By Amr Khalifa
The sun beat down with an untethered ferocity on the cuts on her shoulders, and the fact that the shirt was torn was not helping. Her mobile phone barely had enough charge to call her family to pick her up from the empty desert road where she had been dumped. It had only been 10 minutes since she made the phone call home, and she realised that nothing short of miracle had kept her alive during her four week trial of survival as prisoner 41,138- whom we shall refer to as P, for prisoner, for the remainder of this ordeal.
The violent invasive knock at the door at 3am is a book, in nations like Egypt, you can judge by its cover. For P, sitting at her computer screen struggling with her latest blog entry, the nightmare was beginning. The men on the other side of the door, nameless and faceless to a frightened citizen journalist, represent an unwavering paradigm by an Egyptian regime that has decided to classify as threat to national security most opinions that are not its own. Within seconds after invading the privacy of P’s home, the terrified family would stand aside as the security hurricane would make its way through every room without so much as one phrase uttered.
The hulking police truck barrelled its way through Cairo’s rarely silent roads and only P’s loud thoughts were more audible than the creaky engine of the government vehicle. She had started penning some thoughts about justice and citizen rights around the time of labour unrest in Mahalla in 2008. Since then her following had grown large and she had become an important voice among Egypt’s activists –even more so after the 25 January Revolution. The physical abuse began at the steps of the police truck, with hair pulling and the most horrific verbal volleys imaginable. Every single prisoner with her, on the ride to the unknown building, also bore the physical hallmarks of the state security welcome. P, despite a sheltered childhood, was not naïve: she was fully aware the police state had returned with full vengeance 11 months ago-nonetheless, this was a shock to anyone’s system. She was terrified. The worst would be unfurled next.
She was awakened from her inner world by a hand so thick that it felt like the business end of a Croquet mallet landing on her head and seemingly penetrating directly to her brain.
“Move you sons of a —-, get down and receive your proper hello and how do you do from your masters you sons of —-s,” barked a vicious looking man with a protruding gut.
By the time P made it to the end of the welcome line outside the large nameless gray building, 10 men to her left and to her right had invaded every crevice of her being. They stood shouting insults, some with vicious German shepherds and others with sticks and yet more others with fists and legs for weapons. While hands brutally landed on her face, another violated her breasts and as she defended herself and a German shepherd came far too close to her face as another hand landed on her nether regions. The mind-numbing assault lasted less than a minute but felt painfully longer. A hard shove resulted in a stumble unto the first steps of the darkened building. The prisoners all stood at attention upon entry, surveying their multiple injuries and keeping down their moans for fear of inviting further torture. P’s nose was bleeding profusely, she felt her eyes severely swelling already, and sensed pain in parts of the body she didn’t known could experience pain. The loss of time, space, and place was her psyche’s way of removing her from the ongoing nightmare.
Two hours later, she believes, after being alternately subjected to cold and hot water, the blindfold, her companion for entirety of the time, was removed and after adjusting her eyes to the light she was before 3 investigators. The tone was decisive but educated, terse but restrained:
Investigator #1: “Welcome aboard P. You have been a very busy young lady. First thing’s first: how long have you been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood?”
P (Visibly taken aback): “Sir, I am the furthest thing from being an MB member. I don’t even wear a Hijab sir.”
A millisecond after the sentence was uttered a harsh elbow, by an officer standing to the left of P, to her right cheek resulted in blood streaming from her mouth.
#1: “We are not off to a good start here. Please don’t mistake my calm tone for that of a nice guy. I am not. Again, when did you join the terrorist organisation?”
Survival instinct quickly tried to calculate a response that would spare her further physical punishment. P was brave but not suicidal. Try as she might she couldn’t muster a neutral response. She muttered in a steady but defiant tone:
P: “I am not nor have I ever been a member of the Brotherhood. I am an Egyptian in love with a nation who no longer knows how to love its sons and daughters. I am a simple girl who, at times frightened, who wants one thing: dignity. I believe it is my birth right.”
The elbow didn’t come, nor did the slap or the kick. Investigator #2 slowly manoeuvred from behind the desk, sat at the edge of the desk in front of her, leaned over, looked up the ceiling momentarily, as P receded physically from his space. The slap landed with such a resounding thud it appeared to simultaneously shake both her cheeks and rattle her teeth-in fact, it may have broken one.
#2-: “I don’t really much care what happens to you, I simply want the truth and don’t care what I do to you to get it. Clear? The correct answer will earn you an ice pack. The wrong answer will…”
#2 Continued to speak but P had begun to blackout, her body slowly sliding down the metallic chair without any of the officers present making an effort to prop her up. The three lit cigarettes and exhaled the first puffs in a manner that said “torture is a fatiguing job”.
When she awoke she wasn’t in a cell. Instead, her behind was on one small uncomfortable, dilapidated, turquoise chair and her uncovered legs were plopped unto another chair. Face bloodied and swollen, her mustard coloured shirt was torn revealing what it should not. As she began to realise sunlight was permeating the barred windows the sunlight reflected ever so slightly in her tears. The first female she would see during her ordeal, minutes later, would enter the room, unlock her handcuffs and stand menacingly over her while pointing at a plastic plate containing 1 small piece of farmer’s cheese , 2 small broken piece of bread and 3 olives. The small cup of water provided was the first item to make contact with P’s parched lips. It would escape her captor’s minds that this brief break would be all that young P would need to steel herself for the fight ahead. Something told her whether it was 3 days or 3 months or 3 years that lay ahead of her that she had discovered, to her surprise, an inner strength fuelling a strong will to survive.
After a four week repetitive cycle of physical and psychological torture, P was thrown from a slowly moving vehicle where she awaited her parents now. She was not broken. She was not grateful to have survived. She was angry. She had become prisoner 41,138. For her one thing was clear: this wasn’t an end but rather a beginning of new phase.
When Egyptians stood again in the squares and declared Mohamed Morsi Persona Non Grata, few expected the systematic attack on opposition to be this ferocious. With the dawn of 3 July 2013 came the argumentative tempest: revolution or coup. Argue the point, if you wish, but certain facts cannot be denied: 41,137 Egyptians are currently political prisoners, as reported by the independent watchdog WikiThawara. Mass arrests of demonstrators, political activists, journalists and citizen journalists have plagued Egypt since the 3 July 2013 putsch. Autocrats often make similar mistakes, chief among them is underestimating the power of anger of an aggrieved opponent. Draconian regimes presume that once the opposition is jailed that the result will be a broken opponent. History says they are wrong.
While prisoner 41,138 maybe fictional, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s challenges are real. Among the many challenges that lay ahead for Al-Sisi in the coming months will be the tens of thousands of political prisoners as they return to the streets of a regime that systematically chooses stick over carrot. Should these tens of thousands of prisoners meet with any kind of success in unifying it promises to be the hottest of summers in Egypt.
Names like Mahienour El-Massry, Ahmed Douma, Abdullah Elshamy, Ahmed Maher, Mohamed Soltan and countless others from all hues of the political rainbow are not numbers, they are human beings. In forgetting that all important fact, the Al-Sisi government may have begun to sow the seeds of the next, potentially, exponentially larger confrontation.
Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist previously published by Mada Masr, Muftah, The Globe & Mail, Jane’s Defense, and Inter press Service.