had served as a military man for three decades, who had been seated just to the right of Sadat and watched him die, who had himself escaped multiple assassination attempts in his lucky thirteen years as president—the importance of security during ICPD was a very real concern, not just another perfunctory item on his administrative checklist. With four thousand journalists in town and the eyes of the international community focused on Cairo, he did not want any deaths—least of all his.
Part of the president’s strategy to prevent this was to station ten thousand armed troops around the city—circling the conference center, along the streets, at the airports—and to position soldiers and metal detectors at every hotel. A member of the U.S. delegation said the omnipresent security could border on the comical at times: “Our entire delegation and other invited guests spent one night on the Nile for dinner, a sort of relaxed evening. And ringing us on the river were police boats. They were just cruising around us, good and slow, making sure that nobody else came close.” In the meantime the leader of the U.S. team, Tim Wirth, wore a bullet-proof vest under his suit jacket.
Stirling Scruggs, as one of the UNFPA spokespersons handling the conference, remembered being coached on what to do in case someone was killed or taken hostage. “The White House Advance Team and the Secret Service from the U.S. government came in and laid out this map to show me where the U.S. was involved and where the vice president’s escape routes would be if there was an attack, or anything like that. There were fundamentalist threats against the U.S.—some of the dignitaries and Al Gore—but there were also threats concerning the issues.” Gore, hobbling around on crutches after surgery to repair his Achilles tendon, had better hope he didn’t’ have to beat a hasty retreat on foot.
Dr. Sadik flew in three weeks prior to the conference opening, and as soon as she hit the tarmac, she was under the watchful eye of Mubarak. As she traveled throughout the capital, UN bodyguards sat in the car with her. Two others, holding automatic weapons, hung out the windows of her limo on either side; this dynamic was repeated by the Egyptian security in the lead car in the motorcade and the car to the rear. As she walked around the conference center she became a very popular woman indeed, followed by four men: one in the front, one on either side, and one to the rear. They searched the ladies’ bathroom before they permitted her to enter; they accompanied her at lunch and sat at another table, with some staring at her throughout her meal while others scanned the perimeter; they monitored her conference command headquarters, which became a real nuisance as she was running this enormous event. “My office had two doors, one to enter and one to exit, and once I went out of the entrance door to look for some staff members. My security opened the door for something and when they found out that I wasn’t there, they went crazy and shut everything down. They said, ‘You can’t do that, you have to leave from this door and we have to see that you’re leaving.’ I said, ‘Well, obviously, you should have had somebody guarding the other door!”
An excerpt from Champion of Choice: The Life and Legacy of Women’s Advocate Nafis Sadik (University of Nebraska Press 2013)
© Cathleen Miller