Personal essay: Behind bars in Egypt

An American journalist’s account of his time spent in an Egyptian prison

Jeremy Hodge in Egypt before his arrest.
Jeremy Hodge

I stood handcuffed in the prosecutor’s office in Cairo’s Dokki district, looking down at a three-ring binder notebook that had been seized from my apartment and lay strewn across the table. A translator of Arabic to English, part-time journalist and U.S. citizen, I had been arrested by the Egyptian security services two days earlier, on Jan. 22, along with my Egyptian roommate, Hossam Meneai, a local filmmaker, on the suspicion that we were members of a foreign spy ring.

Recently removed from its Ziploc bag casing, my notebook, which consisted mostly of Arabic-language practice drills taken from instruction books, was now exhibit A in a case being brought against me.

The prosecutor tasked with handling the case was fairly young considering his position, appearing to be only a few years older than I am. His office was adorned with paintings, small replicas of gold Qurans and what appeared to be imported sub-Saharan African masks and sculptures. It was significantly nicer than the rest of the grimy, cockroach-infested building in which it was located. Aside from his office, the building appeared to be largely abandoned.

The interrogation focused on selected writings from the notebook that the prosecutor found incriminating. After having scoured its contents, he was able to identify several pages that contained content that could be considered vaguely political.

He was particularly concerned with a half-page mini-essay I had written discussing Egypt’s high unemployment rates and its effect on the country’s youth. Other writings that attracted his interest included a page that discussed the government’s recent crackdown on journalists, in addition to anything that mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel and, at one point, even Morocco.

During breaks the prosecutor sent text messages to his friends and cracked off-color jokes to his subordinates (most all of whom were five to 10 years his senior); his mood often swung from relatively jovial to plainly irrational. He explained to me that as a result of my writings, I was officially being charged with “spreading false news that threatens Egypt’s national security.”

It soon became clear, however, that his main concern was not so much whether what I had written was accurate, but rather how I, a foreigner, had come to learn about Egypt’s internal political affairs, which, according to him, were secret. “You are writing things that come from deep inside Egypt,” he barked in Arabic. “Which governments are you sending them to?”

If this had happened anywhere else, I would have chalked up such a ridiculous question (as have many people with whom I have since spoken) to a poorly constructed yet premeditated interrogation technique, a feeble attempt to inspire fear based on trumped-up charges that the interrogator himself didn’t even believe to be true, as a means of eliciting information. However, I am positive this man was being earnest.

A year and a half of conditioning acquired through living in post-revolutionary Egypt meant that by this point, I was used to hearing baseless allegations tossed at me regarding what I did for a living. On top of this, the two days I had already spent in custody were like an intensive immersion course for how to deal with such radical accusations and inane conspiracy theories. 

Neither he nor I broke during interrogation; we had nothing to hide and did not feel the need to lie about anything.

When we were apprehended in our apartment two days earlier, officers explained to us the real reason behind our arrest. Hossam had spent much of his life in northern Sinai, from which a low-level Islamist insurgency was launched against the state following the July 3 military coup that toppled the country’s first democratically elected president. Historically the most marginalized of Egypt’s governorates, it has long served as a conduit for drugs, weapons and illegal immigrants coming in and out of Israel and the Gaza Strip, because of its location along the border. Stereotypes abound that Sinai residents are everything from Islamic extremists to Zionist collaborators. Often, lines between the two blur.

That, combined with the fact that Hossam lived with foreigners, one of whom was fluent in Arabic, led the officers to draw the conclusion that both he and I were spies involved in the transmission of information to foreign governments. The filming equipment Hossam had lying around all over the apartment did little to assuage their fears.

The exterior of Dokki police station.

We were walked from our apartment several blocks down the street to the Dokki police station, where we were forced to endure half a dozen identical interrogations, all of which were equally fruitless. Hossam was questioned about what was on his camera and his laptop, both of which had been seized.

Neither he nor I broke during interrogation; we had nothing to hide and did not feel the need to lie about anything. Officers did not beat us, as they did most inmates, presumably because I am an American, and doing so could have caused an international incident.

After several hours, the two of us were placed in a room in the back of the building filled with cabinets used to store the mountains of paperwork acquired by police on all those who had passed through the station. Egypt’s police, like many other organizations within the country’s state bureaucracy, has not yet computerized its records, which are kept by hand, using pen and paper. From what I saw, this prevailed even within the offices of high-ranking officers and investigators.

We were left in the file room, handcuffed to a table, and ignored for nearly 36 hours, while our handlers attended to other business. During this period, several other groups of inmates were brought into the room to be interrogated and processed, usually in groups of four or five. Usually, at least a few would be beaten in front of us. One man from Upper Egypt, who was accused of storing hashish in his rectal cavity, was strangled with his own scarf while his head was bashed against a wall. He was found to be innocent and later released. Later, hashish was found in the rectal cavity of another man being held, who was subsequently beaten in a similar fashion.

Another man, brought in on the grounds that he was allegedly a homosexual, was beaten repeatedly for about an hour, due to the annoyance caused by his supposedly “effeminate” voice, in addition to his refusal to stop crying as a result of such beatings.

By the time it was decided that Hossam and I were to be moved to permanent cells with other inmates, I was actually quite relieved. I had gotten very little sleep during that 36-hour period, and no food had been provided to us, although we had been allowed to use the bathroom.

We were walked out of the interrogation room and down a stairway into the station’s basement, where we traversed a dark, dank hallway, at the end of which was a massive metal door with the word “Detainment” written on it. The door was heavy; opening it was slow and noisy. It led to another, darker room, where there were three other doors, each one leading to a cell.

I was pushed to the left, into one cell, while Hossam was urged forward, to another cell. He began to protest. “No,” he said, “Jeremy and I should be held together.”

The behavior of the guards had already begun to worsen as they moved us, their taunts and insults increasing with every step. But this was the first time since we had been arrested that Hossam was physically abused. He was approached by one guard, who unzipped his jacket, while uttering something I did not hear. He was then stripped down to his underpants and made to lie on his stomach while being repeatedly kicked in his ribs. Locked up in the other cell, I did not get to see how it ended. 

One inmate vwas charged with killing 29 people on Oct. 6, in what must have been a one-man, Rambo-style murderous rampage through the streets of Cairo.

After getting acquainted with my cellmates, I realized that I was being held in an area reserved exclusively for political prisoners.

There were 10 to 12 people sharing the cell. Some were journalists, while others were students from Cairo University. After some initial conversation, I learned that most had been arrested during protests held on Oct. 6, 2013, led by the Anti-Coup Alliance, or, as its name directly translates from Arabic, the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy — a pro-Morsi advocacy group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The atmosphere in the cell was like that of a college library. One inmate spent most of each day scribbling in a three-ring binder, doing math problems out of an English-language calculus book with the help of a TI-89 calculator. A student at the Faculty of Engineering, he explained to me that although he could not attend class due to his incarceration, Cairo University had agreed to administer his final exam for him at the Dokki police station. His mother, emphasizing his need to get good grades, had brought these materials to him during one of her visits. He was charged with kidnapping a police officer and burning him alive on Oct. 6, although, according to news reports, no police officers were killed that day.

Another inmate, Ahmed Badawy, was a student at Cairo University’s Faculty of Medicine and was originally from the Nile Delta city of Damietta. A thin, smart-looking man in his early 20s with spectacles and a neatly trimmed beard, he spent most of each day reading Naguib Mahfouz, Taha Hussein and other classic Egyptian authors. Before going to sleep at night he took several hours to read from the Quran. He was charged with killing 29 people on Oct. 6, in what must have been, if such claims are accurate, a one-man, Rambo-style murderous rampage through the streets of Cairo.

Lights in the cell were kept on 24/7, but despite this, everyone went to bed promptly at 11 p.m. in order to get enough sleep and wake up in time to perform the dawn prayer at 5 a.m., a ritual that was observed by all. Prayer was preceded by an azhan, or call to prayer, which was performed by a designated inmate for the benefit of those in the two neighboring cells.

Several hours later, I was once again brought out of the cell. Hossam, six other inmates and I were held for a half hour in a dirty, windowless, roofless room to endure further intimidation. Several officers responsible for transferring us by minibus to the prosecutor’s office watched over us as we stood handcuffed together in a chain gang. They were led by one officer who appeared to have an ax to grind with Hossam, whom he frequently beat.

Interspersed between the cursing, insults, kicks, punches and baton swipes, I gathered that this officer’s cousin had been killed recently in northern Sinai during the army’s ongoing military campaign there. It wasn’t clear who killed him, or if he had been a soldier, police officer, bystander or what. Regardless, for some reason Hossam seemed to be destined to bear the brunt of this man’s vindictiveness.

It was under these circumstances that we arrived at the prosecutor’s office, where my case was to be heard. Most of the day was spent sitting in the hallway after my hearing, waiting for the other inmates with whom I was handcuffed to be done with theirs. It was Jan. 24, and I had not yet heard from the American Embassy or been allowed to make a phone call. There were rumors circulating that riots had already begun throughout Cairo in anticipation of the third anniversary of the Jan. 25 revolution. 

After we were brought back to the police station that night, while still in our chain gang, Hossam was punched in the face and kicked several times again by a low-ranking officer. This time, I was placed in the same communal cell with Hossam, which I learned was used to house criminal offenders. Most were drug violators who came from the poor neighborhood of Imbaba, located in the city’s northwest corner.

The atmosphere in this cell was noticeably different from the one in which I had stayed the night before. Half the inmates were curled up in corners, experiencing withdrawal from Tramadol (an over-the-counter painkiller that has recently become popular throughout Egypt), while others were smoking hashish. The cell smelled worse than the political cell; there was no shower and, needless to say, less reading material. One inmate, who was significantly older and shorter than the rest, would constantly clean up after the others when they were done eating, or doing anything else that created a mess.

Within the first 15 minutes I was approached by an inmate named Ali, who asked if he could “borrow” a ring I was wearing, one I had not yet been smart enough to discard. Understanding this as a test of my strength, I asked him why. What followed was a tense exchange lasting several minutes that resembled the type of haggling in which I would engage in the streets of Cairo when buying clothes, food or anything else, but that in this case would ultimately determine my place in the hierarchy of the cell. “Fine,” I said, handing over the ring. “Here.” Shortly after, I took a second ring I had been wearing, which I presumed had not yet been noticed, and threw it in the hole in the ground that served as our toilet. 

The author's Egyptian roommate, Hossam Meneai, on the couch of the apartment they shared.
Jeremy Hodge

After about an hour, the officer whose cousin had been killed in Sinai came into our cell and called for Hossam.

“Did you tell the prosecutor I’ve been beating you?” he asked.

“No,” Hossam replied.

“Why not?” the officer asked, punching him in the gut. “I wanted him to know!”

Cue in another round of kicks, punches and baton swipes.

An hour later, he returned to our cell, this time in a somber mood, and took me back to the cell reserved for political prisoners. I don’t know if the fact that I had been put in a cell with criminal offenders had been a mistake or if it was done to confuse me, but once again, I spent the night with the Brotherhood. 

After several days of humiliation and degradation,
I watched as Hossam’s ability to stay strong
began to wane.

The next morning, I was woken up and taken out of my cell, along with Hossam and one other inmate, to be officially processed, which had not yet happened. The process consisted of the three of us standing in front of a white wall and having our photos taken by a teenager, who then asked us each for EGP30 for “processing fees.” Hossam and I had no money, and so the police took what cash could be found in the pockets of the third inmate.

We were then placed in a holding area before being moved back into our cells, shortly after which the officer I had seen beat Hossam twice walked into the room. He immediately began cursing Hossam, insulting his honor and insinuating that he was a terrorist responsible for destroying the fabric that held together Egyptian society. After several days of humiliation and degradation, I watched as Hossam’s ability to stay strong began to wane. In an environment where those launching accusations operate with impunity, he couldn’t help but feel the need to speak up and defend himself.

“I’m sorry to hear about your cousin,” he said. “I’m against anybody being killed for any reason and I hope those responsible are brought to justice, but really, sir, please don’t be upset with me.”

His attempt to sympathize was met with rage from the officer, who pulled his pistol from its holster, walked up to Hossam and pointed it at his skull.

“If I was upset with you I’d kill you right now,” he said. “I’m not yet upset. Several army officers are here,” he said, motioning to the other room. “They’ve got more in store for you.”

He said this with a smile, and his words were followed by laughter and further taunts from other officers in the room.

Before being moved back to our cells, Hossam was taken to a back room where his hair was cut, a sign of disrespect in Arab culture. Once again, both he and I were placed in the criminal cell. I remained there until Jan. 26, when I was released and met by Emily Norris, an official from the American Civil Service department within the United States Embassy. She advised me to catch the next available plane out of Egypt and go back to the United States, which I did.

Hossam Meneai in a café.
Jeremy Hodge

In doing so, I left Hossam behind, not knowing what his fate held, whether my leaving him would make his stay more or less dangerous, what to do to help him or if anything could be done at all.

He was released two weeks later, on Feb. 9, although his charges are still pending. Police have confiscated his passport and refuse to return it, preventing him from leaving the country. Court documents obtained by Hossam’s lawyers show that both I and our third, British flatmate (who was not arrested but also fled the country) remain accused of “spreading false news.” Accusations abound both in court documents and within Egyptian media that the two of us are guilty of vague charges including “taking pictures of police stations,” “walking through Egypt’s squares” and “relaying information to be sent abroad.” I don’t anticipate being able to return to Egypt anytime soon, or perhaps ever.

The question then remains: How long do journalists in Egypt have before it becomes impossible for them to operate freely? Egypt was recently ranked by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the third most dangerous place in the world for journalists, behind Syria and Iraq — one a war zone, the other a former war zone still suffering from the wounds of ethnic, tribal and sectarian conflict. In a country where unaccredited doctors can make spurious, unsubstantiated claims to have cured HIV and hepatitis C, with full government support, negative reporting can often become a little too easy — so much so that avoiding it may require a conscious effort. This seems to be what Egypt’s generals are asking of the country’s press. 

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