Tuesday, April 6, 2010

My run-in with Egyptian state security

Today I witnessed a fraction of what Egyptian activists face.

Today is the second anniversary of the April 6, 2008 protests, which were the first simultaneous nation-wide protests in Egypt. The 6 April Youth, who became known after the protests, planned another strike for today. It was supposed to be a peaceful protest march from Tahrir Square to the Egyptian Parliament a few blocks away.

The Government was ready and in no mood to deal with protesters.

Another American journalist and I met at Ayman Nour's apartment in Zamalek at 10am. As we prepared to head downtown, one of Nour's people gave us a few suggestions: don't wear gold jewelry, and memorize someone's number in case you are arrested and they confiscate your phone. I rolled up my sleeve and wrote a few numbers - without names - on my arm. My friend did the same. My roommate and her roommate - non-political friends - and my editor.

Police standing outside the Journalists Syndicate in downtown Cairo
As our taxi neared Talat Harb street, the government's preparations were obvious. Uniformed police lined the streets. Large green military trucks were parked end to end on side streets, as many as eight in one place, each full of soldiers. The atmosphere was already tense.

Our initial destination point was the al-Ghad party headquarters on Talat Harb street. Before going to the headquarters, however, my companions and I decided to take a look at what was happening in Tahrir.

At around 11am we were walking from Talat Harb through Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo (where the Egyptian Museum and the American University are located). My friend and I stayed a dozen meters in front of our al-Ghad friends, figuring we would have more freedom to snap pictures as 'tourists' if we weren't associated with them.

As it turns out, that wasn't really the case.

I snapped a few pictures of the police lining Tahrir as we entered the square and then turned my camera off. My friend panned her camera around the square and toward the police. Suddenly, three angry men were coming straight toward us. It was immediately clear that these were plain-clothes security, and they were not happy.

Riot police in Tahrir Square
"Give me your camera," said the man in charge. "Give it to me. Let me see." He roughly grabbed my friend's camera, trying to pull it away from her.

"You can't do that!" She said, pulling away from him.

In the few seconds the exchange took, we were surrounded by plain-clothes security. One grabbed my arm, attempting to pull me away from my friend, while the first attempted to pull her camera away again. She held onto her camera and I held on to her, and we tried to walk away. Security blocked our path. "I'm an American citizen! You can't do this to me!" my friend shouted. The security pressed in closer. "Somebody help me! I'm an American citizen!" We were drawing looks from passerby. One of the security men waved his arm and we were completely encircled.

After a few intense minutes of arguing, we were ushered against the wall of the building behind us (Hardees). We were less conspicuous there, but we were still making a scene and the police were not pleased.

They also didn't believe a word that came out of my friend's mouth. They weren't terribly interested in me, possibly because they hadn't seen me taking pictures, but they interrogated my friend endlessly. Where are you from? What is your job? Why are you here? They didn't believe her story - that she was a student and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (later, when we saw the same security men in a coffee shop around the corner, the head man said flatly to my friend: "You are a liar").

Finally a female security officer in uniform came over (this is the first time female officers have been deployed during a protest, and later in the day they proved just as brutal as the men). She went through our bags piece by piece. The first man had already taken a copy of my friend's passport (which we never saw again), but I had no identification on me. Looking back, I'm glad - they don't know who I am.

The whole time, my friend had been on the phone with our al-Ghad friends and others, letting them know that while we were being detained, we would be okay. Whatever happened, we did not want our al-Ghad friends to show up: if they did, our story about being in the wrong place at the wrong time would be shot. As it was, the officers were demanding to know who we were on the phone with. "Who is Badawy?" they demanded.

After another ten minutes or so, another plain-clothes officer arrived. He was better dressed and clearly had more authority than the officers who had been dealing with us so far. He was smiling as he ambled over.

"What is the problem?" he asked.

"I've been all over the world, and I've never had problems with the police!" fumed my friend.

"You still don't have trouble with the police," said the man, still smiling amiably. At this point I was shaking, half from nerves and half on purpose. He looked directly at me. "Why are you frightened?" he asked.

Eventually he 'explained' to us that there were demonstrations, and it was a security matter that we weren't allowed to take pictures. After a few more minutes of this back-and-forth, someone said, "okay okay, come this way." We were ushered around the corner onto another street, and when we looked behind us we realized we were no longer being accompanied by security. We were free to go, it seemed.

Needless to say, my friend and I were a bit shaken up. Our encounter with the police had been pretty intense.

What we faced was only a small taste of what Egyptian activists face: as Americans, the regime is less likely to physically harass us.

Even so, we knew going back to the protest was going to be a bad idea. We finally made the decision not to go back into Tahrir. We considered moving to the al-Ghad headquarters, but my friend had a bad feeling about it, and luckily we went with her gut: around the time we would have arrived, there was a confrontation with state security outside the headquarters when Ayman Nour and his supporters attempted to leave the building. They were eventually forced back inside and the door was barricaded for over three hours, with no one allowed out. Ayman Nour's eldest son was briefly detained by security, and the scratches and bruises on his neck are a testament to the way he was manhandled by the plain-clothes officers.

Noor Ayman Nour, eldest son of Ayman Nour, arrested near Talat Harb.
Photo by Al-Jazeera.
It's too soon to really say if the day was successful or not, but... here are some thoughts and facts:
  • Over 80 persons were arrested and moved to the police station in Nasr City.
  • There were violent confrontations between police and protesters in Tahrir and also outside the parliament; there were even female police beating female protesters, and two women sustained broken arms.
  • More than 70 people were locked inside al-Ghad headquarters;
  • Violent clashes occurred in Alexandria;
  • Mobile phones and gold jewelry were confiscated by security around the parliament;
  • ElBaradei was completely absent from the scene, and there is a possibility that this will hurt his reputation here. Already there has been much criticism on both Facebook and Twitter.
I'll get back to you on some of this soon... there's so much I want to say, I don't really know where to begin.


  1. Excellent post. Keep up the good work =)

  2. Thank you for your courage. Being an American citizen allow you to do most of the stuff we can't do while being sure you'll walk away unharmed at the end. I wish we had more people like you willing to help expose this fascist regime.

  3. :'( I hope more Egyptian youth are less apathetic...