First published in Vocativ on November 11th
Two riot police backed up towards us and asked me, “Do you have any cigarettes?” I handed them a couple of cigs and could see that they were suffering from teargas exposure. Their hands shook so violently I had to light their cigarettes for them. They were short, skinny and looked incredibly young. “How old are you guys?” I asked them. “We’re 20” they replied before giving thanks and leaving.
At that moment, I couldn’t help but feel some pity for these young men, knowing they are conscripts who are treated atrociously by their superiors. This pity was short lived.
This was the 40th anniversary of Egypt’s “strategic victory” over Israel during the 1973 October War. With nationalistic fervour already at an all time high thanks to the Army’s help at removing the much despised President, Mohamed Morsi in the July 3 ‘coup-not-a-coup’, this was a day that bordered on the chauvinistic.
The majority Muslim Brotherhood Anti-Coup Alliance had called on four marches to converge on a Tahrir Square that was the setting of unprecedented state security. My count on the day was at least 10 APCs and a few tanks just for good measure. All entrances to the Square had several lines of barbed wire and metal detectors – an affront, surely, to a public space that had long been an icon of anti-establishment protest.
Meanwhile the Tamarod group, which had organised the supremely successful campaign that led to Mr Morsi’s removal, had called for a full day of celebration, also in Tahrir Square. With confrontation predetermined, the bloodshed that came later was just as inevitable.
The day began with a number of fighter jets flying low enough to set off car alarms and shake the dilapidated windows of my flat. Tahrir Square itself was the scene of a joyous army love-in. The de jure nationalistic song “Teslam el Ayady” blaring out sentiments so sickly saccharine as to cause tooth decay.
Two officers by a metal detector told me the orders if a Muslim Brotherhood march was to make it to the square. “We will arrest them,” one said with a shrug. But if there was any struggle? The other officer narrowed his eyes and replied in English, “we will shoot them, and we will win”. I left to cover the Anti-Coup March on the west side of the Nile.
Once the march turned onto Tahrir St, which leads to the Square, the fighting broke out almost instantly. With teargas canisters flying in from further down Tahrir St, the crowd immediately reversed back onto the street they came from, while the Central Security Forces (CSF) advanced, followed shortly by Army personnel. A fellow journalist and I sheltered in a side alley on Tahrir Street and watched as the riot police passed us by. By standing in one spot we had moved from the front of the march to the frontlines of the CSF.
Small groups of riot police pointed their shotguns towards the side alleys where cowering men and women withdrew to; occasionally firing what I hoped were blank rounds. As the teargas subsided, we cautiously made our way out.
Beyond the CSF some 30 meters stood the protesters, waving, shouting and throwing rocks. Burning tyres were already beginning to obscure my view of them. The riot police continued to fire teargas towards them, an unholy swirling mixture of black and white smoke engulfing the protesters. One CSF member who had clearly watched too many action movies started shooting his shotgun into the crowd one-handed; he was smiling.
Then a CSF recruit grabbed me on the back of the neck. He slapped me on the head repeatedly as his friend took my camera from around my neck and my phone from my pocket. The gentlemen marched me towards a small alley that leads off Tahrir St where I could see a number of other Egyptian men being penned in by some riot police.
I fumbled in my wallet for my press pass. Not one month old, my newly acquired pass, issued from the Cairo Press Centre, was shown to senior member of the CSF. He looked at it and saw that it said “British”. He looked up at me and back down at my photo a few times before saying, in English, “I’m sorry”.
They gave me back my bag and my camera but the officer held onto my press pass. Assuming I was free to go I enquired as to the whereabouts of my phone and motioned for my pass.
Instead I received a hefty push in the back and I suddenly found myself with the other detained men. I called to a nearby CSF recruit and told him I was a British journalist and there was some misunderstanding, he told me to put my hands behind my back. I reiterated my point and received a slap in the face for my troubles.
What has long been a blessing was suddenly a curse. I have an ability to pass off as Egyptian. I don’t get any grief when I walk around alone and I tend not to get ripped off by ‘foreigner’s prices’. The worst that had happened up till then was an awkward exchange at a hotel bar during Ramadan, when the barman refused me service until I produced an Egyptian ID card that betrays your religion.
We were all frog marched in a line down Tahrir St. I spied the journalist I had been with and he nodded his head to me. “Thank god someone I know saw this happen,” I thought.
Video cameras appeared from nowhere to, no doubt, document the “successful capture of terrorists by the glorious state security”. A man in a suit appeared from nowhere and started berating us. I was genuinely shocked by the look of disgust on his face. I have never before seen such visceral hatred in person. He was practically foaming at the mouth, spitting at us, and calling us dogs and worse. Before departing he ensured to take leave with a slap on my face. It was unfortunate that I was at the front of the line.
I could see the large blue shell of the police van that was to transport me to the police station, but not before we were told to get on our knees by the sidewalk.
As they started to handcuff everyone with cable ties, I tried again to explain that, “I am a journalist! A British Journalist!” I repeated it in Arabic and English but the policeman who eventually came to my pleas only proceeded to take my camera bag, camera in tow. Then they picked me up and started marching all ten of us to the van.
I believe this was the point when I started to panic.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” was all that went through my head. In a state of panic, eloquence is the first casualty. I was pretty sure that was the last I would see of my camera, phone and bag, replete with voice recorder and notepads. That’s a lot of money and work when you’re freelancing.
I was thrown into the back of the van. There was already one man inside as well as a police officer, the latter beating the former in a repulsively calculated fashion; kicking each leg, then punching the kidneys, then working his way to slaps on the head before starting from the bottom again. It was somehow more chilling that this all took place in complete silence, no swearing, nothing.
I shamelessly prepared myself once again with the, “I’m a British journalist” that had worked such wonders before. He gave me a look, but nevertheless he declined me the same treatment. The others were not so lucky.
We were driven all of a minute to the Dokki Police Station just down the road from where I was picked up. As the door opened we were ordered to march through a group of CSF, every one of them landing a kick or a slap on us as we passed them down into the basement of the police station.
The basement itself was a sad sight, decrepit and soul sapping, although that is presumably the point. Filigrees of damp crawled across the walls towards the barred windows where they died in the light. A comical stand-alone cage is propped alongside one of the walls and we are duly crammed into it.
Two policemen readied themselves by a nearby door, one standing on a table and the other below him. We were taken out, one by one, and liberated from what belongings we had left on us. I was the second man to be frisked. The man on the table kicks me in the hip while his friend below grabs my face and points to my belt. I remove it without hesitation and am whipped with it. It’s surprisingly infuriating to be whipped by a belt you provided.
In the room, I’m set to my knees. There are two women in the room and about twenty men, not one of them without some bruise, abrasion or cut visible. As the others are poured in, the room begins to fill up. It’s a tiny room with one barred window that was shuttered off to ground level. I could just make out the Sheraton hotel through the trees.
Eventually a plain-clothes policeman comes into the room and starts taking down the name, age and address of everyone. When he gets to me I decide this is the best chance I have at being released. I put on my best BBC accent and proclaim “Adam Patrick Ramsey”. I knew my best bet at getting out was now playing the ‘British’ card. It’s a privilege I knew my fellow detainees couldn’t exploit, but my moral pillars crumbled in the circumstances, much to my disappointment.
The ‘Adam Ramsey’ part of my name is far too close to being an Egyptian name, so I decided to throw in one of my middle names. I thought it best to omit my other middle name, “Omar”.
“Adam what Ramsey?” he asks me. “Adam Patrick Ramsey” I say again before continuing, “I’m a British journalist”. “How old are you?” he suddenly asks in English before rooting through my wallet, where he thankfully finds my UK drivers license. Before I can answer he leaves the room only to return, incensed and suddenly speaking Arabic again.
“Born in Saudi Arabia eh?” I completely forgot that for some reason the UK license puts your country of birth. Rather than explain that I’m half-Malaysian half-Northern Irish and that I had little say in the place of my birth (never mind the fact Saudi is giving Egypt billions in aid), I decided to act coy. “I don’t understand you,” I said in terrible Arabic. “Fuck Saudi!” He replies, before throwing my license onto a pile of Egyptian IDs just outside the door.
The door is closed and the temperature slowly rises. A 50-year old teacher nods his head gently against my shoulder. I turn around and see a face of genuine sympathy, “I am sorry,” he says.
“Look”, he motioned to a corner of the room. I had completely missed a man of at least 60 crumpled in the corner. Both his legs were covered with birdshot, blood slowly pooling around his feet. I looked at the blood and the smell immediately became unbearable.
Outside the window a couple of CSF recruits looked in but all I could see were their legs. Suddenly, the barrel of a teargas gun is rested on one of the bars. When pain subsides and boredom sets in, the imagination plays fast and loose. I immediately recollect the story I read of the 36 men who suffocated to death in police custody.
Of course, in the end, the recruits simply walked away, but I was still shivering over the thought of what it would have been like, picturing what I would do were they to have fired tear gas at us. Probably die, was the conclusion I came to.
We could hear screams from outside the door, which would open only to reveal yet another poor man who was being flogged for no reason other than to sate the appetites of these megalomaniacal sadists. They wouldn’t stop until a scream or yelp was emitted, before then pushing him into the room to join us. They were practically high-fiving each other at their new and ingenious methods of delivering pain. In five years at a boy’s boarding house I never witnessed such levels of hyper-masculine pageantry. They fit the stereotype of despotic state security so perfectly it would have been funny if it were not so depressing.
After around an hour and a half, they decided to move us to another room. By now we were standing, packed like sardines, sweat beating off us. The two women had been removed long ago to God knows where and they hauled the birdshot man to get, I hope, some medical attention.
Policemen lined our path and hit us as we passed them into a room some 20 meters away. Except it was not even a room, rather a miniscule, enclosed courtyard in the middle of the building. Sixty of us squeezed our way in.
The tiled floors were dusty and covered in rubbish and aberrant marks of dried blood. I was pushed to my knees once again. I turned and tried to reason with my captors. I heard the desperation in my voice, but it was quickly cut off by a kick to the back. “Look straight ahead!” Would be the catchphrase for the rest of the evening.
I found it almost physically impossible to turn from a man who was hitting me, and this only prolonged the smacking. I finally turned and stayed turned, covering the back of my head. I noticed that everyone else was in exactly the same position.
This was by far the most painful part of the day. Far more than any whipping, slapping, kicking or punching. Kneeling for close to 3 hours left me almost incapable of walking once we were finally asked to stand. We were so crammed together there wasn’t space for me to put my hands on the floor to help shift my weight.
During this time I studied the back of the man kneeling in front of me. The different rips and blood stains, the open wound on his upper right shoulder, where the blood began to coagulate, haemostasis working its magic. I could feel the man behind me resting his head on my back. As the sun set the call for prayer was heard and incredibly (after asking a guard’s permission) everyone somehow pivoted towards Mecca and began to pray, still crouched.
As time passed, the men started whispering to one another and I took the chance to see where everyone else came from. They were taken from the same area as me. Some openly said they were part of the march, while others swore blind that it was just a case of wrong place, wrong time. All but one was experiencing arrest for the first time.
“Don’t worry, your embassy will help” one said to me. “Yeah, but only if they know he’s here,” replied the man behind him. “Just stay… what’s the word? Optimistic” said the man behind me, his head still resting on my back. I couldn’t believe how well everyone was dealing with it, some even risking humour.
The man in front suddenly gave that old trope that every visitor to Egypt would have heard a thousand times. “Welcam to Eegipt” he said. Everyone burst into laughter. “Shut up!” was the guard’s reaction.
After an hour or so, someone decided to ask for some water. With all of us facing the wall in front, we were suddenly pelted with small bottles from behind, the plastic pinging off heads and backs. These were shortly followed by near inedible packets of knock-off Borios (itself a knock-off Oreo).
“Mohamed Adel Mohamed?” a policeman suddenly asked. A young man to my left turned around, his face lighting up “Yes! That’s me.” He said with a look of pure hope. “Do you live in Imbaba?” queried the policeman. “Yes, yes!” replied the man. “Ok! Could you please… stay there,” he said.
He would do this every five minutes or so with a different person. It was a cruel twist moving from physical punishment to the emotional.
Suddenly, I hear “Is there a British national here?” I immediately twist around, my hand in the air, “Yes!” I replied. “Oh no, we need someone who was born in Saudi and is half-Malaysian”. “Yeah… That’s still me,” maybe the embassy had called, I thought. Maybe they finally realised that I really was a British journalist and are letting me out, “OK thanks, just stay there,” he smiled at me.
Of course he was just deluding me like he had everyone else. Hope is an incredibly tenacious emotion that can survive a lot of trauma, but can also make you feel immensely stupid for trusting in it.
After evening prayers, I began to resign myself to staying the night. My legs were numb by now so pain wasn’t a problem. The smell of noxious vinegar began to grate as more men began pissing themselves – I was happy to realise that this was the one type of relief I was not in need of.
At around 10pm, just over six hours after I was initially arrested, we were suddenly asked to stand up. I almost collapsed as my knees screamed bloody murder. Leaning on the man in front of me, I steadied myself and we filed out of the room and upstairs. We were told to queue up in front of a notice board. I read the yellowed certificates and newspaper clippings in recognition of the Police station’s valiant work of past decades.
Once again we were pulled aside, one by one, and our details recorded. Depending on the answer you gave, you were directed to one of two corners of the room. I readied myself once again. Same BBC accent, same reply of “Adam, what, Ramsey?” But this time, for a reason I still cannot figure out, I was separated from the rest and placed in a different corner by myself.
I stayed there silently while they sorted through the two groups, one with around 12 men and the other closer to 50. All looked exhausted, the blood on their shirts now that dull brown colour.
After some paperwork and backslapping the policemen sent the larger group back downstairs. The smaller group and I were free to leave. I immediately searched for a man I could communicate in English with. One man cordially obliged, until I began asking questions like “Why was I detained? I had a press pass issued in Egypt.” Suddenly, he became a mute, all hand signs, shakes of the head and dumbfounded expression.
I later found out that another foreign journalist had been detained in almost exactly the same area at exactly the same time as me. Having spoken to him about it, there is a good chance we actually travelled to the station in the same van, but he was sitting in the front. While I was on my knees, he was being questioned in an office ten meters away. The main differences between us that I could see were that: he is a little whiter than me; had his passport on him; yet he did not have an Egypt-approved press pass. The value of a press pass is questionable when it doesn’t guarantee a journalist is free from harassment or arbitrary detention.
The question is not just why a foreign national, or a journalist, can be detained like this, but why such conditions continue at all, for anyone. What I experienced looks dramatic on paper, but in reality, it was relatively trivial. I was kept for around 7 hours, that’s it. It’s a nightmare reality that gets much worse for far too many, far too often. Think of the Frenchman that was murdered in his cell, the Canadians who eventually went on hunger strike, the Al Jazeera reporters who are still being detained. Never mind the thousands of normal Egyptians that you won’t have heard of who are still in prison, some being tortured. These conditions have existed through Mubarak, The SCAF, Morsi and now Sisi. It’s nothing new.
But in the current nationalistic rapture, the state security can (and do) now point to a popular approval as mandating them and therefore endorsing these methods. It brings to mind Alexis De Tocqueville’s concept of the ‘tyranny of the majority’, where the sovereignty of this or that majority trumps the sovereignty of mankind – a lamentable state of affairs.
Walking down the street I flag a taxi to take me home. “Welcome to Egypt” says the taxi driver with a grin. On the radio ‘Teslam el Ayady’ is playing.