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.
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 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.