What had started off as a sedate lecture examining Egypt’s Tahrir Square revolution ended in high drama on Monday night when a man at the front of the auditorium was publicly exposed as Youssef Boutros-Ghali, former Egyptian finance minister, wanted by Interpol and on the run from a 30-year prison sentence in Egypt. The police were called but the ex-government minister slipped out through a side door.
The talk at the London School of Economics (LSE) by Harvard professor of Middle Eastern history Roger Owen, had been a rather desiccated affair but at the end of the talk the floor was opened up to questions. A young woman was the first to be passed the microphone.
‘I’m sorry professor, but I couldn’t concentrate on your lecture due to the fact that the ex-Egyptian finance minister is sitting in the audience,’ she said, her voice shaking with emotion. ‘I am amazed at the audacity of this man, this fugitive from justice in Egypt, in sitting here,’ she went on, indicating a man in a dark suit sitting near the front of the auditorium.
A ripple of excitement passed through the audience but Professor Owen side-stepped any comment. Asked by another audience member whether he knew anything about the current status of the alleged fugitive, Professor Owen suggested that the question should be directed at the former finance minister himself.
But this was not possible. As soon as the lecture was finished Mr Boutros-Ghali and his two companions were ushered out of the front of the auditorium by LSE security staff and out of the building through a side door. At the front of the building a crowd of around 20 angry young Egyptians had gathered.
One student, Alia Moussallam, had checked Interpol’s website and seen a request for anyone with information about Mr Boutros-Ghali to ‘please contact your national or local police.’ So she called 999.
‘They asked if he was still in the building and I told them I thought he’d been taken out the back,’ she says. ‘The police said that they would be unable to do anything until they heard back from Interpol but they would be verifying Mr Ghali’s status with them.’
Mr Boutros-Ghali, nephew of the former United Nations Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, served as Hosni Mubarak’s finance minister from 2004 until 2011, skipping the country last February. In June he was convicted of corruption in absentia by an Egyptian court and sentenced to 30 years imprisonment. Interpol issued a red notice against Mr Boutros Ghali – the closest thing to an international arrest warrant – but he cannot be arrested by British police until such a warrant is issued by Egypt.
Egyptian political analyst Adam Taylor-Awny is uncertain as to why an international arrest warrant has yet to be issued. ‘Maybe it is because we have not had a revolution yet and those with vested interests are still protecting each other,’ he says.
‘We believe the London School of Economics have gone out of their way to protect an international fugitive. They should have learnt their lesson from the Saif al-Islam Gaddafi affair’
Many of the students expressed anger that LSE had not only prevented them access to the lecture hall but were seen to be giving Mr Boutros-Ghali special treatment by allowing him to leave from the front of the auditorium and the back door of the building. Gehad Youssef, a 23-year-old Egyptian biology student accused LSE of cosying up to criminals.
‘We believe LSE have gone out of their way to protect an international fugitive,’ he said. ‘They should have learnt their lesson from the Saif al-Islam Gaddafi affair,’ he added referring to the furore LSE faced over its links with the Gaddafi regime which led to the resignation last year of its director Sir Howard Davies.
It transpired that, despite having helped to ghost Mr Boutros-Ghali out of the building, LSE staff also reported his presence to the police. ‘Our primary concern before that was security and the safety of everyone there and the man himself,’ an LSE spokesperson said. ‘At that time we weren’t aware of the Interpol red notice – that was only apparent to us just as he was driving away. Once we were aware of it we did call the police and let them know.’
Speaking outside LSE’s new academic building, Dina Makram, the Egyptian student who had highlighted Mr Boutros Ghali’s presence in the lecture theatre, described the wave of shock and anger she had felt on realizing that the man sitting half a dozen rows in front of her was the former finance minister.
‘I was enraged and insulted,’ she said. ‘I was in Tahrir Square during the revolution. I was there when Mubarak fell. It is an insult to every single Egyptian who was in Tahrir Square over the last year that he was sitting comfortably in this lecture theatre tonight.’