American journalist Joseph Mayton: Inside Egypt’s detention center

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Clashes between soldiers and protesters in downtown Cairo.

 

 

After a Friday of violence, Saturday morning seemed to see calm return to Cairo’s streets. Heading down to the street, I wanted to see the barbed wire fence that had been erected on the street on Qasr al-Aini, parallel to where I lived. I took out my camera and snapped an image. It was unassuming. Groups of men had gathered, and the military across the barbed wire was stationary. It seemed as if the violence that had rocked this part of downtown Cairo had come to an end.

An elderly woman approached me. She told me how the military had taken her memory card from her camera and deleted almost all her pictures. “I wanted to document the violence against the military,” she told me on the corner of Hussein Hegazy street. She went on to claim that the protesters were the ones “committing suicide” and that “the military and police had never killed any Egyptian citizen.”

In all my wisdom, 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 Central Security Forces and the military. She would have none of my talk, calling me a liar and prompting a group of men from the ligaan shaabiya, or people’s committee that guarded the entrance to nearby streets, including my own, to come over. They demanded to see my passport and know why I was there. Attempting to leave the area, they grabbed my arms and neck, forcing me to stay.

A uniformed military officer was quick to the scene, grabbing me and pulling me out of what I thought was harm’s way. Another soldier took me toward the cabinet building. I believed that I would be let go shortly. Instead, I was taken in a headlock, lifted off my feet and dragged into the courtyard area, where the grip on my neck increased. I was slapped in the face numerous times and hit on the back by unknown assailants.

I was taken to an open grass area where dozens of bandaged and brutally attacked detainees were languishing on the ground. It was then that the fear that I could be beaten worse began to enter my mind. I was lucky, however, as they sat me down a ways away from the others and took my camera and computer. They proceeded to go through every file on the computer, deleting all things they felt “were not appropriate to tell of Egypt.” Then they re-formatted my computer and handed it back.

After waiting there with the others for about an hour, I was moved to a pseudo holding cell at the entrance to the Cabinet building, where I waited. A group of plainclothes men arrived. One handed another a metal rod, and the conversation they had in Arabic was of what they wanted to do to me. Where they wanted to shove the rod and how they wanted to “destroy my face.”

After an hour of waiting, the major (I learned later) who had taken me from the street, came into the room and told me that “If I see you again near the street, I will slit your throat,” and told me to walk straight down the street until the end and go home. I got up and left, beginning to walk over the still rock debris that marked the street from the battles the previous day.

Halfway down the street, a soldier caught up with me and told me to return. I had to see the secret police colonel before I could leave. With two soldiers on both sides, I was marched to the other side of the street, just past the parliament building, where we were met by a group of stick holding plainclothes officers. They began to speak in rapid Arabic, accusing me of fomenting the protests to continue.

One of the men asked me a question I didn’t understand. When I told him I didn’t understand the word he used, he replied, calmly and joyfully, “I will make you understand inside.” The soldiers, however, moved me quickly from the area where dozens of armored vehicles were stationed, waiting. Soldiers were putting on riot gear and vehicles were 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 would spend 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.

I called the Embassy – surprisingly they allowed me to keep my phone – and began a dialogue to have someone from the embassy come and have me released. They refused to do so, citing diplomatic issues between Washington and the Egyptian security forces as well as the security situation on the street outside. I was angry at my government.

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