A strange paradox in Egypt is that it is the incredible, miracle-level stuff which works while the ordinary and the routine seem to fail. Maria Golia expressed this well; she describes Cairo as being held together by rubber bands. How is it that the haphazard, logic-defying physicality of this city – with its buildings stapled onto buildings and precarious rooftop shacks and weary working donkeys and perilously overloaded, listing buses – survives and persists while the basics, the ABC, seems to fail?
I was reminded of this on Wednesday, when a court sentenced newspaper editor Ibrahim Eissa to six months imprisonment for publishing articles suggesting that Hosny Mubarak might be slightly unwell. He was charged with spreading false information liable to undermine national stability. The implication is that by suggesting that the 80-year old Mubarak might not be in the best of health, Eissa had scared off foreign investors. I had previously attended the court session when defence witnesses were heard. One after the other they repeated the same thing: Egypt’s economy grew at the time the articles published and, in any case, it is impossible to gauge the effect the articles had on the economy, if any at all.
This was confirmed by someone who works in foreign investment in Egypt and who is on a mailing list I subscribe to. He said that Gamal’s succession to the throne is such a foregone conclusion that rumours/facts about Hosny bowing out before the curtain finally falls are neither here nor there. A couple of years ago when opposition movement Kefaya still had wind in its sails ‘no to inherited rule’ was a chant regularly heard at demonstrations and protests. The chants have faded now – perhaps temporarily – but in the silence is a sigh, a tacit acceptance of the unacceptable, of the anomaly made ordinary.
But then how can ordinary be gauged when the reference points have become so skewed, so perverted? In an age when honesty is a liability and policemen are criminals and water is poisonous and truth is fabricated in a closed room somewhere, notions of good and evil are redundant, the accoutrements which are the first things thrown off a sinking ship.
A foreigner resident in Egypt who has been following the AUC 8 trial reminded me of this recently. Seven of the Sudanese defendants were released on bail by a court at the beginning of March until the next court hearing in May. There was hysteria when the judge made the announcement; ululations and screams and a relative of one of the boys passed out flat on the ground in happiness.
They weren’t released of course. They are currently being held in a prison in Alexandria, their detention made “legitimate” by the addition of a new charge concocted by state security after a week during which they were held entirely illegally. The 7,000 LE bail paid by their families and friends has disappeared, as has all hope that they will be released. “It’s not right,” said the foreigner, and I found myself wondering at the foolish naivety, or lofty idealism of such a statement – what has right got to do with anything? Wrong and right have become the Sunday best outfit reserved for special occasions, for religious ceremonies and visits by foreign dignitaries. They have no place in the everyday. How can one win a war whilst wearing the tight collar of respect?
Last week Om Nakad telephoned me and told me to go to Kitkat, where a man who had been tortured by the police was due to appear before the public prosecution office.
The office was in a huge, newly-constructed tower block with mirrored windows and a grand reception area worthy of The Law. The lift does not work of course, and it was a six-floor trek up. Upon arriving, out of breath, we were met by a lawyer who filled us in. Hany had been at home at 2 p.m. with his wife and son when an anti-drugs division had suddenly burst in and demanded that they lead him to a known drugs dealer in the area, slapping him about a bit to demonstrate that they meant business. He did as they wanted, but was held afterwards. When he presumed to ask why he was being held, and why the police broke into him home without a warrant he was whipped with the long glue sticks used in glue guns (used by the police to seal packages of evidence) before charges of drug dealing were fabricated against him.
Everyday in the morning individuals arrested during the night are brought before the public prosecution office for the ‘3ard’, presentation. I arrived at around 1 p.m. that day and the 3ard had still not begun. Instead, two rows of men sat on the ground next to the lifts in a busy hallway. Bedraggled, unshaven, barefoot and shackled the men reminded me of chattels: the poorest, most vulnerable members of a society viewed as criminals not because of the crimes they had supposedly committed but because of their offence of being nobodies and knowing nobody.
Hany was amongst them, tiny and fragile-looking and handcuffed to his neighbour. I found myself thinking he doesn’t look that bad, he’s only got a black eye…before I realised that I was comparing his treatment to that of deaths and extreme brutality in police custody rather than against the yardstick of what is supposed to happen, which is no abuse at all; the offensive again becoming the ordinary.
I wanted to photograph Hany, to document his injuries. Om Nakad requested permission and the police guards refused so we went to the head of the prosecution office to complain. The offfices of members of the public prosecution office are all in one corridor access to which is granted or denied by a couple of officious individuals whose sole purpose seems to be to make life as difficult as possible for defence lawyers and journalists. Om Nakad is a formidable opponent and we eventually gained access to the district head’s office.
He turned out to be slender, moustachioed and bespectacled man who had one of those small round badges clipped into the hole on his suit lapel where flowers are put during weddings. I couldn’t read what was written on the badge, neatly adjusted and arranged like everything else in the room, but the sparse order of his desk, and his own demeanour, were suggestive of a man who likes rules and, more than that, likes to embody rules.
Om Nakad explained that we were following a case involving the ‘excessive’ use of force by the police. There was the briefest of flashes of something, followed by a silence, before he reached for a piece of paper and asked for the name of the person involved. He then requested that we wait outside, back in the hallway and, for the first time, closed his office door. Om Nakad said that he was calling the police division implicated in the case, that this is always what happens. Who knows.
Five minutes later we heard one of the officious individuals say to a guard ‘haat Hany zeft dah’ [bring that bloody Hany] before Hany himself appeared, stumbling along the corridor with the guard who had banned us taking his photograph before collapsing in the hallway. We were summoned into the office of a member of the public prosecutor office, this time a young man at the beginning of his career still in the process of cultivating the arrogance which seems part of the job description of being a member of the public prosecution office.
I have yet to work out whose side the public prosecution office are on. All of its members I have come in contact with have, without exception, demonstrated an identical, very particular, type of arrogance. It is reminiscent of British public school aloofness and is perhaps the product of being in an all-male environment; a mixture of machismo and privilege finished off with that most dangerous of attributes, power.
In his early 20s, well-dressed and smoking, this member of the public prosecution office fitted the description perfectly. I was allowed to attend the pre-investigation ‘discussion’ during which the accused man has five minutes or so to briefly present his side of the case. I would not be admitted to the investigation itself, which only lawyers may attend. Hany stood in front of the young man’s desk, rubbing his hands together and explaining to ‘el basha’ what had happened. El basha meanwhile looked everywhere except at him, at his desk, at his cigarette, at a package brought in midway through the conversation while Hany, who seemed to shrink during the process, continued talking, seemingly to nobody.
El basha refused to allow us to photograph Hany’s injuries before we were dismissed until the investigation began. Once outside Hany was not returned to the group of men shackled and sat on the ground in the hallway – the guards had got wind of our determination to photograph him. “Ana 7’abayto” [I’ve hidden him] one of them said with a self-satisfied smile. “Search high and low and you’ll never find him.” And Hany had in fact disappeared into the bowls of the building.
The investigation began half an hour or so later, in front of a different, and indifferent, member of the public prosecution office. I went in, tried my luck, but was sent out and prowled round the building’s corridors while I waited. It being 3ish and near the end of a shift, the building gradually emptied of its condemned men and the hoards of women and children who had set up camp in its corridors.
The way in which buildings change when their human inhabitants desert them has always interested me. It is like watching the way a landscape changes during sunset. The cruelty of this building was exposed in its bareness; echoing, impossibly long hallways, dirty walls and corners overflowing with rubbish, all testimony somehow to a legal system fallen victim to the same mixture of neglect, abuse and revulsion which runs throughout this society.
Hany spent over an hour inside, while outside I argued over a chair with one of the officious individuals who tried to force me to stand up until a policeman explained that he had in fact allowed me to sit on it. Om Nakad eventually emerged and told me that they had taken so long because the public prosecution official had insisted on taking periodic breaks – that is when he wasn’t settling up playlists on his laptop, which had apparently provided the soundtrack to Hany’s interrogation. Before the interrogation started Hany had again provided a brief summary of what had happened to him, prompting the public prosecution office person to say “hangeblak 7a2ak” [we’ll see that you get justice]. “El zolm beyawga3” [injustice hurts] Hany replied, but even pain can become normality.