In Egypt, it was as if Arafat was as dangerous in death as in life

Robert Fisk in Cairo

The Independent

13 November 2004

In Heliopolis, the Cairo airport road is lined by plane trees, villas and thick flowerbeds. Yesterday, it was also lined by almost the entire Egyptian police force, thousands on thousands of black-uniformed cops, standing in absolute and total silence.

Then hooves. Most of the journalists were down the road, opposite the mosque, but a great iron gate suddenly opened in front of me and six dark Arab horses clopped gently on to the road. It was still silent, save for that stagecoach clip-clop, and when I turned my head I saw that behind the horses was a trolley with an ornate brass six-pounder gun on the back and, on top, a small, rectangular box.

I saw the flag strapped to it, the green, red, white and black banner of "Palestine"; only then did the few of us on that part of the street grasp the reality. He was inside it. Yasser Arafat, "Mr Palestine", was inside that tiny little box. The cortège stopped on the road, the silence complete again, like a train that had steamed into a country station without anyone noticing.

The horses stood and looked at the trees, their riders stroking their manes, the diminutive coffin swaying slightly as the animals moved. On the four corners of the gun carriage were golden obelisks inscribed with hieroglyphs and, 10ft behind, two Egyptian soldiers, each holding a heavy tray of medals. No one dared ask which long-extinguished east European state had awarded these gongs of valour to the man in the box, but his Nobel peace prize was commemorated and there was a dignity about it all.

This, after all, was the funeral which Yasser Arafat would have wanted in Jerusalem, the funeral Ariel Sharon would not allow him. After minutes, the horses began to paw the tarmac, impatient, angry. Egyptian bureaucracy is painful to experience, even for animals. But the great and the good had not finished praying.

Sheikh Tantawi's quotations from the Koran haunted the trees - we could just see the funeral tent behind the wall of the Gala'a Club - while the Egyptian snipers prowled the rooftops. Yasser Arafat prided himself on being a man of the people, but there were no "people" here, no weeping masses, not a single civilian from the nation which had sacrificed more lives for "Palestine" than any other Arab state. The people's funeral would come later, in Ramallah, but in Cairo it was as if Arafat was as dangerous in death as he was in life, an incubus, a germ that had to be sealed into that little box and air-freighted off to the chaos of Ramallah as quickly as possible, lest it contaminates the body politick of the Arab world.

And so, amid this sepulchral silence, nature took its course. Inside the box, no doubt, the frozen, shaggy, bewhiskered features of Yasser Arafat stared at the darkened coffin-lid. Outside, 15ft in front of him, the second horse on the right lead of the cortège tripped on its traces and fell heavily, whinnying and roaring, on to the road, its Egyptian military rider pulling himself from the saddle. The creature tried to regain its footing but its shoes skidded on the hot tarmac and it drooled over its reins. Another horse vomited and two others pissed over the tarmac just as the princes and presidents of the Arab world approached. The soldier grovelled with a brush, desperately sweeping the flood of urine across the road surface lest it should sully the presidential boots.

An army of 200 Egyptian secret service men in grey suits, grey ties and grey shoes marched down the highway, passed the Egyptian naval ratings and airforce officers and paratroopers, and took up position outside another gate, whence came a phalanx of Arab dictators. Let us not say there was blood on any of their hands. Let us not talk of secret policemen or torture chambers, not least because Arafat himself maintained 11 security outfits, since these were supposed to be honourable men, humbled by the death of a dearly beloved revolutionary comrade. No wonder there was a 100m gap between the cortège and the mourners.

There was President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in the front row, older now, a trifle unsteady, hiding behind his shades. And on his left, President Ben Ali of Tunisia, that paragon of democracy and valiant upholder of human rights, and Bouteflika of Algeria, whose army is still protected from the atrocities in which it was implicated with the Islamists after 1992.

King Abdullah of Jordan, the Plucky Little King MkII, whose father's army slaughtered so many of Arafat's guerrillas in Black September, marched along in his red and white keffiyeh, on the right of Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, whose kingdom chops off more heads per annum than the kidnappers of Baghdad. Oh, how they honoured Yasser Arafat. How they must have admired him.

A car drove through, a black-veiled Suha Arafat and her 10-year-old daughter, Zahwa, who wept uncontrollably throughout the torrid funeral. All the usual suspects were there; former prime ministers of Lebanon and Yemen's colourless leader and the French Foreign Minister and that old Trot, Jack Straw of Britain. So, too, was Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze chieftain and the Middle East's most prominent nihilist, who had stood with Arafat in Beirut during Israel's 1982 siege and was one of the few mourners who refused to wear a black tie. "This is a funeral à la carte," he bellowed. "They are afraid of Arafat even in death, even in Cairo." And, of course, he was right. Kamal Kharrazi, the Iranian Foreign Minister - no tie for him - muttered: "If there would have been a 'popular' funeral for Arafat, it would have mobilised Palestinians for their cause." This would come later, in Ramallah.

But in Egypt yesterday, the people, those immortal Arab masses who vote for Messrs Mubarak and Ben Ali with such 97 per cent enthusiasm, had no place here. This was stage-management as even George Bush Jnr would understand it. When he came to London, Mr Bush saw no protesters. When Arafat was brought dead to Egypt, his corpse was simply closeted from the people.

I hitched a ride back to the airport, and an old helicopter, with a grubby fuselage and Egyptian flag on the side, clattered over us in the cold November air. Arafat's coffin lay in its belly. At long last, the Arab leaders were rid of him. The old man was going home to "Palestine". And given his legacy, we had better keep the quotation marks around "Palestine".