A harrowing day shows the resilience and tactics of Egypt's security state
Said Haddadi and his colleagues were released after 33 hours with bruised wrists and insults ringing in their ears. They were the lucky ones.
Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.
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The car the Amnesty International researcher was traveling in was stopped twice by armed men dressed in street clothes who claimed they were military. As he neared his destination, Mr. Haddadi saw a mob of men with clubs beating and dragging a man toward a military police checkpoint. The baltagea, or pro-regime thugs, were shouting that the man was a spy from the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.
The Amnesty International researcher and a group of colleagues changed their route to the law center, a leading Egyptian human rights group, to avoid trouble. They were seeking information on the treatment of Egypt pro-democracy protesters at Tahrir Square. But the mob caught up with them. Instead of gathering information on the human rights situation, they soon found themselves trapped in a chaotic, Kafkaesque day-and-a-half ordeal that illustrates the tactics being used by the regime of Hosni Mubarak and his new Vice President Omar Suleiman to control information and stifle dissent, despite their promises of reform.
"Our experience shows the sort of pattern of repression that exists," says Haddadi. Indeed. The state Mubarak presides over has come increasingly to rely on arbitrary detention, torture, and intimidation to control its opponents, from local human rights groups to labor organizers to Islamist activists from the Muslim Brotherhood. Haddadi, a French national who has since left the country, and his friends were about to get a taste of the tactics they have worked to expose.
He finally made it, with his colleagues, to Hisham Mubarak in central Cairo at about 12:30 pm on February 3. After about half an hour there, with reports of an increasingly dangerous situation out on the streets, they decided it was time to leave. Someone came up to the third-floor office and said that was a bad idea. "You can't go, the baltagea are outside and they're going to kill you," he said. A glance outside confirmed that the mob, whipped up by reports on state television that the democracy protests were the result of a foreign plot and operating with at least the tacit support of the police, were there.
'If you move, I'll shoot'
Soon the police, both military and from the Interior Ministry, were there too. They pushed their way into the office with a group of civilian thugs and began to zip-tie the hands of everyone present behind their backs. A military police officer put one foot on a chair and another on a desk as he exerted his authority over the room. "I have orders from the military ruler... if anyone moves, I'll shoot them."
About 35 people were rounded up, Haddadi, Human Rights Watch researcher Dan Williams, and four other foreigners among them. An elderly woman and a mother with her 13-year-old daughter were allowed to go. Elsewhere in Cairo that day, hundreds of activists and foreign journalists were rounded up at hotels, at road blocks, and on the city's streets, in what appeared to be a coordinated effort.
As the civilians began to rifle through their bags and the office files ($4,000 Haddadi was carrying, a cell phone, and other of his possessions disappeared), the officers began to question and abuse their detainees. "Looting our stuff was probably their payment," guesses Haddadi.