Cradling an assault rifle, the soldier in the sand-colored camouflage uniform stood on a chair, haranguing the group of men and women inside the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a noted human rights organization in Cairo. “You want to go outside?” he asked our group. “They will kill you.”
Last week, for all 28 of us—Egyptian human rights activists, three foreign journalists and two human rights researchers, including myself from Human Rights Watch and Said Haddadi from Amnesty International—the next 36 hours became a journey of fear, confusion and brutality.
It was also a journey that provided some insight into one of the key question of Egypt’s revolt: where does the army stand in the struggle between pro-democracy protesters and government forces?
The initial impression was that the military sided with the demonstrators yet provided order amid the chaos, which is why I was surprised to see the soldier on the chair, harassing the human rights workers about a “suspicious meeting” with foreigners bent on “ruining our country.”
No question that the center had supported the anti-Mubarak demonstrations; for years, it had done pioneering work on torture and justice. Was this raid—smashing windows, trashing furniture, confiscating files and detaining everyone at the office—done because the military wanted the demonstrators to go home? Or was it the first step in crushing all perceived opponents of the regime? There was no doubt that the army was in charge of the raid. At one point, a major general showed up at the Hisham Mubarak center and other officers worked hand in glove with a uniformed policeman, plainclothes state security agents and assorted abusive henchmen.
Inside the Hisham Mubarak center office, we were ordered to sit on the floor with our hands above our heads. The plainclothes men and a uniformed policeman rampaged through the office, breaking windows and hurling insults at those on the floor. “You’re from the Mossad,” the policeman yelled at me, referring to Israel’s intelligence agency. “You’re a spy.” I responded, “No, I’m with Human Rights Watch.”
Soon, everyone had been bound with white plastic handcuffs, arms pulled behind their backs. We would remain like that for about 10 hours. The agents confiscated our bags, which mostly held computers but also wallets, money, passports, and other documents.
Some made throat-slitting gestures; others pounded on the red minivans that would take us on our nighttime trip through Cairo.
We were led to the second floor landing, where we sat for several hours, subject to a chorus of insults from the agents but also strangers who came up from the street—one man slapped a young member of our group, another pushed someone to the ground. “Welcome to Egypt,” said a youth to me, sardonically, and pointed to the group of handcuffed people around me. “This is Egypt!” he said.
A Japanese photographer grabbed from a nearby street was added to our group. He, too, was handcuffed. It wasn’t clear why the military included him in our cluster; he had no connection with the Hisham Mubarak center.
Around midnight we were led away from the landing, with the cuffs still on. On the market street below, a crowd had gathered. This was especially frightening. From the mob, we could hear insults but also chants of “Egypt! Egypt!” Some made throat-slitting gestures; others pounded on the red minivans that would take us on our nighttime trip through Cairo.
At a place that someone identified as the Ministry of Interior complex, we got out from the minivan to be lined up for video and still photos. A military officer spoke about how he had fought against Israel and that our group was bringing Egypt down. It seemed to be a propaganda piece recorded for some future use.
When we finally arrived at what we later learned was Camp 75, a military headquarters in far northeast Cairo, we were marched inside, put in a walled outdoor courtyard and told to sit. The handcuffs came off and blindfolds were put on instead. I don’t think the Egyptian captives were in the same area, and I didn’t see the well-known human rights activist Ahmed Seif again.
Then the interrogations began. Some captives stood across a table from their questioners while others had to sit on the brick pavement. My questioning was in English and not too threatening—why was I visiting the Hisham Mubarak Center; what does Human Rights Watch do; why did I have Yemen and Tunisia visas in my passport were some of the questions.
My interrogation didn’t last more than 15 minutes but I spent the next 24 hours, still blindfolded, sitting on the pavement. Bathroom breaks required permission, sleep was fitful, food was two servings of half-slice of tough Egyptian bread with water.
At about 6 a.m., I asked to go to the bathroom in the courtyard and, using an old Nokia I had hidden on me, called an Egyptian friend. (We hadn’t been frisked before being taken into detention.) It was too early for her to answer, I knew, but at least the “missed call” message would suggest I was still alive. I was caught with the Nokia in hand, and guards removed its battery.
Back in the courtyard, I felt weak from too little water and too much anxiety. New Egyptian prisoners were brought in and I peeked beneath my blindfold for a glimpse: pious Salafi Muslims; men with sharply clipped beards of the type favored by the Muslim Brotherhood, the formally banned, but the largest political opposition; and other regular Egyptians, including women.
By evening, a couple of howls from somewhere inside the compound pierced the air. It was scary—especially since Mubarak’s regime is known for torturing prisoners in detention. (Last week, Human Rights Watch published a 95-page report documenting how Egyptian security forces torture and abuse people in detention.)
Finally, close to 10 p.m., guards began to summon members of our group out, and I was marched out to rummage through the belongings confiscated at the Hisham Mubarak Center. As I was led away, the Japanese photographer called out for me to not forget him and please call his embassy.
My blindfold came off. Laid out in front of me was a jumble of items, my computer and a charger among them. I still had documents and money, which I had hidden on my person. But others weren’t so lucky and lost money, phones, documents and whatever else they had left behind.
The journalists, my colleague Haddadi and I were driven by minivan to a random, nearby inn where we were unceremoniously dumped on the sidewalk. The guards gave us a half-hearted apology for our detention before driving off. The inn, however, refused to take us and a kind young army officer at a checkpoint agreed to take us to a hotel near the airport. Why he did this act of kindness remains a mystery. He could have let us spend the night on a curb, or harassed us, as had his colleagues. But maybe something else was going on under the epaulets. The next day, the Egyptian activists and the forlorn Japanese citizen were released.
The raid on the Hisham Mubarak Law Center exemplifies the persistence of abusive security practices under a military establishment, which claims it wants transition from the past.
But in this and other cases, now being documented by Human Rights Watch, the army was clearly in charge of arbitrary and sometimes violent arrests, even if the beatings and torture had been “outsourced” to other agencies or thugs.
For any “transition” to be meaningful, the security forces and other government institutions need to distance themselves from these practices and ensure civil liberties. They should announce that police abuses are at an end and freedoms of expression and association will be the law. They should cancel the 30-year old Emergency Law, which has long been used to curb the rights of Egyptians.
The new Egypt ought not to be just about putting new people in charge; it should be about the reform of an old and brutal system.
Daniel Williams is a senior researcher in the emergencies division of Human Rights Watch. He was previously a foreign correspondent for the Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Bloomberg News, and has covered the Middle East for the past decade.