In Egypt, Protests Undimmed, as Mubarak Prepares to Cede Power, Torture Stories Emerge and the Revolution Finds a Hero in Wael Ghonim


For the last week, while I was in Poland, on a tour of the film “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (which I co-directed with Polly Nash), I was, sadly, unable to keep up with the news from Egypt, although I was deeply reassured to learn, through the occasional Internet search, that the people’s revolution against the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak shows no signs of coming to an end. As I write this article, rumors are swirling that Mubarak will stand down, but as his replacement may well be the former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman (a man intimately involved in Egypt’s horrendous torture regime, and, to America’s shame, in Egypt’s leading role as a torture partner in the “War on Terror”), it is certain that this move will do nothing to persuade the protestors to return home or to give up their demands for democracy after 30 years of dictatorship.

Galvanized by the emotional TV interview of an unassuming and unlikely hero, Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who was detained on January 27, and released on Monday, the largest protests to date in the 17-day uprising took place on Tuesday. As the Guardian explained, “the largest demonstration so far took place in Cairo on Tuesday, the same day as 25 big demonstrations elsewhere in Egypt and the start of a series of strikes as trade unions joined the fray. Some stoppages are mainly about wage demands, but in the present crisis there is little doubt they are timed to support the pro-democracy movement. Tens of thousands of workers stayed away in Alexandria to demand Mubarak’s resignation. Employees of the state-run Suez Canal company, public transport workers in Cairo and iron and steel workers in other areas have also joined the strikes.”

Ghonim, who set up an online campaign, We are all Khaled Said, named after the young Egyptian whose murder at the hands of police last June provided inspiration for the protests (as I explained in my article, Torture and Despair: The Psychic Roots of the Revolution in Tunisia, Egypt and Across the Middle East), stated in his interview, “I am not a hero. I only used the keyboard, the real heroes are the ones on the ground, those I can’t name.” However, after describing his 12-day detention, and breaking down after being shown images of some of the people who have died since the uprising began on January 25, he provided a fresh wave of inspiration for protestors, as the Guardian also explained:

Ahmad Mustafa, protesting in the square, described how he had been moved by Ghonim. “I felt I could relate to him. He’s the same age as me, he’s pretty much the same background. I felt so connected to him, he portrayed me and the situation I’m in. Some of my friends who have not taken part in the demonstrations since they started are going to come today because of what they saw yesterday. It has changed something in them. Sometimes you need some kind of spark to get you to go, and that’s good.”

Mostafa Hussein, a 30-year-old activist who joined the protests, said: “It was a very emotional interview and I think it will prove to be a historical one as well.”

Others agreed. “He’s the most credible person in Egypt right now; he feels what we are all feeling,” claimed Reem El-Komi, a 25-year-old protester. Her companion, Menna, agreed. “This is my first day at the protests — the moment I saw Ghonim on TV last night I knew I had to get down to Tahrir and stand with the Egyptian people,” she said.

For the Mubarak regime, which only attracted further international criticism through the dictator’s appointment of Omar Suleiman as Vice President, the clear message of the protestors — that the entire regime must go, to be replaced by a true democratic process — remains unpalatable. On Wednesday, Diaa Rashwan, a prominent member of one of the key opposition groups, the Council of Wise Men, explained that negotiations had “essentially come to an end”. Rashwan said that he had “offered Suleiman a compromise in which Mubarak would have remained president but with his powers transferred to a transitional government,” but added that “this proposal was rejected at the weekend and there had been no further movement.”

Instead, Suleiman warned that “an escalation of the protests could unleash further repression,” telling newspaper editors, “We can’t bear this for a long time. We don’t want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools.” Speaking of “the dark bats of the night emerging to terrorise the people,” he also sounded alarms about a coup which would mean “uncalculated and hasty steps, including lots of irrationalities,” and which he described as follows: “I mean a coup of the regime against itself, or a military coup or an absence of the system. Some force, whether it’s the army or police or the intelligence agency or the [opposition Muslim] Brotherhood or the youth themselves could carry out ‘creative chaos’ to end the regime.”

As the Guardian reported, Suleiman also said that Egypt “was not ready for democracy” claiming, “The culture of democracy is still far away.” The Guardian also explained, “Some opposition activists saw Suleiman’s warning as confirmation that the government was in retreat and may be starting to panic.” Abdul-Rahman Samir, a spokesman for the coalition of the main youth groups leading the protests, responded by saying, “He is threatening to impose martial law, which means everybody in [Tahrir Square] will be smashed. But what would he do with the rest of the 70 million Egyptians who will follow us afterward? We are striking and we will protest and we will not negotiate until Mubarak steps down. Whoever wants to threaten us, then let them do so.”

A further sign that the regime is essentially out of control came from the breakdown of negotiations between the Egyptian government and the Obama administration, which has, of course, looked distinctly two-faced as it has called for Egypt to take steps towards establishing democracy while trying to downplay its direct involvement in supporting Mubarak’s brutal regime. As the Washington Post reported:

Vice President Biden spoke with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman Tuesday, impressing on Suleiman American expectations that the regime must stop harassing journalists and human rights groups, lift its emergency law and abolish restrictions on non-official political activity. But indications are that Egypt’s rulers will not acquiesce: The country’s foreign minister called Biden’s advice “not at all” helpful on PBS’s “NewsHour” Wednesday.

In further news, the Guardian reported that the Egyptian military “has secretly detained hundreds and possibly thousands of suspected government opponents since mass protests against President Hosni Mubarak began, and at least some of these detainees have been tortured.” The newsppaer added that, although the military “has claimed to be neutral … human rights campaigners say this is clearly no longer the case, accusing the army of involvement in both disappearances and torture — abuses Egyptians have for years associated with the notorious state security intelligence (SSI) but not the army.”

The Guardian also published a first-hand report, “28 hours in the dark heart of Egypt’s torture machine,” by Robert Tait, a senior correspondent with RFE/RL, who was formerly the Guardian‘s correspondent in Tehran and Istanbul, which I’m cross-posting below, as it captures the horrors of detention in Mubarak’s Egypt.

28 hours in the dark heart of Egypt’s torture machine
By Robert Tait, The Guardian, February 9, 2011

The sickening, rapid click-click-clicking of the electric shock device sounded like an angry rattlesnake as it passed within inches of my face. Then came a scream of agony, followed by a pitiful whimpering from the handcuffed, blindfolded victim as the force of the shock propelled him across the floor.

A hail of vicious punches and kicks rained down on the prone bodies next to me, creating loud thumps. The torturers screamed abuse all around me. Only later were their chilling words translated to me by an Arabic-speaking colleague: “In this hotel, there are only two items on the menu for those who don’t behave — electrocution and rape.”

Cuffed and blindfolded, like my fellow detainees, I lay transfixed. My palms sweated and my heart raced. I felt myself shaking. Would it be my turn next? Or would my outsider status, conferred by holding a British passport, save me? I suspected — hoped — that it would be the latter and, thankfully, it was. But I could never be sure.

I had “disappeared”, along with countless Egyptians, inside the bowels of the Mukhabarat, President Hosni Mubarak’s vast security-intelligence apparatus and an organisation headed, until recently, by his vice-president and former intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, the man trusted to negotiate an “orderly transition” to democratic rule.

Judging by what I witnessed, that seems a forlorn hope.

I had often wondered, reading accounts of political prisoners detained and tortured in places such as junta-run Argentina of the 1970s, what it would be like to be totally at the mercy of, and dependent on, your jailer for everything — food, water, the toilet. I never dreamed I would find out. Yet here I was, cooped up in a tiny room with a group of Egyptian detainees who were being mercilessly brutalised.

I had been handed over to the security services after being stopped at a police checkpoint near central Cairo last Friday. I had flown there, along with an Iraqi-born British colleague, Abdelilah Nuaimi, to cover Egypt’s unfolding crisis for RFE/RL, an American radio station based in Prague.

We knew beforehand that foreign journalists had been targeted by security services as they scrambled to contain a revolt against Mubarak’s regime, so our incarceration was not unique.

Yet it was different. My experience, while highly personal, wasn’t really about me or the foreign media. It was about gaining an insight — if that is possible behind a blindfold — into the inner workings of the Mubarak regime. It told me all I needed to know about why it had become hated, feared and loathed by the mass of ordinary Egyptians.

We had been stopped en route to Tahrir Square, scene of the ongoing mass demonstrations, little more than half an hour after leaving Cairo airport.

Uniformed and plainclothes police swarmed around our car and demanded our passports and to see inside my bag. A satellite phone was found and one of the men got in our car and ordered our driver to follow a vehicle in front, which led us to a nearby police station.

There, an officer subjected our fixer, Ahmed, to intense questioning: did he know any Palestinians? Were they members of Hamas? Then we were ordered to move again, and eventually drove to a vast, unmarked complex next to a telecommunications building.

That’s when Ahmed sensed real danger. “I hope I don’t get beaten up,” he said. He had good reason to worry.

We were ordered out and blindfolded before being herded into another vehicle and driven a few hundred yards. Then we were pushed into what seemed like an open-air courtyard and handcuffed. I heard the rapid-fire clicking of the electric rattlesnake — I knew instantly what it was — and then Ahmed screaming in pain. A cold sweat washed over me and I thought I might faint or vomit. “I’m going to be tortured,” I thought.

But I wasn’t. “Mr Robert, what is wrong,” I was asked, before being told, with incongruous kindness, to sit down. I sensed then that I would avoid the worst. But I didn’t expect to gain such intimate knowledge of what that meant.

After being interrogated and held in one room for hours, I was frogmarched after nightfall to another room, upstairs, along with other prisoners. We believe our captors were members of the internal security service.

That’s when the violence — and the terror — really began.

At first, I attached no meaning to the dull slapping sounds. But comprehension dawned as, amid loud shouting, I heard the electric shock rods being ratcheted up. My colleague, Abdelilah — kept in a neighbouring room — later told me what the torturers said next.

“Get the electric shocks ready. This lot are to be made to really suffer,” a guard said as a new batch of prisoners were brought in.

“Why did you do this to your country?” a jailer screamed as he tormented his victim. “You are not to speak in here, do you understand?” one prisoner was told. He did not reply. Thump. “Do you understand?” Still no answer. More thumps. “Do you understand?” Prisoner: “Yes, I understand.” Torturer: “I told you not to speak in here,” followed by a cascade of thumps, kicks, and electric shocks.

Exhausted, the prisoners fell asleep and snored loudly, provoking another round of furious assaults. “You’re committing a sin,” a stricken detainee said in a weak, pitiful voice.

Craving to see my fellow inmates, I discreetly adjusted my blindfold. I briefly saw three young men — two of them looked like Islamists, with bushy beards — with their hands cuffed behind their backs (mine were cuffed to the front), before my captors spotted what I had done and tightened my blindfold.

The brutality continued until, suddenly, I was ordered to stand and pushed towards a room, where I was told I was being taken to the airport. I received my possessions and looked at my watch. It was 5pm. I had been in captivity for 28 hours.

The ordeal was almost over — save for another 16 hours waiting at an airport deportation facility. It had been nightmarish but it was nothing to what my Egyptian fellow-captives had endured.

Later, I learned that Ahmed, the fixer, had been released at the same time as Abdelilah and me. He told friends we had been “treated very well” but that he had bruises “from sleeping on the floor”. I had flown to Cairo to find out what was ailing so many Egyptians. I did not expect to learn the answer so graphically.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

10 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, in response to my comment that rumors were swirling that Hosni Mubarak may step down, but only to be replaced, in all likelihood, by the torturer Omar Suleiman, Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    I really hope not!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Terry Sully wrote:

    OUT WITH Omar

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Eleanor Boyd wrote:

    Having trouble digging, Andy, but am trying! Great article.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Re-posting Andy, thanks. Omar Suleiman is Obama’s choice. He has made possibly the worst possible choice. He has no business appointing Egyptian Presidents anyway. This is monstrous and should get US citizens outraged too.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, all. I absolutely agree, Willy, but I suspect that, as usual, the US is largely filtering this story through its own warped and deranged perception of what’s best for its own interests — and those of Israel.

  6. 2011 World Events: We Are Living in Biblical Times « Biblical Times News says...

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    […] This was something that then inspired similar actions in Tahrir Square in Cairo (often with extraordinary fearlessness) and across Egypt, and that has also gripped the east of Libya and spread to other towns and […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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