British Journalist: My Horrific Ordeal in a Squalid Egyptian Jail

Nov 11, 2013 at 7:25 AM ET

Two riot policemen backed up towards me: “Do you have any cigarettes?” they asked. I handed one to each of them, and I could see that they were suffering from tear-gas exposure. Their hands shook so violently that I had to light the cigarettes for them. They were short, skinny and incredibly young looking. “How old are you guys?” I asked. “We’re 20,” they replied, before saying thanks and leaving.

I couldn’t help but feel some pity for these young men. I knew they were conscripts, who are treated atrociously by their superiors.

But the pity was short-lived.

It was the 40th anniversary of the October War with Israel, and Cairo was in full nationalistic fervor. The patriotic song “Teslam el Ayady” blared over loudspeakers around the city. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest political organization, had called for four separate marches to converge on Tahrir Square, in the heart of the capital.

But the Brotherhood wasn’t the only group with designs on Tahrir. The movement that had ousted the Brotherhood’s highest-profile member, Egypt’s then-President Mohamed Morsi, was also planning to celebrate the national holiday in the square. Tensions in the country have been running high in recent months: Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, has been imprisoned since the July coup and is now being tried on charges of incitement to violence and murder.

Confrontation in the square that day, Oct. 6, was almost predetermined, and the bloodshed that came later was just as inevitable. Tanks, reinforced by barbed wire and metal detectors, guarded each of the square’s five entrances. Fighter jets pierced the air, flying low enough to set off car alarms.

As soon as the Brotherhood marchers turned onto Tahrir Street, which leads to the square, fighting broke out. Riot police fired tear gas at the marchers, who immediately retreated. Small groups of police then trained their shotguns towards the side alleys, where men and women cowered, occasionally firing what I hoped were blank rounds.

Burning tires combined with the tear gas created an unholy swirling mixture of black and white smoke that engulfed the protesters. One riot policeman who had clearly watched too many action movies started shooting his shotgun into the crowd one-handed; he was smiling.

I was reporting on the marchers, and not long after I gave the policemen cigarettes, a young police recruit grabbed me by the back of the neck. He slapped me on the head repeatedly as his friend took my camera from around my neck and my phone from my pocket. He marched me toward a small alley that leads off Tahrir Street, where I could see a number of other Egyptian men being penned in by some riot police.

I fumbled in my wallet for my press pass, from the Cairo Press Center. A senior member of the riot police looked at it and saw that it said “British.” He looked up at me and back down at my photo a few times before saying, in English, “I’m sorry.”

Assuming I was free to go, I asked for my phone and motioned for my pass. But I got a hefty push in the back and suddenly found myself with the other detained men. I called to a nearby police recruit and told him I was a British journalist and said there was some misunderstanding. He told me to put my hands behind my back. When I reiterated my point, he slapped me in the face.

What has long been a blessing for me was suddenly a curse. I have an ability to pass as Egyptian, which means I don’t get any grief when I walk around alone in Egypt, and I tend not to get ripped off by “foreigner’s prices.” But now the police were treating me like a local—and that wasn’t good.

We were all frog-marched in a line down Tahrir Street. Video cameras appeared from nowhere to, no doubt, document the “successful capture of terrorists by the glorious state security.” A man in a suit also suddenly appeared and started berating us. He was practically foaming at the mouth, spitting at us, and calling us dogs and worse.

As they handcuffed everyone with cable ties, I again announced: “I am a journalist! A British journalist!” I repeated it in Arabic and English, but the policeman marched all 10 of us to a police van.

I believe this was when I started to panic.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” was all that went through my head.

I was thrown into the back of the van. There was already one man inside, as well as a police officer, and the police officer was beating him in a repulsively calculated fashion; kicking each leg, then punching the kidneys, then working his way to slaps on the head before starting from the bottom again. It was somehow more chilling that this all took place in complete silence: no swearing, nothing.

We rode in the van for about a minute to the Dokki Police Station. As the door opened, we were ordered to march through a group of police, every one of them landing a kick or a slap as we passed down into the basement.

The basement itself was decrepit and soul-sapping. Filigrees of damp crawled across the walls towards the barred windows where they died in the light. A stand-alone cage was propped alongside one of the walls, and we were duly crammed into it.

Two policemen readied themselves by a nearby door, one standing on a table and the other below him. We were taken out, one by one, and whatever belongings we had left were confiscated. The man on the table kicked me in the hip while his friend below grabbed my face and pointed to my belt. I removed it without hesitation and he proceeded to whip me with it. It’s surprisingly infuriating to be whipped by a belt you provided.

In the room, I was pushed down to my knees. There were two women in the room and about 20 men, not one of them without some bruise, abrasion or cut visible. As the others were dumped in, the room began to fill up. Out the barred windows, I could just make out the Sheraton hotel through the trees.

Eventually a third, plain-clothes policeman came into the room and starts taking down names, ages and addresses. When he got to me, I decided this was the best chance I had at being released. I put on my best BBC accent and proclaimed “Adam Patrick Ramsey.”

The problem with my name is that the “Adam Ramsey” part is far too close to being an Egyptian name, so I decided to throw in one of my middle names. I thought it best to omit my other middle name, “Omar.”

“Adam what Ramsey?” he asked me. “Adam Patrick Ramsey,” I said again before continuing: “I’m a British journalist.”

“How old are you?” he suddenly asked in English before rooting through my wallet, where he thankfully found my UK driver’s license. Before I could answer he left the room only to return, incensed and suddenly speaking Arabic again.

“Born in Saudi Arabia, eh?” I completely forgot that for some reason UK licenses include your country of birth. Rather than explain that I’m half-Malaysian, half-Northern Irish (never mind the fact Saudi Arabia is giving Egypt billions in aid), I decided to act coy. “I don’t understand you,” I said in terrible Arabic. “Fuck Saudi!” he replied, before throwing my license onto a pile of Egyptian IDs just outside the door.

The temperature in the room was rising. A 50-year-old teacher nodded his head gently against my shoulder. I turned around and saw a face of genuine sympathy, “I am sorry,” he sayed.

“Look,” he motioned to a corner of the room. I had completely missed a man of at least 60 crumpled in the corner. Both his legs were covered with birdshot, blood slowly pooling around his feet. I looked at the blood, and the smell immediately became unbearable.

We could hear screams from outside the door, which would open only to reveal yet another poor man being flogged for no apparent reason. The officers smiled at one another as they beat the men. They fit the stereotype of despotic state security so perfectly it would have been funny if it weren’t so depressing.

After about 90 minutes, they decided to move us—to a minuscule, enclosed courtyard in the middle of the building. Sixty people squeezed in like sardines, sweat beading off us. The tiled floors were dusty and covered in rubbish and aberrant marks of dried blood. I was pushed to my knees once again. I turned and tried to reason with my captors, but was quickly cut off by a kick to the back. “Look straight ahead!” would be the catchphrase for the rest of the evening.

I finally turned and stayed turned, covering the back of my head. I noticed that everyone else was in exactly the same position.

This was by far the most painful part of the day. Kneeling for close to three hours, crammed so closely together there wasn’t space for me to put my hands on the floor to help shift my weight.

During this time I studied the back of the man kneeling in front of me. The different rips and blood stains, the open wound on his upper right shoulder, where the blood began to coagulate. I could feel the man behind me resting his head on my back. As the sun set, the call for prayer was heard, and incredibly, after asking a guard’s permission, everyone somehow pivoted towards Mecca and began to pray, still crouched.

As time passed, the men started talking to one another. Speaking in whispers, some of the men near me said they were part of the march, while others swore that it was just a case of wrong place, wrong time. All but one were experiencing arrest for the first time. I couldn’t believe how well everyone was dealing with it, some even risking a smile.

“Don’t worry, your embassy will help” one said to me. “Yeah, but only if they know he’s here,” replied the man behind him. “Just stay… what’s the word? Optimistic,” said the man behind me, his head still resting on my back. The man in front suddenly gave that old trope that every visitor to Egypt would have heard a thousand times.  “Welcam to Eegipt,” he said. Everyone burst into laughter. “Shut up!” the guard shouted.

After an hour or so, someone decided to ask for some water. With all of us facing the wall in front, we were suddenly pelted with small bottles from behind, the plastic pinging off heads and backs. These were shortly followed by near inedible packets of knock-off Borios (itself a knock-off Oreo).

“Mohamed Adel Mohamed?” a policeman asked. A young man to my left turned around, his face lighting up, “Yes! That’s me.”

“Do you live in Imbaba?” asked the policeman. “Yes, yes!” replied the man. “OK! Could you please…stay there,” he said.

He would do this every five minutes or so with a different person. It was a cruel twist, moving from physical punishment to the emotional.

Suddenly, I heard, “Is there a British national here?” I immediately twisted around, my hand in the air, “Yes!” I replied. “Oh, no, we need someone who was born in Saudi and is half-Malaysian.”

“Yeah…that’s still me,” maybe the embassy had called, I thought. “OK, thanks, just stay there,” he said, smiling at me.

After evening prayers, I began to resign myself to staying the night. My legs were numb by now so pain wasn’t a problem. The smell of noxious vinegar began to grate as more men began pissing themselves.

Around 10 p.m., about six hours after I was arrested, we were suddenly asked to stand up. I almost collapsed as my knees. Leaning on the man in front of me, I steadied myself and we filed out of the room and upstairs. We were told to line up in front of a notice board. I read the yellowed certificates and newspaper clippings trumpeting the police station’s valiant work of the past decades.

Again, we were pulled aside, one by one, and our details recorded. I stayed there silently while they sorted us into two groups, one with around 12 men and the other with closer to 50. Everyone looked exhausted, the blood on their shirts now that dull brown color.

After some paperwork and backslapping, the policemen sent the larger group back downstairs. The smaller group and I were free to leave.

The question is not just why a foreign national, or a journalist, can be detained like this, but why such conditions continue at all, for anyone. What I experienced looks dramatic on paper, but in reality, it was relatively trivial. It’s a nightmare reality that gets much worse for far too many, far too often in Egypt. These conditions have been a constant through the various regimes in Egypt—Mubarak, The SCAF, Morsi and now Sisi.

The Interior Ministry has always been heavy-handed in Egypt. But ever since they threw out the widely despised Morsi in July, their approval ratings have soared. Anytime they are accused of being inhumane or ruthless, they can point to the millions of people who supported their move as a mandate for their aggressive tactics. It brings to mind Alexis De Tocqueville’s concept of the “tyranny of the majority,” where the sovereignty of this or that majority trumps the sovereignty of mankind—a lamentable state of affairs.

Walking down the street, I flagged a taxi to take me home. “Welcome to Egypt,” said the taxi driver with a grin, not mistaking me for an Egyptian. On the radio “Teslam el Ayady” is playing.