Traffic was light on the road out of Cairo. The oppressive density of the metropolis gave way to an uneven patchwork of small green fields and shoddily constructed red brick apartment blocks. A peasant in traditional garb hand fed a donkey with one hand while he stroked its neck with the other.
We – an American masters student called Derek Ludovici, my regular translator and close personal friend Aliya Alwi, our taxi driver Zakaria Ahmad, and myself – were on our way to Mahalla El Kubra. Mahalla has a special place in the recent history of Egypt. It was here in 2008 that the famous April 6 uprising took place.
The day was originally planned as another in a long run of strikes by workers in the city’s massive Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, with more than 20,000 employees. The strike itself was a failure, with security forces (500 of whom were employed full time inside the factory) managing to intimidate the workers into returning to their posts. Outside the factory walls, however, the city exploded into open rebellion. Protesters stormed the main square, tearing down billboards bearing Mubarak’s face, calling for the fall of the regime, and fighting running battles with police. It was a preview of the January 25 uprising in 2011 that would unseat the dictator and begin the revolution that continues to reshape Egypt.
This is why we had decided to spend February 11 – the first anniversary of Mubarak’s fall – there, with one of town’s better known union organiser and political activists, Mr Kamal Elfayoumi.
No sooner had we found him, at the petrol station by the square, and exchanged greetings than we were set upon by a group of at least six, perhaps as many as 20 people – it was not clear exactly who was participating and who was watching. The mob, a mix of angry young men and children, were shouting insults at us, calling us dogs and accusing us of working to destroy the country and their livelihoods. We got back into the car, which they banged on as they continued to shout at us, and pulled away.
We then saw another car, containing a camera crew who has also been in the petrol station, presumably also to meet Mr Elfayoumi. We followed them thinking that they might be heading to a new, safer meeting point. The path they took, however, led back through the square where we were again mobbed. The taxi driver – clearly overwhelmed by the situation – got out to attempt to reason with them – he would later say he saw someone with a brick who was threatening to attack the car with it. When he heeded our pleading calls and got back in the car, he told us that a policeman had taken his driver’s license. A path was then cleared through the crowd, which had grown to at least 30 people by then, possibly many more – it was impossible to see past the bodies pressed up against the car, shouting that Derek and I were spies, and that Aliya was a traitor, or worse.
We then followed the police to the main police station in Mahalla where we were told to come inside, for our own protection. No more than five minutes had passed since we first laid eyes on Mr El Fayoumi.
Our IDs were taken and a few questions were asked, then we were put in a side office where we were held for hours – though whenever we asked we were told our release was imminent.
We were treated politely at this stage, and offered tea. Mr Elfayoumi arrived, having come to see what had happened to us. One of the police who were with us in the room showed us a video on his mobile phone of the army beating two bound men around the head. It wasn’t clear if this was an attempt to intimidate us, or if the young officer, who grinned with genuine glee as he watched, thought of it as a way to relieve our boredom. Also during this time, we were informed that witnesses had come forward, claiming they had seen us distributing money to children as payment for vandalism we wanted them to commit. We dismissed this as ridiculous. The police seemed to agree.
We were then told that from here we would be transferred to another location, where we would fill in some paperwork before being released. When we arrived at the location – another police station only a short drive away, this didn’t happen. Instead we were brought into another office where all the questions we had already answered were repeated. Again we were told we were to be moved to another location, where the release paperwork could finally be completed. By this stage any hint of believing that our captivity had anything to do with our protection had faded completely. On the way out of the building we saw that a small crowd had gathered, one with none of the aggression of the mob in the square. A local journalist stepped out and approached me, I managed to tell him through Aliya that the charges against us were ridiculous, but got no further before being piled into the waiting vehicle.
Two police sat in the front of the car, Derek, Aliya and I in the back seat, Mr Fayoumi and Mr Ahmed rode in the tray behind us, along with the three "witnesses", one of whom was a boy of no more than 11 years. Aliya looked back at and made eye contact with the child, smiling giddily, and staring right back in her eyes, he drew his finger across his throat in a "you’re dead" motion.
Aliya – who still had her smart phone at this stage, frantically tweeted that we were on our way to the adjacent town of Tanta. Soon after this the convoy was stopped and a man from the leading car came back and demanded our phones and my laptop be handed over. Unfortunately for them, word was already out.
In Tanta we were taken to a Ministry of the Interior building, where the interview was repeated, and our possessions taken from us one by one. As I handed over my passport (which had been returned to me as a reassurance that our release was imminent), a well dressed thug asked me in English where it was issued. I told him the Australian embassy in Cairo. He repeated this information to a colleague in Arabic, adding as an epithet "their mothers c*nts".
As we were handcuffed for the next step of our journey, the witnesses, who had been allowed to film us on their mobile phones and taunt us the whole time (Aliya got the lion’s share of their attention), were allowed to leave. They did so reluctantly, one waiting near the car that would take me, snarling as I entered; "urkab ala moot" – ride to death.
From here we were taken to a military intelligence facility in Cairo, where we were separated for the first time and the repetitive interrogation continued. An hour or two in, I began to lose my cool. I had just held my tongue throughout an interrogation where I was lorded over by a heavyset officer who was absurdly pleased with himself for having been the first to realise – more than 12 hours into my incarceration – that my visa had been expired for months. Soon another, older and better dressed man appeared, with four young underlings. Each of these four went to a corner of the room, as their boss positioned himself on the couch opposite the desk where I was writing yet another statement. He asked me to tell him about my work in Egypt, what had I covered? I mentioned a few of the topics I had worked on, and suggested he peruse my blog. "All my work is public," I pointed out. He insisted I continue, after a few seconds of silence I decided to let him have it: "I covered a country," I said looking straight into his eyes "where old men have too much power, and never have to answer any hard questions because they hold all the cards. That’s why it is run so badly – but the young people are breaking through now, and we will see some new ideas."
I took great pleasure at the obvious discomfort on his face. It wouldn’t last long. After one of his underlings whispered in his ear, he turned the conversation to the topic of Aliya, enquiring as to the nature of our relationship. I insisted it was purely professional, but perhaps by this stage a note of panic had entered my voice.
It came home immediately to me how false my courage was. I knew that the power my interrogator possessed was a product of an international system in which I, as a westerner, outranked him. He would act tough, but he couldn’t touch me. Aliya, however, as an Egyptian and a woman, was doubly vulnerable. Whatever I had dished out on him, he would likely in turn take out on her. She would tell us later of being subject to a much more arduous and degrading interrogation, focusing more on the intimate details of her life than on the events of the day. Our taxi driver, Zakaria, however, was treated even worse, being beaten on the legs and treated in a generally aggressive and derogatory manner. He had no history of politics, he told them – he was just the driver. That, of course, was the point. They thought they could turn him.
They were wrong, as time passed his resolve grew stronger. He had told the truth at from the beginning, but by the end would tell it with conviction, and add at the end the question "this is justice in Egypt?"
We were left in our interrogation rooms overnight, to sleep in chairs with only our clothes to ward off the cold. In the morning we were told, again, of our imminent release elsewhere. After a brief discussion with the first officer to have bothered to have even a cursory look at my blog before speaking to me. We then spent hours in the back of a police truck, where I had the honour of being handcuffed to Mr Elfayoumi, whose strength and humour were so great they seemed to spill over onto the rest of us. He regaled us with stories of his previous incarcerations, focusing mainly on the various different ways they had been let out. When that line of conversation ran dry, we decided that since we had nothing else to do, we might as well conduct the interview that had been the original purpose of the trip.
After a brief stop in Tanta, where we were kept in the back of the truck, while, presumably, some paperwork was done, we returned to Mahalla and the second police station we had been taken to (conveniently enough, called second station). Within only minutes however, we were marched back out of the building, and taken to yet another location. We would later learn the reason for our quick departure. Outside the building were Shahira Abouelleil, Kareem Elbehairy, and Omar Kamel, activists with the group No to Military Trials, often referenced via the hash-tag #NoMilTrials. This is a network first formed to combat the practice of putting civilians before military courts, but which has since played an important role in combating other injustices. Shahira was among the first to be tweeting from the morgue on the night of the Maspero massacre, for example. Through their extensive network they had managed to find us, despite the authorities’ best efforts.
Indeed they had also been outside the MOI building in Tanta, and had even known we were on the fourth floor. The point of our constant relocation, it seems, was to keep us away from them, and the lawyers, journalists and other advocates that they would bring. The whole thing was a shell game, with us five the ball, moved from shell to shell in a sleight of hand designed to deceive and confuse.
The trick had failed however, and when we got to the prosecutor’s office where we would be charged, which was also in Mahalla, at around 7.00pm, a group of supporters was waiting for us, including – and this is exactly what they didn’t want – lawyers. Someone also had a bag of food for us – the first we had been offered in nearly 30 hours. I had been hungry before but found that now, as crunch time approached, I was too nervous to eat more than a few bites.
After several hours, most of which I spent in a room down the hall from the one in which my lawyer, who I had had no chance to confer with, argued my case, I was brought in to make a statement. Thankfully this would be the last time I would have to tell it – and the first where there was any sense of being listened to. As the proceedings closed our lawyer pointed to a strong consistency between our testimonies, which stood in stark contrast to the contradicting stories given by our accusers. He went on to raise the pattern over the past few months of the public prosecutor being dragged into xenophobic witch hunts such as the one against us.
The public prosecutor seemed to cede both points, and we left the building in the early hours of Monday morning in a positive mood. On our way out, for the first time, we saw Aliya’s mother and brother, and behind them the #NoMilTrials activists, one of whom was filming us as we walked. Our spirits soared. From there we would be moved again, returned to the second police station. Zakaria and Mr Elfayoumi would be released from here shortly, having been re-classified from suspects to witnesses. Aliya, Derek and I, loaded up with cigarettes, junk-food bottled water and juices that Shahira, Omar and Kareem brought in for us, would be placed in the cells below.
From our cells we could hear intermittent agonising screams, accompanied by short sharp sounds I took for slaps, but which Derek rightly pointed out were probably electric shocks. Around lunchtime, staff from the Australian embassy would arrive, and upon my request, bring toilet paper, blankets and pillows for Derek and I (at this stage we were under the impression Aliya had been released) allowing us the first proper sleep in days.
I awoke from this rest when the door opened. We bundled up our precious bedding under our arms, suspecting we were being moved to another location – indeed we were then told that for Derek and I at least, more interrogation awaited, this time at the Ministry of the Interior’s Cairo headquarters. We were in fact, finally released.
As Aliya’s brother drove us back to Cairo, our lawyer sat beside him in the front. That left four of us to squeeze into the back, so Aliya sat on her mother’s lap – a regression to an earlier time that both seemed to enjoy. Shahira and others contacted us by phone, we began to get a sense of the scale of the massive mobilization in our support.
The case was (and remains) open, and a travel ban is in place. Our faces – particularly Aliya’s and mine – had been flashed on state TV along with alarmist headlines about foreign agents. This has made things difficult and dangerous for us – my landlord changed the locks and aggression from some neighbours has meant I cannot go back to my apartment. Aliya, while unmolested so far since her release, probably faces much greater danger.
The experience though, overall, has strengthened our resolve to keep shining a light on Egypt’s continued injustices. Not only did we see a glimpse of the ugly stupid cruelty of the Egyptian "justice" system in which many have suffered unjustly for years and continue to suffer, we saw the lengths to which Egypt’s once-feared enforcers went to – with dozens of personnel involved in our handling – all to avoid the public gaze and fair procedure.
When the secret police – once able to torture people to death with impunity – are hiding from the political activists, rather than the other way round, it is hard to miss the long-term trend.
Some people might be fooled by fake prosecutions like this – or the one against 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans (who face travel bans like mine and Derek’s) – into associating protests, strikes and civil disobedience with the ill-defined "foreign agendas" that are constantly the subject on state TV and other tame outlets. Many of course believed similar lies about the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square during those first glorious and terrifying 18 days.
Those protesting, striking and civilly disobeying, however, know what they are doing and why. They are fighting for bread, freedom, and social justice, and by now they know they are winning.
Their enemies, on the other hand, are flailing, with increasingly little to lose, and even less to gain, they are making desperate moves. They shuffle the shells ever faster, but they have no new tricks to show us.