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Egypt mogul held in death of ex-lover

The arrest is unusual because the accused in the Dubai slaying of the Lebanese diva is a high-profile politician.

September 03, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman and Raed Rafei | Special to The Times

CAIRO — A real estate mogul and member of the Egyptian parliament was arrested Tuesday in the slaying of a troubled Lebanese diva, a tale that has fascinated the Arab media with its plot twists, whiffs of revenge and lurid glimpses into the echelons of celebrity and power.

Hisham Talaat Mustafa, a member of President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, is accused of ordering the killing of his former lover Suzanne Tamim, according to the Egyptian prosecutor's office. The singer was found in her Dubai apartment in July with her throat slit and multiple stab wounds.

The investigation led to former Egyptian police officer Mohsen Sukkari, a security guard at the Four Seasons hotel in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik. Mustafa's real estate group built the hotel and Sukkari told police that the developer paid him $2 million to travel to the United Arab Emirates and kill Tamim, according to Egyptian prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmoud.

The arrest of such a high-profile politician was unusual in Egypt.

The 49-year-old Mustafa "took part through incitement, agreement and assistance with the first defendant [Sukkari] in killing the victim in revenge," the prosecutor said. "He provided him with special information and amounts of money."

Mustafa and Sukkari will face criminal hearings in Cairo. It was unclear whether they would be extradited to the UAE on additional charges.

Indications that Mustafa was allegedly involved in the case intensified two weeks ago when the government of Egypt forbade the nation's media to report on the story. Mustafa runs one of the country's largest development firms, Talaat Mustafa Group, and is a member of the upper house of parliament with ties to the Mubarak family. Mustafa had complained that the negative publicity was hurting the Egyptian economy by triggering a steep decline in his company's stock.

The case in Egypt was as much a murder mystery as it was a morality tale about the rising power of businesspeople in the ruling political machine. The National Democratic Party is known for widespread corruption, and Egyptians have grown accustomed to party officials escaping prosecution for financial and other crimes. In July, outrage broke out across the country when a Mubarak appointee to parliament was acquitted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people in the 2006 sinking in the Red Sea of a shoddily maintained ferry he owned.

Mohammed Sayed Said, a prominent columnist and editor in chief of Al Badeel, an independent daily, said he was surprised that the government arrested Mustafa, a married man and one of the nation's wealthiest and most well-connected politicians. Mustafa is an influential voice in the party's policy secretariat, which is headed by Mubarak's son, Gamal, and a leading force behind the pricey new Western-style suburbs ringing Cairo.

"I think it is a smart move," Said said. "Otherwise, he [Mubarak] would be strongly defying public opinion, especially that the case has an Arab and an international dimension. If he had not done that, he would have defied an Arab country [UAE] with which we have strong and historical relations."

Pressure mounted on Mustafa and Egypt after authorities in Dubai hinted that the slaying had more to do with passion than money. There were rumblings among Egypt's elite that Mustafa had fled the country as investigators pointed to him as a suspect.

Dubai police Maj. Gen. Khamis Mattar Mazeina told the Arab media: "It was a semi-professional killing, but unfortunately for him he left a vital clue behind. . . . The way in which the killing took place suggests a revenge motive, as nothing was taken from the apartment and nothing was disturbed."

Tamim's life changed when she won a TV talent show in Lebanon in 1996. But her singing career was besieged by personal problems, including legal battles with her estranged second husband and music producer, Adel Maatouk. Tamim had signed a 15-year contract, but when she attempted to break it, Maatouk used his influence to keep other companies from signing her, according to Hanandi Issa, a journalist who covers art and music for the Lebanese magazine Laha.

The 30-year-old diva's last CD was released in 2002. Four years later, she came out with the single "Lovers," which was dedicated to the memory of assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Since her death, photographs of the airbrushed Tamim with blowing red locks and glittery dresses have been constant on blogs and TV shows across the Middle East.

Tamim's hairdresser, Joe Raad, said Tamim and Mustafa had been in a relationship and that she stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel in Cairo, which is owned by Mustafa's company. Arab media reports say Mustafa and Tamim had at least a two-year relationship that also brought them together in London and Dubai.

"She was living in a state of panic," Raad said. "She would never drink from a Pepsi bottle if she was not the one who opened it. She was afraid for her life."

Issa, the journalist, said: "Suzanne's whole life was a tragedy. She comes from a conservative Beiruti family which was totally against her singing in public. But she had a great voice and she was obsessed about singing. So she defied her society and decided to enter the world of music. . . . She was a beautiful woman. Her beauty maybe was a curse because she would turn men totally obsessed about her."

Tamim's father, Abdul Sattar Tamim, said at the news of Mustafa's arrest: "I hope from God that justice will be served. . . . She was my daughter. I loved her. As a father, I just want to see the assassin, whoever he is, punished for the sake of her memory."

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jeffrey.fleishman @latimes.com

Times staff writer Fleishman reported from Cairo and special correspondent Rafei from Beirut. Noha el-Hennawy of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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