The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Police crackdown on anti-torture demo

I got out of the cab in front of the ultra-posh Four Seasons Hotel, on the Nile Cornish, by 5pm. The southeast side of the Four Seasons faces a narrow street, where Qasr el-Nil Police Station lies. Operating from an old shabby villa in Garden City built in the pre-republican age, next to the Indonesian embassy, is the police force in charge of security in downtown Cairo, Garden City and Zamalek. And it was in this affluent neighborhood that security agents took rounds in torturing Karim el-Sha3er and Mohamed el-Sharqawi, and sexually abusing the latter on the evening of May 25, 2006. Rights activists had called for a stand by representatives of human rights organizations in front of the police station today.

I arrived, not knowing what to expect. Deep down, I had been hoping the government would be a bit embarrassed about the growing torture scandal, that they might allow a small group of lawyers and professors to protest in front of the police station, and allow reporters like myself to do their job.

My hopes were dashed right away. I saw a group of around three dozen rights activists and lawyers carrying banners, shouting against torture, while at least 200 plainclothes thugs, uniformed and plainclothes security officers including two generals—add to that a phalanx of black-clad riot police conscripts, worked hardly to prevent them from marching on the Qasr el-Nil Police Station. The protestors were violently pushed by the thugs and the officers away. Women doctors from the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence were shoved away.

I heard a woman screaming, and turned only to find 3emad Mubarak (he’s not related to Hosni Mubarak, in case you are asking), the director of the Association for Freedom of Expression and Thought, being snatched away by plainclothes thugs. 3emad’s wife, Maha Youssef, also a rights lawyer, threw herself screaming at the security trying to free 3emad. Other friends also tried to intervene, but they were outnumbered by the thugs. I took my digital camera out, and started taking photos of the thugs grabbing Emad. There was so much scuffling. More women screaming. Banners being thrown on the floor, stepped on and torn by thugs and officers. I saw rights activist Ayman 3ayyad and veteran leftist engineer 3adel el-Mashadd also being snatched by the security. This all happened in ten minutes, when it came my turn. I was taking photos hysterically, when a firm hand grabbed my arm trying to take the camera away. I clutched my fingers on the camera, refusing to let go of it. A number of thugs soon swung to action. One going for the camera that I had both hands on now; another pulling my neck; a third grabbing my waist. I kept on shouting, “leave the camera,� in vain. I was thrown to floor; I saw someone grabbing the camera from me, and throwing it to floor and break it into pieces, my sunglasses followed. Some activists, including 3adel Wassili, tried to save me from the thugs’ yoke, with no success. 3adel told me later the thugs were kicking me with their legs, but to be honest, I was in such an adrenaline-induced mood, with my full focus on my camera that I didn’t feel anything, and can not confirm I was kicked.

Next thing I knew, I was carried away from the crowd by five thugs who each grabbed a limb, while the fifth grabbed my shirt. They carried me for fifty meters away in this bizarre crucifixion position, and threw me to pavement behind the security cordon. I was forced to the floor, and warned not to move. I wasn’t allowed to stand up. So I kept on shouting while I was lying on the floor identifying myself as a reporter, and it was my right to be here and see what’s happening. One of the thugs warned me to stay silent and not try to get up or else “you’ll be taught a lesson you won’t forget.�

Ten minutes passed, and I’m still pushed to the floor. I concluded I was to be detained today. I wondered whether I’ll be taken to the Qasr el-Nil police station for a Sharqawi-style treatment, or would I be taken to Lazoughli, for a friendly meeting with State Security officers. I also tried to look around me from where I was lying down searching for the three disappeared activists. I couldn’t see any.

An officer in plainclothes came near me, and I yelled at him demanding my release. He ignored me. Few minutes later, a uniformed police general told the thugs to stay away, and told me to leave. I stood up, and felt kinda dizzy. My shirt was unbuttoned from where I was being grabbed, and my clothes were disheveled. By that time, the demonstrators were pushed away to the Cornish by the officers and the thugs. They were still screaming, and none wanted to leave without the release of the three activists. More scuffles broke out on the cornish, before the activists decided to leave, as they were exponentially outnumbered by the security agents, and their support brigades of thugs. People in cars driving down the street, used to slow down to watch thugs and agents intimidating respectable university professors, veteran lawyers, women doctors in their 50s. It was bizarre. Several colleagues advised me to leave the scene, saying the security officers were pointing at me. I started walking faster. By then the activists were scattered into groups of fours, and each group running to try to stop a taxi to run away in. Dr. Magda Adly and Dr. Suzan Fayad of the Nadeem Center got into a shouting match with the officers, as they were being chased. The kidnapped activist 3adel el-Mashad, one of the founders of the Egyptian Association Against Torture, was Fayad's husband, so it was even more personal for her.

People in the cars and taxis passing in the street could well notice something was happening on the pavement. Some were nodding their heads with disgust, others tried to pretend they weren’t seeing anything, but you can see the discomfort on their faces. The activists were still shouting and chanting against torture and against the regime, as they were chased all the way up to the Qasr el-3eini hospital. I was walking in speed trying to keep distance from the thugs, and still be close enough to see if there were anymore nabbed.

The security officers present seemed to be favoring a quick departure (aka disappearance) of the activists. After all, the area is full of tourists, and as we all know talk about torture in front of the khawaggas drives some people in the government nuts.

Suddenly a tourism company mini-van stopped beside me, and asked me and the few around me to get in. I was so touched. The driver could see the police chasing us, and offered to help. Seven of us crammed in quickly. We decided to head to the Hisham Mubarak Law Center (HMLC). The guy took us all the way from el-Qasr el-3eini Hospital to Souq el-Tawfiqia where HMLC is, and would not ask for money. Battling through the traffic, the driver was mumbling insults against the president and the government, as other passengers were on the phones talking to their friends about what happened today, and about the new arrests.

I felt really drained, and the mini van was air-conditioned, that I was resisting falling asleep in the seat. When I reached HMLC, people over there looked at me as if they’ve seen a ghost. News were already circulating about the arrests, and my name was mentioned along with the three other detainees after I was seen being dragged away.

Activists were flocking to the HMLC, which was soon like honeybees nest, with lots of humming, talk, and shouts around. We received news, a group of six protestors including Dr. Laila Soueif, and her novelist sister Ahdaf Soueif have managed actually to reach the police station, and were encircled by thugs.

Over the phone, Ahmad Seif al-Islam, HMLC director, managed to find out from his wife Laila Soueif, that the three detainees were not taken inside the notorious police station, rather they were locked up in a blue Prisoners’ transport truck. They were not allowed to leave the truck, and were briefly interrogated by two plainclothes security. 3emad Mubarak was even denied a visit, urgently needed, to the toilet, so he had to piss in a bottle inside the truck.

Activists in the center were discussing an immediate sit in at Tala3at Harb sq., till the detainees are released, after security sealed off Garden City. Soon news trickled, Laila Soueif and her fellow colleagues were refusing to leave till the detainees get released.

Around 6:30pm, 3emad, 3adel and Ayman were released. They arrived at the HMLC, and received by cheers and hugs.

I left the center around 7pm, glad to know the three detainees were released. I’m still trying to reflect on what’s happened today and ideas on what journalists should do to cover a demo in Cairo. Walking back to Tahrir Sq, I saw seven riot police trucks lined near the lawyers’ syndicate, and felt I was in a war zone. I guess when the adrenaline went away, I started thinking again about what happened in the afternoon, and felt very angry for the assault and the destruction of my camera. Back in November 2005, thugs and security attacked me in Damanhour and confiscated my camera while I was trying to take pictures of their assaults on voters. I managed to retrieve the camera after a week following official complaint LA Times filed to the Egyptian press center. But now it’s smashed.

I thought it was extremely ironic I was attacked by security-hired thugs from a police station neighboring the Indonesian Embassy in Cairo. Similar gangs of thugs were also unleashed by Suharto’s security services against student activists, during the 1998 Indonesian revolution. The Indonesian thugs were also poor disheveled miserable bastards, recruited and trained by the Indonesian security agencies. These thugs unleashed orgies of violence against democracy activists (and the ethnic Chinese minority) in the streets of Jakarta. That didn’t stop Suharto’s throne from ending in the sewage. One final thing, Suharto’s last foreign visit before his humiliating removal from power was to Cairo, to consult with Hosni Mubarak…