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The deposed dictator's guide to lying low in London

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The deposed dictator's guide to lying low in London

Gamal Mubarak hiding in Knightsbridge? Suzanne Mubarak shopping at Selfridges?

  • Mike_fleming/Flickr

LONDON — As travel guides often mention, London is a great place to lose yourself. They don't mention — but should — that this is even truer if you're a controversial political figure fleeing a troubled regime, preferably with bags of cash.

It's entirely possible that, with calls for his ouster mounting, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is packing his London Time Out guide, Burberry raincoat and all-day Tube pass in anticipation of a long sojourn in the British capital.

Once all the brouhaha has died down, the outgoing Egyptian leader would doubtless find London an accommodating place. A bit colder and damper than Cairo certainly, but at least here they might leave him in peace.

OK, so there's been a bit of a commotion over the arrival this week of Mubarak's two sons Gamal and Alaa, reportedly traveling with 97 bags (of cash?) — but if their efforts going underground here are anything to go by, dad should have no trouble.

Of course, the brothers are no strangers to London. Mubarak's wife Suzanne is half Welsh and both she and her offspring are British passport holders who visit the city so frequently they probably know the bus routes by heart.

Or probably not since their base here is a five-story Georgian mansion in Knightsbridge, a ritzy district where embassies, exclusive boutiques and the celebrated Harrods department store are all a mere two-minute chauffeured drive away.

As you would expect from the tenacious British press, there have been some attempts to track the Mubaraks down — particularly Gamal, who was seen as a possible successor to his father, until he resigned on Saturday from Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party.

But stakeouts in Knightsbridge have proved fruitless.

The Sun newspaper said Suzanne Mubarak had been spotted by baggage handlers at London's Heathrow Airport. The paper gleefully reported that the "fashion-loving" first lady was being compared to Marie Antoinette, the queen guillotined in the French Revolution.

Al Jazeera (which rather handily has a bureau in Knightsbridge) reported an unconfirmed sighting of Mubarak Jr. doing a drive-by on his own besieged house. A Twitter post later claimed his wife had been spotted in Selfridges, reputedly her favorite store.

Once details of Gamal Mubarak's exclusive London address were out, the press weren't the only ones in pursuit. A group of protesters reportedly gathered outside the property on Monday night, waving placards and generally lowering the tone of the neighborhood.

GlobalPost picked up the trail a day later, only to find it had gone stone cold. All was quiet outside the Knightsbridge house and although the lights were on inside, no one was answering the doorbell. There were no protesters and no other journalists.

An hour's hanging around offered no further insights, but was well spent admiring the impressive collection of Porsches, Jaguars and Land Rovers parked in the street. Even more impressive, if slightly startling, was a neighbor's life-sized bronze stag.

At one point two policemen strolled into view. Here at last was the prospect of drama; perhaps a heavy-handed security check on the solitary journalist to rule out any threat to the Mubarak household. Sadly, after directing a lost tourist, they ambled by.

GlobalPost then tried Selfridges, a vast pantheon of upscale spending at the more glamorous end of London's Oxford Street where, judging by the appearance of many shoppers, a great deal of the Middle East's wealth was being exchanged for fancy goods.

In an effort to pick up the scent of Gamal Mubarak's wife Khadija in the ground floor perfume department, a helpful retail assistant was asked if she had recently seen the wife of the son of the soon-to-be-ex-president of Egypt. She replied: "Who?"

The assistant could be forgiven her gap in knowledge, or perhaps even commended for showing discretion. After all, discretion is what dignitaries and ex-dignitaries have come to expect in London, making it a great city for them to lick wounds, reflect on former glories and plot comebacks.

A stone's throw from Selfridges, Pakistan's former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, forced to step down in 2008, whiles away the days in a well-appointed apartment near Paddington Station, protected by a round-the-clock guard provided by London's Metropolitan Police.

A little further out, the London neighborhood of Islington once played host — much to the horror of Amnesty International — to Valentine Strasser, a coup plotter who headed up a ruthless regime in Sierra Leone from 1992-1996. Calling himself "Reginald," Strasser managed to stay for four years.

If the Mubaraks are thinking about settling in London for good, they should be warned that though the city will happily house disgraced former leaders and absorb their millions of dollars (ill-gotten or otherwise), it possesses a capricious streak of morality.

Chile's General Augusto Pinochet found this out to his detriment when he was placed under house arrest on torture charges while visiting the city for medical treatment in 1998. He was later freed to return to Chile, where he died before standing trial.

More recently, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who spent the better part of two years in London after being deposed in 2006, found himself barred from Britain and his $5 million Kensington home in 2008 after being convicted of corruption in Thailand.

Of course, no one can predict Hosni Mubarak's immediate future, but with some opponents in Egypt calling for his government to stand trial on similar charges, the beleaguered leader might be wise to heed a lesson already learned by Thaksin and others: either lose yourself in London, or lose London.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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