On A Mission Through Cairo

February 6, 2011

By Amnesty International staff in Egypt

Yesterday, reunited with our two colleagues, we saw flashbacks of the denouement of our last hours of separation. Our night time chase across Cairo’s ghastly streets late on Friday and in the early hours of Saturday morning to become reunited with them after their release could have appeared almost comical and reminiscent of poorly made action films. But at the time, we were too worried about their safety and eager to end this uncertainty and in reality it was deadly serious.

While incredibly relieved by the news of their release after 32 painful and sleepless hours of anxiety, and excited by our few quick phone conversations with them, we could not rest until they were in a place of safety and were able to get a much needed meal, shower and clean beds. Our anxiety was heightened by the fact that they were released some four hours after the curfew began. We weren’t sure where they were being dropped off by the military police who had detained them, without any proof of identity – taken from them at the time of arrest.

The last point was particularly worrying as Cairo at night is an endless maze of checkpoints manned by Egyptian youth patrolling the streets after curfew which had started at 5pm. Police in uniform, security forces in plain clothes and the armed forces reinforced by what felt like half of the Egyptian military arsenal of tanks and armoured vehicles, added to the eerie atmosphere. It didn’t help that the presidential palace was obstructing our way; and we finally discovered that in some parts of Cairo a curfew could actually be enforced and respected.

We made our way through the city, being stopped every few minutes for ID checks and searches of the vehicle, and we made many detours around roads that been  blocked off. As we were going towards them so they were making their way towards us, facing the same problems of roadblocks and risk. Our meeting destination kept changing as we and they sought to find the best place to rendezvous and find shelter for the night.

Sometimes we changed course  just after having passed a particularly difficult and time consuming road block. At one point, a soldier looked at us with a bit of confusion and annoyance and pondered: “Didn’t I just see you? Why are you back here?”  Another warned us: “You know curfew started six hours ago, you better have a good reason for being out.” We did.

Two hours in and after a seemingly endless succession of phone calls with colleagues in London, New York and elsewhere in Cairo who were monitoring our progress, we thought we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. But then we got the news that our colleagues might be re-arrested as they were being taken by the armed forces back to the offices of the General Intelligence department. As our colleagues stayed put inside a taxi waiting for us, the armed forces had approached them and didn’t believe at first their reasons for being out on the streets after curfew without any IDs. They explained “we just got released by the armed forces after about almost two days of detention!”, but this, the armed forces people decided, was worth double checking!

Today this incident provides a great anecdote and a good laugh, but on Friday night it felt as if one nightmare had just ended and another was about to begin. We kept on moving from one checkpoint to another . Our friend driving the car could not be more patient.

Luckily, there was a happy resolution and a happier reunion not too long after in front of a hotel. We were incredibly proud of our colleagues, who despite their fatigue and clearly difficult ordeal, were joking about parts of their experience in detention. A foreign photographer held with them who had been surprised that when told  “five minutes” in Egypt this did not actually mean five minutes. A shortage of blankets with some detainees less willing than others to share what there was.

Our colleagues were also very concerned about the well-being of some 30 Egyptian human rights defenders and activists who were still detained. Fortunately, they were all released on Saturday and able to go back to their loved ones.

It remains unclear why they were all detained. And we wonder if the Egyptian authorities will provide answers as to why these human rights workers and journalists were arrested without warrant, kept in detention in harsh conditions for nearly two days, and not allowed to contact their families, friends and lawyers.

Despite the happy ending for us, we are incredibly concerned about the account that  our colleagues gave us of the military compound where they were held in the custody of the armed forces which they could see was overflowing with detainees. They had heard the screams of individuals clearly being beaten. Yet again, despite all the promises of reform, change and accountability, beatings and abuse continue to be the treatment reserved for detainees.

Saturday was a day rich in experiences – one to never be repeated, inshallah! As we revisited today the Egyptian NGO office where our colleagues had been arrested, as if  criminals returning to the scene of the crime, one could project oneself into the atmosphere they had just described to us.

We watched in disbelief how quickly life returned to normal in the marketplace down the street, which only hours before had witnessed 35 handcuffed Egyptians and foreigners being shoved into cars while being attacked by angry mobs accusing them of treason. Just like yesterday, the street seller was again arranging his oranges on his stall, in just the same way, in the shape of a pyramid.