Cairo diary, December 2012: Walls, women, rape, fear

Tenting tonight in the old campground: In Midan Tahrir, November 27

Tenting tonight in the old campground: In Midan Tahrir, November 27 © Scott Long

I was detained at the airport coming into Cairo this time. When the woman at the control desk swiped my passport through the computer, a startled look filled her face below the hijab. She waved me down to the far, last lane: a place where Palestinians and stateless people congregate, in that limbo between borders where one is at the government’s mercy without having any claim on it. I lingered there an hour or so, generally ignored, and then an officer led me off to a remote room, somewhere past the lost-luggage desk. He locked the door behind me.

This was a dispiriting chamber, flat under faint fluorescent light, with empty chairs and graffiti on the walls: “Gaza” recurred over and over, with different dates, expressive as a scream. Another man sat there, Egyptian. He worked in Africa, had lost his passport there, and was trying to enter on a consular document. “Did they turn the key?” he said.

“Yes.”

“Shit on these shitholes. I hope their shit eats shit and dies of it,” he said, matter-of-factly. “They should die in the shit that they shovel onto others. How are you?”

It took three hours, and it mostly consisted of waiting. If I’ve learned anything from dealing with state officials, as investigator or victim, it’s that it’s pointless to ask questions. Silence elicits information as well as anything does; it makes them do the asking, and that tells you what they don’t know. In my case, they didn’t know why they wanted me. “You are on a security list,” an officer finally told me.

“Why?” I ventured.

“We’re not sure, but we have to check you for security.”

I’m not certain either what “checking me” entailed — Googling me? calling my parents? In any case, they finally released me into mother Egypt, not long after my sans-papiers colleague. (“Goodbye,” he said, “enjoy the shit.”) The whole episode explained why I had been similarly stopped (minus the cell and the locked door) the last three times I entered the country — previously, I’d supposed the controllers simply appalled by my ragged and decaying passport, relic of too many sweaty days and back pockets. But apparently some bureaucrat actually has put my name down with a permanent interrogatory beside it: What is he doing here? I feel flattered: not so much at being imputed a fake importance, but because the State and I are finally asking the same question.

Borders leave scars here. Nine years ago, in Cairo, I interviewed an Egyptian who’d lived for years in the US — he’d claimed asylum there as a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist group that Mubarak’s government suppressed savagely. 9/11 happened, and Hizb ut-Tahrir lost its credit with the US authorities. A few days after, police in his Connecticut suburb took him into custody. Never mind his pending asylum case; never mind the American woman he’d married. After a year in jail, they deported him to Egypt. As he came into the Cairo airport in chains, a US immigration officer handed his case file to the passport police. It was the same as saying, “Torture him, please.” State Security held him for several weeks, and they went through the standard repertory: cold water, beatings, electroshock to the genitals. When I met him he still had memory lapses, lacunae that themselves bore witness to an interrupted life.

That happened because he crossed the invisible line of an imperial power. I represent the imperial power (“Permit the citizen/national of the United States to pass without delay or hindrance,” my brand-new passport says). And so I’m used to crossing borders free of fear. That said, the first thing you notice, coming back to Cairo after a year, is the sheer proliferation of borders. The boundary has decamped from the country’s edge, and now divides its center.  I’m staying near the much-feared Ministry of Interior, and morning and night I walk through two barbed-wire barricades on either side of it, past milling and listless Central Security troops, and a soldier manning a rifle atop an armored personnel carrier.

Walls have risen all around the government quarter, to keep the people from reaching it. Take any side street, and you’ll run into a rampart. Here’s one across Qasr el-Aini street, one of the main entries to Midan Tahrir:

The smile was added later

The smile was added later:  © Scott Long

Here is a barrier protecting the security forces’ headquarters — you can see the Interior Ministry’s sinister radio tower looming in the rear:

Don't walk this way: © Tyler Huffman

Don’t walk this way: © Tyler Huffman

The graffiti is a Quranic verse, and it’s aimed at the State: “They will not fight you, except in fortified townships, or from behind walls. Their belligerence is strong among themselves. You would think they were united, but their hearts are divided: That is because they are a people without wisdom.”

The walls don’t dice up the city in any coherent way.  They’re just meant to prevent protesters from accessing the State’s most sensitive points. But they stake out a symbolic division between the Revolution and the government: still at odds after two years and two elections. And, like most borders, they mark where people died.

47 people died a year ago along Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a green avenue leading from Tahrir. That’s a long story, like most in Cairo. In November 2011, the government decided to clear out the ongoing opposition sit-in from the main square, and Central Security Forces [Amn el-Merkazi] tried to use Mohamed Mahmoud as their route of attack. Protesters set up a defense line there. Security retaliated by building a wall. Five days of battle followed. Security gunfire blinded many demonstrators — the marksmen aimed straight at their eyes. Hundreds were injured: there’s no exact count. No one has been punished for the blindings or the deaths.

DSC00570

Ruins of Lycee Horreya, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, November 27: © Scott Long

Mohamed Mahmoud also figured in the chaos of the last three weeks, which I hardly have the ability to summarize, though I’ll try. On November 19 protesters gathered on the street, to commemorate the previous year’s deaths. The Interior Ministry used tear gas to disperse them; in the ensuing days, clashes spread to the other margins of Tahrir Square. At least one young man was killed. Central Security holed up in a lycee on Mohamed Mahmoud — the Lycee Horreya, Freedom School (Cairo is beyond irony) — firing on the protesters from above and throwing rocks at them.  Soon the school was almost completely torched.

Amid all this, on November 22 Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader narrowly elected President five months ago, issued a decree. Morsi has been ruling by decree ever since he was inaugurated. There’s nobody else to make laws; days before the presidential vote in June, the Constitutional Court disbanded the Parliament elected last year. (Since the Muslim Brotherhood were the dominant force in Parliament, many saw that move as Mubarak-era judges striving to deprive political Islamists of power. If so, though, it backfired, since the election promptly handed sole authority to an Islamist President.) Morsi’s new decree cemented his own decreeing power. He made his decisions immune to judicial review, until a new Parliament sits in some unspecified future. He also exempted the Constituent Assembly from judicial oversight. In effect, he decreed himself dictator.

Mubarak used to pick judges specifically for their willingness to jail Brotherhood members. Morsi and his party therefore loathe the only-supposedly-independent judiciary, something that seems both reasonable and requited. The Constituent Assembly, though, is what’s at the center of this mess. The now-dissolved Parliament had chosen the Assembly to write a new constitution for Egypt. Predictably, since the Brotherhood ran Parliament, they picked a Constituent Assembly that they ran too. Nearly all secular and liberal representatives had already withdrawn from it in protest. Most people expected the Constitutional Court to decide, in a pending case, that the Assembly itself was illegitimate. Morsi’s decree forestalled that, giving the Assembly (and hence the Brotherhood) fiat over Egypt’s future.

Crowds off Mohamed Mahmoud Street, November 27: © Scott Long

Crowds off Mohamed Mahmoud Street, November 27: © Scott Long

When I arrived on November 23, the lemony tang of tear gas constantly drifted south from central Cairo, and the thud of bursting cannisters punctuated night and day. Protests had broken out in cities across the country. There was  impotence in the anger, a rage at everything going wrong. I went to Mohamed Mahmoud the next night, just under the lycee where Central Security had their bastion. Teenagers with rocks and Molotov cocktails were tearing apart a parked car, for no apparent reason except they couldn’t get at the killers four stories up. A few days later the cindered car still sat there, beneath a scraggle of graffiti that said “Happy Birthday.”

Youssef el Guindy Street, off Mohamed Mahmoud, November 27. Among the graffiti: "Long live the prisoners'   intifada"; "Glory to the workers of Egypt": © Scott Long

Youssef el Guindy Street, off Mohamed Mahmoud, November 27. Among the graffiti: “Long live the prisoners’ intifada”; “Glory to the workers of Egypt”: © Scott Long

After Morsi’s decree, the Assembly scurried to submit a proposed Constitution, and Morsi scheduled a rush referendum for December 15. The protests have continued: here’s a scene from a massive opposition march on November 27, as the crowd stops to jeer in front of the headquarters of Morsi’s party downtown.

It’s not that the draft Constitution is unspeakably worse than the existing one; it’s not even that it offers some instant blueprint for Islamist rule. Neither, despite the melodrama opponents indulge, is true. (A comparison of the two Constitutions is here; an analysis of the more controversial new provisions, here.) The rage is rather that the Revolution was thwarted from producing something better: and that Morsi is forcing down this ploddingly inept document by the old means of extralegal rigging. It’s also anger at two years in which the State has consistently brutalized its own people rather than answer their demands. Whether under Mubarak, the military, or Morsi, the government chose to build barricades against its citizens — and shoot them, to kill.

As an outsider, the anger concerns me more than the Constitution; I can feel the first, while the second is an abstraction. I don’t even know how to write about the rapes, except you have to, because they’re everywhere. My first day here, the office where I’m working asked me for information about rape kits; two women had come to them after they were raped near Tahrir. That night, I went to a friend’s flat; her neighbor had been gang-raped along with another woman, dragged into a dark side street in the vicinity of the Square.

Sexual harassment, the show of men’s physical power over women in public space, has been a political issue in Egypt for several years. Yet no one was prepared for sexual violence on this scale. Some activists have claimed the Muslim Brotherhood has gathered roving mobs to rape protesting women; in the UK, the Daily Mail has blazoned this rumor eagerly. No one actually knows, because no actual people have been accused or caught. Central Security only comes near Tahrir to taunt or shoot protesters, not to protect them. For anybody else, there’s virtual impunity in much of downtown.

DSC00665

Anti-police graffiti near the Ministry of Interior: “He learned his job by bribery.” Two images of Revolutionary martyrs are on the right. © Scott Long

A vigilante spirit roams Egypt. The police largely disappeared after the Revolution. There are just enough traffic cops at intersections to maintain the show of somebody being in charge. But for nearly all Egyptians, the police were the government’s most corrupt, intrusive and abusive visage: everybody had to deal with them, everybody despised them, and they were the one part of the State that, in the chaos of regime change, had the self-preserving sense to melt away. In many neighborhoods now, officers wouldn’t dare show their faces on patrol if you tripled their pay. Central Security Forces are supposed to fill the gap. These are ill-trained army recruits, mostly from the provinces, deputed to urban policing tasks that they have no clue how to fulfill. One reason so many demonstrators have been slaughtered since the Revolution is simply that Central Security has no experience in crowd control. State Security [Amn el-Dawla], Mubarak’s dreaded secret police, at least knew how to contain a dissident gathering, up to a certain size; but they’re officially defunct (meaning they’ve gone underground). The raw boys of Central Security carry only the fears fed them by their superiors, and their guns.

In this environment, communities themselves — the neighborhood, the extended family — take up the responsibility for “security.” Communal cooperation is part of the Egyptian genius. Yet the immediate result is to make outsiders suspect by definition. I’ve seen this first-hand: last year, trying to get to a demonstration near the Defense Ministry in the Abbasiyya quarter, I found myself amid a mob of local residents running to attack the intruders, armed with large knives, all convinced that their streets and homes themselves were under attack from people who didn’t belong. (Since I fell in that category, I count myself lucky that I don’t have more pieces of myself to count.) I can easily imagine the rapes as product of a nightmarish moral vigilantism: the work of men convinced these women aren’t proper Egyptian women, that if not controlled they will invade our streets and our places, that they must be punished.

Even beyond the stories of rape, something ominous is afoot. It’s hard not to feel that the Revolution has actually reinforced patriarchal control of women: not the way you might think, by reinstating religion, but rather by making men identify more deeply with an ethos of protection. I talked in recent days with Egyptian researchers doing ethnography in two working-class and conservative neighborhoods in Cairo. The men and women they’ve interviewed alike have stressed their fears about safety. Everyone’s heard rumors about the rapes. Moreover, everybody subsists in terror of a crime wave, even if they haven’t actually seen crimes. And men have locked stricter controls on “their” women, their wives and daughters, in response: restrictions on going out unaccompanied, walking alone, staying out at night. Women lose not only mobility but social cohesion if they can’t meet one another freely, and economic independence if they can’t make it to market or work (as many do) as street vendors. Men, meanwhile, gain power in reclaiming a traditional role as guardians. (It’s at least some compensation for the lost jobs of a collapsed economy.) There are political implications to these shifts, although they’re hard to read. As a guardian State slowly reasserts its legitimacy, incarnate in a patriarchal figure like Morsi, will men identify with it, or resent its encroachment? Or both at once?

Stand by your man: Male protesters form a ring around women marchers, Talaat Harb Street, November 27

Stand by your man: Male protesters form a ring around women marchers, Talaat Harb Street, November 27 © Scott Long

Vigilantes patrol on both sides now, in fact: the bad vigilantes cut hair and enforce modesty, and the good vigilantes protect their women from all that. You can see the guardian role in all manner of places — among the middle class, for instance, in last Tuesday’s mass opposition march, where men formed a cordon around women protesters to safeguard them. (There’s even a Twitter account for this now, @Tahrirbodyguard, “A collective effort to ensure safety in Tahrir, especially for women” –oddly, it’s all in English.) The thing is, it’s a little hard to be caught between all these protectors. If you want to see the dilemmas this poses for feminism, consider this anti-sexual harassment graffiti, from Mohamed Mahmoud Street:

Up against the wall, motherharassers

Up against the wall, motherharassers: © Scott Long

The central two panels are about women empowered. The top one says (roughly) “If he calls you a hot slut, use a weapon”; the bottom, “No matter how much of my body shows or doesn’t show, it’s free and can never be humiliated.” But the bottom left carries a different message, and it’s not for women at all: “Be a man! Protect her!”

This call to be a man is heard quite a bit in Cairo. Masculinity itself seems to be at stake, in the brutal clashes where the walls stand. ¿Quien es mas machoWhich side holds the monopoly on manhood? What does being a man mean, anyway? Here’s graffiti I saw a year ago, from the Association of Detainees of the Revolution, calling for a sit-in:

DSC00379 ش

“Man up! Take to the streets with us, your Revolution has been stolen!” And the chant rang out at rallies against the army — a reminder that our side is more manly than the soldiers, even: “Man up and shout! The military’s time is ending soon!”

But manhood is at stake because manhood is in question. It’s a wounded, brutalized manhood, aware of its vulnerability. Two years of incessant violence have both mutilated it and shaped it. It’s in pain, and it lashes out.

That’s the thing I apprehend most of all, this time in Cairo: the exhaustion, the hurt, the pain. I don’t think one can underestimate how these years of killing have brutalized a society. The grinding gradualness of it all has been part of the effect (as well as the break with the enforced placidity of the Mubarak years before). Of course, one doesn’t speak of the whole society ground down. Most of Egypt is still the Party of the Couch, with windows closed against the tear gas. Two of the culture’s naked extremities, though, seem to have been most exposed, and left most clotted with rage: the poorest and the not-quite privileged-yet, the underclass who feel they’ve nothing left to lose and the young intellectuals and students; the utterly dispossessed, and those who possess nothing but their promise. I have no inclination to sentimentalize either, and I usually resist both organic metaphors and those vertical ones that claim to arrange social classes in their natural elevations. Still and all, it feels like killing a society at the root and at the leaf.

A street child sifts through rubble on Mohamed Mahmoud Street:  © Scott Long

A street child sifts through rubble on Mohamed Mahmoud Street: © Scott Long

A friend who works with street children reminds me that they’ve been in the front lines of the clashes for months: kids as young as eight or nine making Molotov cocktails and pitching them at Security forces along Mohamed Mahmoud.   There are tens of thousands of homeless children in Cairo. They’re enraged; and many of them have already lost friends to the government’s bullets. These martyrs of the Revolution mostly aren’t counted, and they tend to end up in unmarked graves. Their despair, though, replicates that of traumatized middle-class kids in a different key. A 21 year-old student told Al-Ahram earlier this year that “Since the revolution began, with the exception of the month of August, I’ve lost at least one friend every month.”

Some of the consequences of this brutalization show through the powerful street art that has been painted on the walls along Mohamed Mahmoud Street. These pictures are secular icons, a record of the Revolution’s martyrs, but also a symptomography of the body under the State’s pressure. It’s a kind of political lexicon of pain.

Some portraits of the martyrs are deliberately benign, unphysical, the dead as spiritualized angel. This one says only, “Mostafa Metwally: 1994 – 2012.” (Metwally died at 17 in February’s “football massacre” in Port Said.)

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

The angel here is flecked with blood: “The Martyr Mohamed Seri. By Kamal Abdel Mobdy.”

© Scott Long

The accompanying poem tries to tie him to earth by weighting him with national history:

The first country and first people we are
Seven thousand years old we are
Night comes to our country and turns to light through us
The greatness of pyramids tells who we are
The rooted ancient people we are …

But other figures seem too dense with their own particularity, and the terrible fact of their loss, to need the ballast. On the left: “Karim Khozam: An icon of moral commitment: 2-12-1992″ (he also died in the Port Said massacre). On the right: “Alaa Abdelhady: One of the martyrs of the Cabinet clashes” (a medical student, he was shot near the central government building almost a year ago).

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

Some images emphasize mutilation. This shows Ahmed Harara, who lost one eye during the January Revolution, and the other while fighting on Mohamed Mahmoud Street:

DSC00645

© Scott Long

And some images bloat with pain till they terrify. These could be by Francis Bacon:

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

A line above them reads: “And to the State, it’s God’s will. Meaning, they owe nothing for your death.”

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

The figure at left below is a version of the tortured body of Khaled Said, killed by police in Alexandria in 2011. Here, its deformation pushes back at the formalities of perspective.

DSC00652

© Scott Long

The figure at right seems haloed unbearably in its own exploding head.

 © Scott Long

© Scott Long

The line above the images reads, “If the picture is not clear enough, believe me: The reality is uglier.” The pictures, though, are part of the reality, of a body politic at extremity. If they are hard to look at, imagine living with –or in — them.

Tarek Mustafa, Maysara Omar, Ramy Youssef, and Nada Zatouna helped me think through aspects of this post.

Dying young: The trauma of revolution

Corpse at the Coptic Hospital Morgue after the Maspero massacre, Cairo, October 10, 2011: © Scott Nelson

The official media cliche on Egypt’s revolution is now that it’s “unfinished.”  What this means is that revolutionary struggle has now gone on for a year, with an enormous cost not just in bloodshed and death but in psychological horror. A whole generation of previously sheltered, middle-class youth has witnessed murder and suffering up close, in a way that no cadre of young Egyptians has since the 1973 War. Indeed, they’ve seen it closer than their military predecessors: this is no orderly war, with a defined front line that keeps death to itself, the hardened soldiers guarding it like a secret gift. At Maspero, at Mohamed Mahmoud Street, in Port Said, death erupts suddenly, geysering out of nowhere with treacherous, chthonic force. Whatever you can say (and I’ve said it) about the isolated upper- and middle-class backgrounds of many revolutionaries and rights activists, over the last year they’ve lost their cocoons, watched the beaten and the blinded, seen pain in proximity. Mahmoud Salem (aka @Sandmonkey), a well-known liberal campaigner, tweeted as a grim 2012 dawned: “Years from now, when all of this quiets down, I am not sure there is a situation anywhere in the world that we will not be able to handle.”  I too hope.

Al-Ahram interviewed some young activists about “post-revolution trauma,” in an article they called simply “Dying Young.” 21-year-old Mahmoud Hany, the reporter writes,

has a young bearded face and the haunted eyes of someone who has seen too much. “Since the revolution began, with the exception of the month of August, I’ve lost at least one friend every month,” Hany says.

Even before the revolution, Hany was politically active. He used to attend numerous anti-Mubarak protests, when the notorious state security forces would frequently treat protesters violently. But nothing prepared him for what he was about to experience when the uprising began in January 2011.

He smelled tear gas for the first time on 25 January of last year, saw the first person die in front of him on 28 January, and visited a morgue to identify a friend for the first time in April.

After a year of being on the receiving end of assaults by security forces against protesters, Hany has acquired an uncanny knowledge of the different kinds of weapons being used against him and his friends.

There are three kinds of tear gas used on protesters, Hany explains. The one with the red label is manufactured in the US; the one with the blue label is British-made. He also knows that there are two different kinds of rubber bullet: the copper, which comes in six sizes, and the rubber, which only has one size. He knows that a live bullet is 9 mm long, and that a sniper-rifle beams a green light before it hits its target.

As time went on, and clashes escalated, Hany and his friends invented new ways to deal with these weapons. At first, they used vinegar and Pepsi to counteract the burning effects of tear gas on their eyes and faces. Later, however, they learned that yeast and medical drips work better.

“We learned these things from trial and error. Now, we’re so experienced that we can help the injured more than the medics,” he says. “Some people have also started using face masks to stop themselves from inhaling the gas. But I like doing things old school – I just use my Kuffayah,” he smiles.

And after one year of on-again, off-again post-revolutionary violence, Hany has also learned what no one his young age should: what the face of a dying person looks like. “Usually their mouth is open, they look pale, their eyes are unfocused and their breathing is unstable,” he says.

Even more horrifying is how well acquainted Hany is with the interior of Cairo’s notorious Zeinhom Morgue. The things that he witnessed in there, he says, will haunt him for the rest of his life.

“The stench was horrifying,” he remembers. “The drawers meant to hold the bodies are all broken, so bodies are often piled on top of each other haphazardly. In order to identify one body, you have to see all of them.”

Many of the corpses Hany saw in the morgue bore traces of the as-yet-unidentified gas they were subject to. “Some of them had weird skin eruptions and colours all over their bodies; others had completely lost their facial features,” he recalls.

Read the whole article here. 

Egypt: Aid and outsourcing

It's big business: US dominance in global arms sales

A bit more on the Egypt aid-and-repression quandary. Shana Marshall in Foreign Policy explains one reason the junta seems so confident that their anti-nonprofit antics wouldn’t result in a serious cutback in US assistance.  The aid isn’t just a feeding trough for the generals; it’s one for US weapons manufacturers too, since through it, the US government  effectively subsidizes Egypt to buy from them. Moreover, companies are using Egyptian cheap labor to make their weaponry. Why break such a profitable relationship?

In the United States, the aid program provides a large and predictable source of demand for weapons exporters, while in Cairo, collaborative military production with U.S. firms help subsidize the army’s commercial economic ventures.

Although domestic interest groups are rarely invoked in the debate over military aid to Egypt, the $1.3 billion in annual assistance represents a significant subsidy to U.S. weapons manufacturers. For instance, the General Dynamics manufacturing facility in Lima, Ohio where the M1A1 Abrams tank is built will not have more work orders from the U.S. Army until 2017 when the current M1 tank fleet is up for refurbishing. Egypt’s latest $1.3 billion order of 125 M1A1s (Cairo’s 11th order since the late 1980s) will keep those production lines open until 2014 building knock down kits that are then shipped and assembled in Egypt. Although shipping fully assembled tanks to Egypt would employ more U.S. workers, without the contract the Lima plant (in a crucial electoral swing state) would shutter its doors and General Dynamics’s bottom line would take a serious hit. Looming reductions in the U.S. defense budget have made General Dynamics and other defense producers even more concerned with keeping such funding channels open.

Egypt’s current Minister of Military Production Ali Sabri now boasts that over 95 percent of the M1A1 assembly takes place in Egypt’s military factories. While it’s true that most of the actual assembly takes place in Cairo (rather than Lima, Ohio), in the contemporary era of outsourcing the precise location of production is relatively unimportant from the defense firms’ perspective. The increasing indigenization of production in Egypt may imply the loss of U.S. jobs — but it is shareholder value (not work-hours for blue collar Americans) that dictates General Dynamics’s corporate planning. Transferring more work to Cairo likewise ensures that the Egyptian Army remains heavily invested in the project and continues to dedicate its aid dollars to procuring more tank kits. In fact, weapons manufacturers prefer contracts with such outsourcing components because they increase the per-unit price of equipment, and therefore also the firms’ revenue.

Let’s remember the international configurations of the security state, as well. The US transfers low-paying jobs to Egypt. It also transfers the means to control and repress workers, the unemployed, and the discontented. Those tear-gas canisters fired at demonstrators in Mohamed Mahmoud Street this autumn came from the US. Amnesty International found that, between 2005 and 2010, the US sold Egypt $1,658,994 in small arms, $4,131,033 in ammunition, and $2,446,683 in tear gas and riot control equipment. It was Egypt’s major supplier of the latter.

Tear gas in Cairo: (L) protesters point to "Made in USA" label on a canister, November 2011 (AFP/Khaled Desouki): (R): tear gas canister with 1990 expiration date, found by Mary Danial in protest area in Cairo (@bigpharoah)

(Hat tip: Issandr el-Amrani)

The generals torture: Nada Zatouna’s story

Nada Zatouna is 23 and an independent filmmaker. Originally from Aswan in upper Egypt, she lives in Cairo. She’s been an activist since the Revolution began in January, “involved with Tahrir from the start,” she says, “as an Egyptian citizen, and as an Egyptian woman.”

I have my work, and my tools as a filmmaker, and I wanted to use them for my country. For my Revolution, to document what was going on –on our side, the victories, and also the things they did against us.

Police arrested Nada on Sunday, November 20, early in a week of steady fighting in downtown Cairo. The battles began when the military junta’s security forces raided a sit-in occupying Midan Tahrir. After that, police kept raiding Tahrir and seizing activists, using nearby Mohamed Mahmoud Street (which leads from Lazoghly Square and the Ministry of Interio) as a point of entry. Protesters started confronting them along the street. Days of fighting ensued. Tear gas filled the city. Police snipers fired directly in demonstrators’ faces, and many lost their eyes permanently. More than 40 protesters died.

Nada herself was held for over a day, and tortured. Here is her story.

In the middle of the week, Thursday and Friday and Saturday [November 17-19], I was in a camp near Alexandria — we go there and take a rest from life. After that, I returned to Cairo, and was I shocked by what was happening in Tahrir Square and Mohamed Mahmoud. I called one of my friends, and he said, “Don’t go, Nada, it’s very dangerous.” But I decided to go, and take a camera, any camera, to document what was going on.

When I got there, I began to go deeper and deeper down Mohamed Mahmoud Street to where the worst of the fighting was. I found a lot of people from different classes, different sects, different identities — anything, everything. But they were falling down right and left from tear gas and from rubber bullets. Everyone was extremely tense. They were shouting: “No SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the ruling junta], no police! We want to see the military go!”

I reached the front lines. Between me and the police and the CSF [Central Security Forces, Amn el-Merkazi, a division of the national police]  there were only about twenty meters.  There were maybe forty people there. I saw two or three other women there. But there was no talking in the chaos.

Once we got there, I noticed that when guys stopped throwing stones at the CSF and police, the CSF would come forward with police cars and grab them. Or they would fire tear gas directly at them. So I felt we all had to take defensive measures. But at the same time, I was trying to document things with my small camera. And in the middle of that, I found at least six or seven CSF soldiers came on me — in just two seconds, they were very fast; people beside me ran quickly, and I couldn’t run quickly.

And they beat me on the head, grabbed me by the hair — I was shocked, I didn’t know what to do — they broke my camera, they were kicking me, beating me with sticks, everything. One of them, wearing civilian  clothes, grabbed me by the shirt and dragged me down the street. I was dizzy, I was a bit unconscious from the beating on my head. He began to ask me: “How much do they pay you to do this?” And things like that.

They marched me to the Ministry of Interior [nearby at Lazoghly Square] on foot. I was alone – they caught each one alone. They put me in a sort of kiosk, a small office in front of the Ministry of Interior, inside the gate. There were officers beating me once we arrived. One of the officers was high rank – there were three stars on his epaulets. He used an electric stick on my arm, and he kept doing this again and again. I was saying “Stop!” – I was trying to get him away.

Then they shoved me in the kiosk. In a while one of the officers [inside], who was a little bit nice, told me to come behind him – to stand behind his back and he wouldn’t let anyone reach in and beat me from outside.

They began to go through my bag and throw everything on the floor. And they began to push other people in the kiosk. Within two or three minutes this space was full of guys – a lot of them teenagers, maximum fourteen years old, just kids. They were all beaten – there was blood everywhere. My head was also bleeding from the injuries, and my lips and mouth too.

They took our mobile phones, and our sim cards and everything. They took my ID. And they kept calling us names. The [CSF] soldiers outside the kiosk acted as if they wanted to grab me and drag me outside again to beat me again. They were saying to the officers, “Let her outside and we’re going to fuck her! We’ll screw her whole life!”

After a while a van came, to deliver us to the police station. The officer who had told me to stay behind him, came to me to prevent anybody from beating me – to prevent the soldiers outside. As I walked out, he  was holding me between his arms, to guard me. Then I went inside the car. [The CSF outside] kept on trying to get me, to pull me out. But one of the officers pushed them away: “Enough, she’s a girl and she’s young, stop!”

After this, we went to Abdeen police station [in central Cairo]. The prisoners in the van were something like forty men, and I was the only woman.

I was the first one who got down. I told one of the CSF officers there, “Please don’t let anybody beat me again.” But inside the station, an officer who was standing on the stairs kept looking at me, up at down, and calling me names and threatening me – very bad. He’d say, “Get her upstairs.  We’re going to fuck her, we’ll screw her life, do a lot of bad things to her.”

We all had to go upstairs, into an office. And there, they threatened me again: “We are going to hang you on the wall. And we’ll bring a woman in to beat you.” There was blood everywhere on the walls – we kept asking, “What is this?” It’s like psychological war.

We stayed upstairs for something like seven hours. We wanted to go to the bathroom: they told us it’s forbidden. It’s funny, almost – no; it was horrible, really. At 2 A.M. they got all of us downstairs to go to the truck again, and go to the niyaba [the public prosecutor].

We went to a civilian, not a military niyaba – that at least was a relief. But it was 5 A.M. by the time we got there. They put us in a cage, maybe three meters by three meters. And when it was my turn I went in to meet the niyaba. He acted very civil; he told me, “Don’t worry, sit down, how did they arrest you? You are young, you’re a girl, you look peaceful. I have been in Tahrir Square myself; I was calling for change. Don’t worry, I am going to release you.” And so on.

He kept writing, questions. And he was giving the answers instead of me: “No,” “I don’t know,” “It didn’t happen.” As if he were going to help me. I didn’t tell him about the torture. [Prosecutors are required by Egyptian law to include accounts of torture in their reports if prisoners give them, or if they see evidence of torture.] But he could see – I was bruised and bleeding. He didn’t ask me about it. And of course he already knew that the police do this.

I went out. We were all waiting for six hours to know what was going to happen to us. They kept telling us, “After five minutes there will be a decision from the general prosecutor.”

At first we were all in one cell, but after a while another group came, and there were something like 100 of us, or 150—I was still the only woman. They then took me out of the cage, and let me sit on the floor between two cages in the same area. By two or three in the afternoon, we were all starving. This was now Monday. All the guys were screaming, “We’re hungry, we’re human!”

There was a lower-ranking guy who kept harassing me all that day. I was completely terrified of him. While I was waiting between the two cages, I was alone, and he entered the area, and was trying to touch me, stroke me, touch my shoulder, and I was trying to push him away. Another officer entered and scared him, and he went away from me

At 6 P.M., they told me, “We’ll release you — you just have to go back to Abdeen station to process the release.” But the lower-ranking officer came along in the van. And in the van he kept telling me, “I want you.”  All this in front of other soldiers, and officers – until finally one of them told him,  “Stop, Osama. It’s enough, yanni.

The car kept taking turns and detours—going in circles. We realized we weren’t going to Abdeen. People were singing at first, but then they started asking, “Where are we going? What’s happening?” Suddenly we saw through the cracks he’d entered a road to the desert. And we reached a military camp, and stopped. We were all so depressed and discouraged — really shocked. They’d tricked us.

We entered this camp. I saw from the little window more soldiers from CSF surround the car, with sticks and everything. The officers inside the car were laughing: they told us “These people will screw your life, motherfuckers, they will beat you to the edge of your life.” They were very happy! I was so down. I told one of the officers, “Please don’t let anyone beat me again.”

And we go down. I told myself, “OK, it’s my destiny, I will stay here forever.” They beat all of them, but this time, not me.  The police took off their belts, and used them to beat them, and punched them on their backs, and kicked them.

There were two cages, each about four meters square, with a little distance between them. Ad there were sixty or so men from the van, and me. The officer at the camp asked, “Where are we going to put this girl?” I was so down. I thought, “OK, do whatever you want with me.”

They put me in one cell, alone, with everyone else in another, and they let an army soldier stay with me. I asked him, “Please get me a blanket, it’s too cold for me” — I was sleeping on the floor. I spent two hours asking for a cover, and he finally consented to get me one, this way: He told the other soldier outside to get a cover for him. That soldier asked, “Is it for you or her?” He said, “For me, don’t worry.” So after one or two hours, the other soldier brought the blanket, and this one let me have it. Then I slept. I was telling myself, “Nada, you are going to live here for days. You don’t know what will happen to you. There’s nothing you can do.”

Suddenly at 10 P.M. they open the door, and they tell me they will release us. But seven us will stay with them. Among those who stayed were people with very serious injuries. Among us was a young guy both of whose arms had been completely broken. They didn’t release him – they didn’t want the injuries to be public. They also kept others from the April 6 Movement [the April 6 Youth Movement is one of the main revolutionary coalitions].  I didn’t want to believe them again. But they took our fingerprints, and then they really released us in front of the camp.

We were outside eastern Cairo, and we had to make our own way back.

Talking and talking is useful for me. Saying what happened, it’s very useful for me. Just now, before we met to talk, when I was in the street after finishing my work, I decided to pass by in front of the Ministry of Interior where I was beaten. I was scared at first, it was heavy: it was not easy, psychologically, for me. But I told myself, “You have to do this, to feel OK.”  And I passed in front of cars, and soldiers, and I wasn’t … Well, I thought they might identify me, and I didn’t have an ID on me [Egyptians are legally obliged to carry identity papers].  The street was closed to cars, but they let pedestrians pass, and I walked by. But I wasn’t afraid in the end.

And after this, I felt so proud of myself, and I was so happy that I could do this.

I’ve changed as a person since the Revolution,  and because of the Revolution. I feel stronger than before. I can say loudly, “I want this and this and this.” I can be myself more and more, in my personal life,  in society. That’s what the Revolution means to me, that strength. Before the Revolution, what they did to me might have broken me. But not now. Not now.

Egypt: “Freedom isn’t for free”

love me, squeeze me, take me to prison, beat me

L: Mona Eltahawy after her release, with broken left arm and right hand; R: Maged Butter, bandaged after his release. Maged tweets that he and 28 other detainees were freed this morning. He says, “I’ll write my testmony about what happened exactly but later on when my fingers r recovered, typing is so hard. … although I was freed this morning, many ppl r still detained. please keep the pressure on to get them out.” He also adds: “الحريه مش ببلاش :)” — “Freedom isn’t for free.”

In other news: SCAF announced they are appointing Kamal el-Gazoury prime minister of their “National Salvation” government. Gazoury was a relatively popular premier under Mubarak from 1996-99. He is 78 years old.

Meanwhile, the army has put up a wall across Mohamed Mahmoud Street to keep protesters out and protect the Ministry of Interior. This is allegedly video taken from across the wall, showing soldiers and Muslim Brothers amicably consorting together. “Behind the wall, the Ikhwan and the army are one hand.”

Apparently the Brothers are also policing the area. @GSquare86 says, “The MB is strongly present at Mohamed Mahmoud preventing anyone but them from entering.”

One interesting note: @MartinChulov reports, “Army captain Omar Matwali just defected in #Tahrir Sq. Says he’s backing retired Gen Magdi Hatata to lead new gov council.”