I hadn’t meant to write about this. It’s small compared to what many Egyptians face, or fear. But a few Egyptian friends have urged me to record it, partly because accounts of recent State Security interrogations are somewhat rare (people used to say that to meet the secret police was to go “behind the sun,” to disappear); partly because it illuminates what is on whatever passes for the dictatorial regime’s mind. Recent events, too, make me believe there’s a need, in the United States and elsewhere, to remember some things. I’ll get to that. Let me begin at the beginning.
The beginning is an ending. I left Egypt in March. Most likely, I will never be permitted to return. I had lived there for three and a half years, and for the last three of those I did not cross the borders at all. After the military coup in July 2013, it became increasingly clear to me that when I left, I would be denied re-entry; and that meant I delayed my departure until – when? I told myself: until I had finished everything I came for, or until there was nothing more to do.
For a long time – since 2005 – I’d been stopped at Cairo passport control every time I came into the country; taken aside, held for an hour or two, detained once in a locked room in the airport that had the forlorn graffiti of Palestinian refugees scrawled across the walls: then finally admitted. No questions asked, no explanation given. It was obvious I had been on some sort of list for years, that the state did not quite know what to do with me when I applied for entry. (US citizens do not need to buy visas in advance to enter Egypt; as a result, each of my arrivals took officialdom by surprise.) That was all back in the comparatively louche eras of Mubarak and Morsi. After the coup and Sisi’s seizure of power, the fact of being on a list seemed much more serious. In Cairo, I went underground — though it hardly felt so dramatic. I avoided contact with officialdom; I did not renew my entry visa. When necessary I blustered my way through ubiquitous checkpoints, never showing my passport. I bribed my building’s doorman not to register my presence with the police. And, toward the end, I moved to parts of Cairo where foreigners rarely went; I was far from inconspicuous there – some days, probably the only blond person within a kilometer or two — but in terms of what the police might expect I was off the edge of the world, off the books. For the last eight months I lived in Faisal, a vast warrenlike semi-slum stretching westward, and ultimately I settled in an “informal area” there: Cairo’s equivalent of a favela, streets not paved or named or usually shown on maps. The buildings, six or seven stories tall, were erected by the residents who migrated there, brick by brick and floor by floor; the first and generally last sign that you were in an informal area was that you never had to pay an electric bill, since all the power was siphoned from the official grid. I felt oddly safe there, as if I were curled in one of Kafka’s burrows, a dead end.
It’s difficult to describe my last six months in Egypt. Depression settled over everything in the country; no change seemed possible any longer, and you felt your imagination being buried in cement. Many people I cared about simply stopped leaving their homes. At last, I was invited to a conference in the US in March – organized by friends who, I think, had constructed a giant hook to haul me out of there. I knew if I went, it would be my final departure.
I talked to human rights lawyers after my ticket was booked. Overstaying a visa is a crime usually incurring only a minor fine at the airport, the equivalent of $30-40 US (at the time). The work and the writing I’d been doing put me in a different position, though. The lawyers told me I would be interrogated; the passenger manifest would ensure State Security was alert to my departure. I should get there early, keep their numbers on my phone, be prepared for possible arrest.
I spent my last night ever in Egypt crying, encrypting my hard drive, and uploading sensitive files to the cloud. A dear Egyptian friend drove me to the airport in the clean air of dawn, almost six hours before my flight. At passport control, they sent me down a hallway to pay the visa fine. I shelled out money to a civilian in a little office (one lesson: in Egypt, the government makes sure you settle your outstanding debts before they arrest you). “Wait a moment.” A man in a leather overcoat came in and told me to follow.
There is vertical power and horizontal power. I suppose in the US we are used to power revealed in perpendicular terms: skyscrapers, helicopters, bombers, drones. In Egypt, as in many other countries where I’ve worked, power is horizontal, shown not through height but through ambit, remoteness, segregation. I was led down an even longer corridor, so long that it seemed I was going to another terminal, or to some other place outside Cairo altogether, a hell not subterranean but suburban. Generalissimo Sisi plans to build Egypt a new capital city, far from protesters and ordinary people, distant in the desert; I imagine it linked to Cairo by a single interminable hallway.
Then: a small office, two wooden desks, two men: one in mustache and leather jacket, seated; one standing – an assistant, in short-sleeved shirt and tie. On Mustache’s desk was a stack of paper: perhaps 300 printed-out pages from this blog. A smaller stack was a printout of my Facebook page; another seemed to be news articles that had quoted me. A computer on the second desk was unplugged; hence, I guess, the hard copy. I sat down, asked their names, was told those were not “relevant.” No further explanation. The questions started.
Mustache did the asking, in English, while Necktie, now sitting at the other desk, took Arabic notes. There was no Good Cop/Bad Cop, only Talking Cop/Writing Cop, the two tasks apparently too complex for a single cop to master. We started oddly. Atop the pile of blog posts was one I wrote in 2013, comparing Sisi the dictator to the late Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary – known as “Sissi,” and commemorated in many blearily romantic Romy Schneider movies. It was labored and unfunny, but it had annoyed somebody. Mustache: “What are you saying here about our President? Are you saying that our President is a woman?”
I really don’t remember what I answered, except that President Sisi’s rampant masculinity would surely only be underscored by a judicious comparison with Romy Schneider. It was fitting that the interrogation began with gender, since I’d stressed the he-male obsessions of the Egyptian state in much of what I wrote. Beneath that post in the pile, though, was one on life in death-racked Cairo in the days after the August 2013 Rabaa massacre; and then the politics peered through. Mustache: You write that you were walking around the city in that period. Were you not aware there was a curfew? Who allowed you to violate the curfew? Did you violate the curfew in order to meet with criminals?
First notable fact: They knew my online life thoroughly, at least its non-password-protected part: any writer would want such a devoted audience. One or two questions suggested they might possibly have intercepted e-mail (though I’d tried to use Tor) or phone calls. But they seemed to have no idea where I’d been living physically for the last year. They asked me repeatedly, and I gave fictional addresses (I truly hope they were fictional, that no actual 233 Mohamed Moussa Street in Faisal gave its inhabitants a disagreeable surprise). Necktie noted down the invented domiciles with stoic docility. The attraction of online surveillance for indolent secret police is that it’s a desk job.
Second: They never asked me explicitly about homosexuality, mine or anybody else’s. Mustache leafed through my posts on the subject (You feel a great freedom to criticize the culture and the values of the Egyptian people. Who gives you that freedom?) but avoided touching the topic directly as if it were contagious. (What Egyptian laws have you violated? he did demand repeatedly. Please name the Egyptian laws you have violated while in Egypt.) The closest he came was asking me, while gingerly fingering blog pages, whether I had a “website” on Grindr — pronounced to rhyme with “slender.” (Truly, I did not.) Mustache also inquired, upon Necktie’s prompting, Have you downloaded pornographic information over the Internet? One thing chilled me when I recollected it in tranquillity: Mustache asked, Have you ever assisted a person with mental health problems? Have you provided psychological advice to troubled persons? I said no, and only afterward did I remember that, the previous summer, I got repeated emails from an anonymous gay Egyptian who said he was depressed and wanted help finding a psychologist. I offered him contacts; but he kept insisting on seeing me face-to-face, proposing meeting places too close to my local police station for my comfort. (Police at that station, in Doqqi, were entrapping victims almost weekly over the Internet. Lazy as always, the cops steer their prey to meet at points in walking distance of the jail.) He made me very uneasy, and I finally stopped answering him. I felt ashamed of succumbing to suspicion. And who knows?
Third: What they did care about was politics, and a particular kind of politics. The real question – never exactly framed, but implicit in most everything – was whether I would say something to tag myself as a terrorist.
Sex interested them mainly as a division of, or gateway to, larger fields of violent subversion. Particularly telling was when they got round to a legal advice manual for Egyptian LGBT people, in Arabic, which I had agreed to host on my blog. For whom was this written? Mustache demanded, holding up the pages. I stared back blankly. The post said, in clear Arabic, that it was meant for LGBT people. “It was written by Egyptians for other Egyptians,” I said. Mustache replied, as Necktie’s pen scrawled softly: So it was written to benefit people who are planning violent acts against the state?
Our back-and-forth lasted four hours. Almost every question came up again and again – to trip me up, obviously. It was like being shipwrecked in a whirlpool, and watching flotsam from other wrecks whirl by, and circle, and then swirl by again, and realizing this can only end when you drown. A week later, I jotted down some of the questions I remembered. I didn’t record my answers, so if you’re looking for hints on how to fence verbally with secret police officers, you won’t get them here. But the basic rule, as always with repressive power, is to say “no” to everything. Perhaps, in the age of iron to come, that monotonous “no” is the only mark of selfhood that will survive us.
- Why did you overstay your visa? (I pulled out all the medical documents from my two stints in hospital in Egypt; I had been too sick, I said, to violate any Egyptian laws or download porn, much less board an airplane or get my visa renewed.)
- How have you spent your time while living illegally in Egypt? (Writing.) Writing what? (What you have in your hand.) Who pays for your writing? Do you write libellous statements about the leaders of other countries, or just about Egypt? (I do recall my answer: “I’ve written about many countries. The only person who ever accused me of libel was a very vain Englishman.” They didn’t ask who.)
- Mustache paused at two other blog posts near the top of the stack. Have you ever been imprisoned in Jamaica? Have you ever been imprisoned in Tunisia? For what crime were you arrested in Tunisia? (I have never been in Tunisia.) Who do you cooperate with in Tunisia? Why do you insult the Tunisian state? Who were you arrested with in Tunisia?
- Inevitably: Have you visited Israel? Then: Have you visited Iran? Why do you write about Iran? Who do you cooperate with in Iran? Have you visited Syria? Have you visited Libya? Have you visited Qatar? Who do you know in Qatar? Who do you cooperate with in Qatar? When did you visit Qatar? Who visits you from Qatar? What money have you received from Qatar? (I’ve never been near Qatar, though I’ve been quoted often by Al Jazeera — I believe Mustache had printed out samples. But the Doha regime, which supported the Muslim Brotherhood, is Sisi’s special bête noire.)
- Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are effectively banned in Egypt. My onetime tenure at HRW weighed on their minds. What is your current function with Human Rights Watch? What information do you transmit to Human Rights Watch? And: How do you receive your salary from Human Rights Watch? (Courier pigeon.)
- Where did you receive information on how to hide things on the Internet? (Mustache was fascinated by posts I’d done on Internet security, several of them in Arabic.) Do private companies make these things, or foreign governments? Are you paid by these private companies? You are in contact with which criminal groups who use these en-cryp-ti-on (carefully pronounced) methods? Also on technology: Which firearms do you own? (Gun ownership is legally restricted in Egypt. I have never even held a gun.) We know Americans love firearms, where have you purchased firearms in Egypt? Who in Egypt gave you firearms? Where do you keep your firearms?
- They asked me about my “connections” with three individuals. First was Hossam Bahgat, the activist and journalist who is now banned from travel in an investigation into “illegal” NGOs. (I said, accurately, that we were were busy people who hadn’t spoken much in years.) Next was Alaa Abd El Fattah, the revolutionary activist. (I said, accurately, he’d been imprisoned on false charges for most of the time I was in Egypt.) The third was an Italian who’d been entrapped over the Internet and deported in 2015. (I said, accurately, we barely knew each other.) Mustache seemed about to produce more names when a phone call interrupted him, and after that the interrogation moved to other things.
- But they did care about organizations. Which unregistered organizations do you belong to? Have you used your home for meetings of illegal organizations? Which illegal organizations have you given money? Do you have an Egyptian bank account? Which Egyptians use your foreign bank account? When did you last receive money from abroad? Have you received money for Egyptians? For what Egyptians have you received foreign money? What Egyptians have you given money? No, no, none, no, none, never, no, none, none; then half an hour later, Are you a member of ….
- But the most sinister questions were about places. Have you ever lived in Heliopolis? Have you ever worked in Heliopolis? — a district in eastern Cairo. Then: Have you ever visited Sinai? I said truthfully I never had, but Sinai kept coming up over and over at intervals, like a brightly painted barrel in the maelstrom. When was the last time you visited Sinai? Where did you go in Sinai? Have you ever been to Sharm el-Sheikh? To Dahab? When were you in El Arish? Who has travelled to Sinai with you? Who did you meet in Sinai? Later Heliopolis bobbed up again. Who are your connections in Heliopolis? Do you belong to organizations in Heliopolis? How often did you visit Heliopolis during the summer of 2015? And: Which days were you in Heliopolis in June 2015?
North Sinai harbors the largest, ISIS-affiliated insurgency against Sisi’s rule. Heliopolis, though, is mainly for shoppers. I rarely went there, and not till later did I speculate on why they cared. Possibly they wanted to connect me to some illicit gay ring in the suburb. Memorably, though, a bomb blew apart Hisham Barakat — Egypt’s prosecutor general — in Heliopolis on June 29, 2015. The insistent dates made me wonder if they were looking to build some insane link to his murder. (I had said extremely harsh things about Barakat in e-mails to non-Egyptians after his killing — if death can be deserved, he deserved it.) The final fact, though, was: for them, perverted sex cases and security fears were becoming the same.
Possibly all this was meant just to scare the hell out of me; if so the ludicrousness interfered with the lesson. But the narrative weaving through the interrogation was no more ludicrous than most of the terror trials Sisi’s security state has put together. It’s a state that holds more than 40,000 political prisoners. Famously, in 2013 three Al Jazeera journalists were arrested, then sentenced to years in prison on “terrorism” charges. for reporting on Muslim Brotherhood protests in Cairo. Their camera tripods and studio lights were held up on TV as terrorist equipment. From Mustache’s manner and intensity, I’m fairly sure State Security was ready to concoct some such case against me, if I’d answered enough questions wrong. Being a foreigner is no longer a mark of safety in Egypt: the Al Jazeera case sucked an Egyptian, a Canadian, and an Australian citizen into the desert gulag, clearly meant as a message that passports are no protection. A US citizen, Aya Hegazy, has been held in pre-trial detention, along with seven Egyptian colleagues, for two and a half years. She had founded a Cairo NGO housing and rehabilitating street children; she’s facing highly dubious charges of sexual abuse — and of luring susceptible kids to enlist in the Muslim Brotherhood as “terrorists.” It’s widely seen as another brutal warning to civil society (and a way of punishing homeless youth, who I can testify were among the bravest and fiercest demonstrators against police repression, under Morsi as well as Sisi, from 2011 on). I don’t mean for a second that imprisoning foreigners is somehow worse than imprisoning Egyptians. But it marks a regime that no longer feels any restraint, whose fears and fantasies drive it to ever more sweeping and unstoppable measures of control. The US has done almost nothing to protest Aya Hegazy’s persecution. (Hillary Clinton asked for her release during a September meeting with Sisi, according to Clinton’s campaign.) On January 25, about six weeks before I left the country, security forces in Cairo kidnapped a young Italian student named Giulio Regeni. He disappeared from a street near where I often stayed at night. His savagely mutilated corpse turned up in a ditch a week later. That did arouse international anger — because of the horrible mercilessness of his torture, because his family demanded justice. Possibly the blowback from Regeni’s slaughter contributed to a decision not to arrest me. State Security may have felt it wasn’t worthwhile to risk extra chiding from abroad. I bear the spectral guilt of having profited from another person’s death.
The interrogation in the airport office droned on and on. About 45 minutes before my plane was due to leave, I said, more or less: “If you make me miss my flight, I assume you are arresting me. In that case, I want to call a lawyer now.” (The idea of “calling a lawyer” is lunacy in that context; at best you send a text from a cellphone hidden in your sock.) Mustache and Necktie whispered for five minutes. Mustache left the room. I was sweating.
Ten minutes later he came back. “Go,” he said. They physically shoved me out the door.
Since I left — escaped? — Egypt, I’ve often been asked why I stayed so long. It is difficult to explain. One way to say it is: something not just disorienting but morally vitating inhabits the way “international” human rights work is done; the rhythm of parachuting in, polevaulting out of “troubled places,” absconding with information from one country, processing it into useable fact in another, perpetually at multiple removes from the people whose stories you record or the actual workers who help you record them. In this realm, too, power is remoteness, distance. I stayed in Egypt after the arrests began because I wanted not to distance myself. I wanted to stay and work with my friends. At least we would share some of the burdens together.
If I had a clear function in our informal division of labor, it was to get the word out to the foreign world about what was happening in Egypt’s crackdown, to mobilize movements to answer. I failed. Undoubtedly there were many reasons I failed, personal inadequacies to start. One reason, though, was the way Sisi’s regime has taken up “security” as its identity and purpose. Despite the self-destructiveness and ineptitude of nearly all his anti-terror measures, Sisi has sold himself to the West — as well as to Saudi Arabia and Russia — as a bulwark against the numinous, universal threat. As a result, no ally will criticize him seriously and no leader will spurn his embrace. Newspapers and even human rights groups prefer to focus on abuses elsewhere, more congruent with the unwritten battle-plans of the endless war on terror. This isn’t just for foreign consumption. In Egypt, the language of security is all-pervading. It infects everything, and as a result everything becomes a security threat, even a blog or a Facebook page, even a few people having sex in a decrepit flat. The anti-terror machinery terrorizes itself. Fear is everywhere. It just induced the United States to elect a maniacal thug as President, and Sisi’s government proudly announced that Sisi was the first foreign leader whose call Trump took. I wanted to tell this story partly as a reminder that the fear is absurd but the fear has consequences. But of course this will fail too, because we already know.
As I say, there was nothing exceptional in my experience, except that I walked away. Thousands around the world face the machinery of security every day, the manifold terrors of counter-terror, and I have nothing to offer but one small piece of advice. Remember: The police are stupid. In the end, that’s the main hope for our own iron age. The cops are studded with guns and sealed in Kevlar, but they have no minds.
The he-men in the airport office knew barely more about language, technology, life in its intricacy than a dog knows about a train. And their stupidity is only a distilled version of the larger stupidity of the state. (A victim entrapped over the Web whom I interviewed in 2003 told me: “All of them—the judges, the lawyers, even the niyaba [prosecutor] — knew nothing about the Internet. The deputy prosecutor even said, ‘I know nothing about the Internet and I don’t have time to learn about it. What is it? What do you do on it? Do people just talk around with men?’ They knew nothing about how the things I was charged with actually worked.”) The state is an empty skull. The parasites in it spy and pry, but they cannot turn mere facts into knowledge. Their stupidity intimidates and oppresses, but it is also our strength. I learned a joke 25 years ago in Romania, and I still tell it, because it gives me comfort:
Q: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, the intelligent policeman, and the stupid policeman are eating Chinese food together. Who eats the most?
A: The stupid policeman eats it all. The other three are imaginary.
If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in: