I recorded the events inside the truck, and our beatings beforehand, not to highlight an exception but rather to cast light on a rule, the rule of brutal and unaccountable violence at the heart of Mubarak’s security apparatus.
Today hundreds of Egyptians remain in custody after being arrested during this week’s unrest; thousands more of their countrymen have remained behind bars for far longer, their locations unknown, their basic legal rights suspended by Egypt’s perpetual ‘Emergency Law’. An account of my experiences last night may offer a very limited and shallow taster of what these prisoners of one of the Middle East’s oldest dictatorships live through every day.
In the streets around Abdel Muni Riyad square, it was immediately clear that the atmosphere had changed. Earlier there had been an almost carnival-like vibe in nearby Tahrir square, which demonstrators succeeded in occupying for most of the day; now at 1am the air was thick with tear gas and thousands of people could be seen running out of Tahrir towards me. Several hundred regrouped and rallied in Al Galaa, a main road that leads up towards Cairo station; spotting an abandoned police truck, a few dozen protesters immediately set about attacking the vehicle, eventually tipping it over and setting it ablaze. Through the smoke, lines of riot police could be seen charging towards us from the south.
Along with nearby protesters I fled back down the street before stopping at what appeared to be a safe distance. A few ordinarily dressed young men were running in my direction, and I assumed they were demonstrators also escaping the oncoming security troops. Two came towards me and suddenly threw out punches, sending me to the ground. I was then hauled back up by the scruff of the neck and dragged towards the advancing police lines.
My captors were burly and wore leather jackets – up close I could see they were ‘amin dowla, plain-clothes officers from Egypt’s notorious state security service. All attempts I made to tell them in Arabic and English that I was an international journalist were met with more punches and slaps; around me I could make out other isolated protestors also being pulled along, receiving the same brutal treatment and choking from the tear gas. We were all being hustled towards a security office on the edge of the square, only two streets away from my apartment. As I approached the doorway of the building other plain clothes security officers milling around took flying kicks and punches at me, pushing me to the floor on several occasions only to drag me back up and hit me again. I spotted a high-ranking uniformed officer, and shouted at him that I was a British journalist. He responded by walking over and punching me twice. “Fuck you and fuck Britain,” he yelled in Arabic.
One by one the captured protesters and I were thrown through the doorway, where a gauntlet of officers with sticks and clubs was awaiting us. We queued up to run through the blows and into a dank, narrow corridor where we were pushed up against the wall. Our mobiles and wallets were removed. Officers stalked up and down barking at us to keep staring at the wall and not look back, whilst the sounds of more protesters being shoved inside could be heard behind us. Terrified of incurring more beatings, most of my fellow detainees – almost exclusively young men in their twenties and thirties, some still clutching dishevelled Egyptian flags from the protest – remained completely silent, though some muttered Quranic verses under their breath and others were shaking with sobs.
After what seemed like an age we were ordered to sit down, though there was barely any space in the little strip-lit hallway to do so. Eventually a senior officer began dragging people to their feet, sending them back out though the gauntlet one by one and into the night, where we were immediately jumped on by more police officers – this time with riot shields – and shepherded into a waiting green truck belonging to Egypt’s central security forces. The steps up to it were small and rickety, whilst the entranceway to the rear body of the truck – pressed into use as a portable metal prison – was barely wide enough to accommodate a single person at a time. A policeman smashed my head against the doorframe as I entered; inside dozens of protesters were already crammed in and crouching in the darkness. Some had heard the officers count us as we boarded; our number stood at 44, all packed into a space barely any bigger than the back of a Transit van. A heavy metal door swung shut and locked behind us.
Inside, conditions were horrendous. As the truck began to move, brief flashes of orange streetlight streamed through the thick metal grates on each side; with no windows, it was our only source of illumination. With each glimmer, bruised and bloodied faces were revealed; we were sandwiched in so tightly that the temperature quickly soared, and a number of people fainted. Snatched fragments of conversation began drifting through the truck, as the inmates exchanged anecdotes.
“The police attacked us to get us out of the square; they didn’t care who you were, they just attacked everybody,” explained the man next to me breathlessly, who turned out to be a lawyer named Ahmed Mamdouh. “They took everybody’s wallet and cell phones and they hit our heads and hurt some people. There are some people bleeding, and we don’t know where they’re taking us. I want to send a message to my wife; I’m not afraid but she will be so scared, this is my first protest and she told me not to come here today.”
Despite the demeaning violence meted out to all those in the truck, the protesters held together with remarkable strength and solidarity; those who collapsed were quickly helped to their feet, messages of support were whispered and then yelled from one end of our metallic jail to another, and when it emerged that a couple of people had managed to hide their mobiles from the police the phones were quickly passed around so that as many as possible could call their loved ones. “As I was being dragged in a police general said to me: ‘Do you think you can change the world? You can’t! Do you think you are a hero? You are not’,” confided Mamdouh. “What you see here – this brutality and torture – this is why we were protesting today,” added another voice close by in the gloom.
Denied anything but scattergun glimpses of the outside world through the grates, speculation was rife about where we were heading. The truck veered wildly round corners, sending us all flying to one side, and regularly came to an emergency stop, throwing everyone forwards. “They treat us like we’re not Egyptians, like we are their enemy, just because we are fighting for jobs,” said Mamdouh through gritted teeth. I asked him what it felt like to be considered an enemy by your own government. “I feel like they are my enemies too,” he replied.
At several points the truck roared to a stop and the single door would clank open, revealing armed policemen on the other side. They called out the name of one of the protesters, ‘Nour’ – the son of Ayman Nour, a prominent political dissident who challenged Hosni Mubarak for the presidency in 2005 and was promptly thrown in jail for his troubles. Nour became a cause celebre amongst international politicians and pressure groups; since his release from prison Egypt’s security forces have tried to avoid attacking him or his family directly, conscious of the negative publicity that would inevitably follow.
His son, a respected political activist in his own right, had been caught in the police sweep and was in the back of the truck with us – now the policemen were demanding he come forward, as they had orders for his release. “No, I’m staying,” said Nour simply, over and over again and to thunderous applause from the rest of the inmates. I made my way through the throng and asked him why he wasn’t taking up the chance to get out. “Because either I leave with everyone else or I stay with everyone else; it would be cowardice to do anything else,” he responded. “That’s just the way I was raised.”
After several meandering circles which seemed to take us out further and further into the desert fringes of the city, the truck finally shuddered to a halt. We had been trapped inside for so long that the heat was unbearable; more people had fainted, and one man was now collapsed completely on the floor, struggling for breath. By the light of the few mobile phones that had made it into the truck, protesters tore his shirt open and tried to steady his breathing; one demonstrator had medical experience and warned that the man was entering a diabetic coma. A huge cry went up inside the truck as protesters began thumping the sides and bellowing through the grates: “Help, a man is dying.” There was no response.
After some time a commotion could be heard outside; fighting appeared to be breaking out between police and others whom we couldn’t make out. At one point the whole truck began to rock alarmingly from side to side whilst figures, hidden from view through the grates, began banging the metal exterior, sending huge metallic clangs echoing round our ears as we clung on for dear life. We could make out that a struggle was taking place over the opening of the door; none of the protesters had any idea what lay on the other side, but all resolved to charge at it whenever the door yawned open. Eventually it did so, to reveal a police officer who began to grab inmates and haul them out, beating them as they went. A cry went up and we surged forward, sending the policeman flying; the diabetic man was then carried out carefully by protesters before the rest of us spilled gleefully onto the streets.
Later it emerged that we had won our freedom through the efforts of Nour’s parents, Ayman and his former wife Gamila Ismail, who had followed the truck at breakneck speed and fought with officers for our release. Shorn of money and phones and stranded several miles into the desert, the protesters began a long trudge back towards Cairo, hailing down cars on the way. Most said that they would be back on the streets again in the morning. “They beat the fear out of me,” said Mohamed Abo Awad, a 21 year old. The diabetic patient was swiftly loaded into a vehicle and taken to hospital; I’ve been unable to find out his condition since.