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.
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.
When Ahmed Seif Al Islam, the center's former director and founder received a call, one of the officers said, "He's getting his orders from Iran." Another cop didn't like the fact that Williams was still chewing gum, and beat him across the back off the head three times to make him spit it out. Another told the group, "You're all Israelis, and you've come to destroy our country for money."
As the regime struggles to hold on, the state-owned media has convinced some Egyptians that Iran, Hamas, and Israel are all working together to damage Egypt. (The United States and the Lebanese group Hezbollah are also lumped in with the conspiracy.)
Cattle prods and curses
After much bickering and confusion among the police about what to do with their new prisoners, two micro-buses were brought to take them away. The group were led out into the waiting cars, a mob of hundreds – kept back by the cops with cattle prods and sticks – hurled abuse them. Police officers alternated between abusing the prisoners and assuring them their detention was for their own safety, as the mob rocked the cars and spit on the windows. Finally, the cars sped off. Haddadi had the sense the police were losing control of the crowd they'd unleashed.
The group was soon blindfolded. They were shifted between at least three different military detention centers over the next 33 hours, handcuffed and blindfolded the whole time.
In one courtyard, that Haddadi believes was near the Cairo airport, the blindfolded group could hear the sounds of beatings and men screaming in pain in the night. "We know we're the lucky ones – being foreigners gives us some protection," says Haddadi. "We had the sense that larger groups of people were around us everywhere we went."
At one point, an officer tired of Haddadi's repeated demands to make a phone call. "He told me, 'Shut up or I'll shoot you.' He was joking, but that's not funny to someone who's blindfolded and in detention."
At around nine, after again being told that all this had been for their protection, the foreigners were released. (Ahmed Seif and the group of Egyptians were held another 12 hours.) Before they went, an officer asked Haddadi if the conditions of his detention had been reasonable. He responded that given the torture routinely used on detained activists in Egypt, he considered himself lucky.
They had further hurdles to cross to get home, which put the lie to the claims this was for their safety. The military police dumped Haddadi and four others at the Sonesta Hotel near the Cairo airport and sped off – before they realized that the Sonesta was closed for renovations. It was after curfew.
It was not only technically illegal to be traveling, but Cairo was now broken up by a maze of roadblocks run by the military, the police, and the "popular committees" of citizens that have sprung up to secure their neighborhoods. Some popular committees are simply neighborhood watch groups, others feel like they're run by local gangsters, and still others under the influence of regime propaganda warning of dangerous foreigners infiltrating Egyptian society.
The five got a cab, but a suspicious roadblock group soon forced them to go back to a state security building – after seizing their passports. Haddadi suspected the building they were directed to was one they had been held in earlier, but couldn't be sure. There was more suspicious questioning. Finally, around midnight, a cab navigated enough roadblocks to get them to a hotel in the nearby neighborhood of Heliopolis.
Hundreds of Egyptians arrested in the past week remain detained or worse; little information is available about their whereabouts or their treatment.