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Detained in Cairo

The Media Line’s Cairo correspondent is beaten and held

by Joseph Mayton / The Media Line

December 19, 2011 | 12:09 pm

Protesters run during clashes with army soldiers near Tahrir Square in Cairo on Dec. 18. Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Protesters run during clashes with army soldiers near Tahrir Square in Cairo on Dec. 18. Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

I had been abused and beaten and had my camera confiscated all in the confines of the cabinet building, the headquarters of Egypt’s nascent democracy. Now, for the better part of an hour, I was languishing in a makeshift holding pen somewhere at the entrance of the building.

A group of plainclothes men entered. One handed another a heavy metal rod and they began talking about where they might shove it into me and how they wanted to destroy my face.  I retrospect, I suspect the whole thing was an act, but being a neophyte prisoner, suddenly cut off from the world and having no sense of when or how I would be released, it worked well enough. The men discussed my fate, one holding the rod firmly in his hand and occasionally turning in my direction.

They left without acting, but by now the last remnant of any hope that my being a journalist or an American citizen, much less someone who was not guilty of new crime, might somehow be released with no more than a few welts and some abuse.

Over the previous several hours on Saturday morning I had seen children as young as 13 shoved to the ground, beaten by soldiers, kicked and punched in the face over and over. I had a first-hand view of every detainee brought in to what began to look more and more like the military’s torture chamber.

One young man had been thrown against a stone pillar. Soldiers kicked him repeatedly, despite his pleading. A man brought a small palm tree trunk out – from where I don’t know – and began beating him with it. The blood that came forth was shocking. He was then dragged to the back grass area, where earlier in the morning, regular beatings were taking place.

Ten months after Husni Mubarak was ousted from office, I got to see firsthand over 13 hours in detention the new Egypt, a country where the military rules, the police and the torturers act as enforcers and the civilian prime minister comes on television to deny that the army is using live fire against protestors and to call on civilians to civilians “to protect Egypt” from the very people who are trying to save it.

The violence against protestors began in the early morning hours of Friday, with a barrage of rocks hurled from the roof of the cabinet building and smashing onto the sidewalk were demonstrators were gathered. The calls of haassib (stone throwing) echoed throughout the air, as the stones tumbled through the sky.

The protesters who had defied the troops stationed along Qasr el-Aini and Magles el-Shaab Streets could not avoid being hit, toppling to the ground. Fellow demonstrators carried the injured; their heads covered in blood, down a side street to makeshift hospital close to the U.S. and British embassies.

Cairo had once again turned into a war-zone, pitting the military against protesters who had been carrying out a non-violent sit-in. Throughout Friday, the barrage of rocks continued, soldiers and protesters alike hurling stones at each other. By Sunday morning, activists and medics estimated that 10 people had been killed. 

On Saturday morning, calm seemed to return to Egypt’s capital. Heading down to the street, I wanted to see the barbed wire that had been erected on the street parallel to where I lived. I took out my camera and snapped an image. Nothing looked threatening. Groups of men had gathered and the security personnel on the other side of the barbed wire were idly manning their positions.

An elderly woman approached me. She told me how the soldiers had removed the memory card from her camera and deleted almost all of her pictures. “I wanted to document the violence against the military,” she told me on the corner of Hussein Hegazy Street. With no apparent sense of irony she went on to insist that the protesters were the ones “committing suicide” and that “the military and police had never killed any Egyptian citizen.”

Naively, I decided to refute her claim, telling her of my own first-hand experience on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in late November, where scores of Egyptians were killed by live fire from the security forces and the military. She would have none of it, calling me a liar.

By now, we were joined by a group of men from the ligaan shaabiya, or people’s committee, that guarded the entrance to nearby streets, including my own. They demanded to see my passport and know why I was here. As I started to leave, they grabbed my arms and neck.

A uniformed military officer was quick to the scene. He pulled me from what I thought was harm’s way and handed me over to another soldier, who led me inside the cabinet building, where I assumed that I would be released.

That was not to happen. Instead, he put me in a headlock, lifted me off my feet and dragged me into the building’s courtyard. Once there, he tightened the grip on my neck and slapped me in the face repeatedly. Others who I never had a chance to see struck me on the back.

The pummeling over, but not my detention, I was taken to an open grass area where dozens of bandaged detainees were languishing on the ground. I realized that the beating I had received until now might just be the beginning.

But I was lucky: They sat me down away from the others and took my camera and computer, going through each and every file on the computer to delete they said were “not appropriate to tell of Egypt.” I got back my computer, now reconfigured to confirm with the New Egypt and was led to the makeshift holding pen to meet the men with the metal rod.

They departed with their threat, but not long afterwards, the officer who had taken me from the street – a major, I learned later – entered the room.  “If I see you again near the street, I will slit your throat,” he announced and instructed me to walk down the street until the end and go home. I got up, exited the building and began my trek over the rock debris that covered the street from the battles of the previous day.

I got no more than halfway down the street before a soldier caught up with me and ordered me to return. I had to see a colonel of the secret police colonel before I could leave. With two soldiers flanking me, I was marched to the other side of the street, just past the parliament building, where we were met by a group of baton-wielding plainclothes officers. They began to speak in rapid Arabic, accusing me of trying to reignite the protests that had died down.

One of the men barked at me a question. When I told him I didn’t understand a word he used, he replied calmly, “I will make you understand inside.” But at that moment something bigger was happening. All around me the soldiers who had been standing idly by a fleet of armored vehicles began putting on riot gear and moving out. In the distance, black smoke rose above the buildings from what I learned later was Tahrir Square. The military had already attacked.

Taken back to the holding cell, I spent the next 10 hours waiting for my release. I was told that someone from my embassy, the American Embassy in Cairo, could come and take me away and I would be free.

Surprisingly my jailers allowed me to keep my phone, so I called the embassy myself ––to have someone come and arrange my released. They refused, citing diplomatic issues between Washington and the Egyptian security forces as well as the precarious security situation on the street outside. The embassy is building is on the opposite side of the street no more than 100 meters (300 feet) from where I was being held, but officials insisted that the security officer at has banned all personnel from being near the scene.

I had been abused, threatened and beaten, but for the first time, I was angry.

By early afternoon, a Hungarian national, Mark Fodor, was also brought in for the offense of taking photos at the same spot I was detained. He immediately contacted his embassy and got the ball rolling. By around 9 p.m., the Hungarian counsel was en route to free him. I was livid. Two Egyptian officers had specifically told embassy officials on the phone that to get me released an embassy employee had to come get me.

But they never came. I would have to stay the night until the morning, they insisted.

It was cold and after Fodor – who I had conversed with throughout the afternoon and early evening – was gone. I was preparing for a lonely night in the small, pitch black room without any confidence about what would happen tomorrow when suddenly two soldiers entered. They asked me if I knew how to get home and took me to a side street outside and let me go.

It was a strange turn of events, but I had been freed.

I still wonder where the U.S. State Department was over the matter. Why had they not issued a statement about an American journalist being held in Cairo for an entire day? Was diplomacy more important than my freedom and ability to conduct my work? It was, and remains, a disheartening reality.

One Embassy official had the audacity to question why I had been at a “dangerous” place in Cairo. The same official told my wife that I “should not have even left my apartment,” citing the security directives issued from the embassy. I am a journalist and it is my job to document. The American Embassy and government should know better than to make such claims.

My neck and back may still be in pain, sore from the early morning beating I received, but as I write, Egyptians continue to brave military attacks down the street. They are fed up with military rule, and it is time the world stands with the Egyptians who want change. They fought the Mubarak government, which was replaced by the military. Now they are continuing the unfinished revolution.

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