This weekend revealed that justice can be undermined in many ways, including in a white Suzuki microbus.
On Friday journalist/masters student/filmmaker/blogger Philip Rizk and others organised a march as part of their ‘To Gaza’ campaign and I went along to cover. I hadn’t taken the word march very seriously, but we ended up walking what felt like one million kilometres to the neighbouring governorate of Qalubeyya, through the countryside.
Against all the odds we (15 of us) managed, almost, to complete the 10 kilometres of the march without being apprehended by the po-lice, despite the fact that, firstly, the group included foreigners caped in Palestinian flags and, secondly, part of the march’s route went through a village where we were accosted by a group of extremely animated kids. It was only near the very end of the route that I heard the chittering of a distant walkie-talkie and knew that the game was up.
State security decided to stop us after we had got into a microbus. It subsequently transpired that this was a deliberate strategy: they stopped the microbus driver, too, and used his bus to hold us in rather than the consulate-inducing alternative of a police van.
Bureaucracy is the trademark of all areas of Egyptian officialdom, and its police department is no exception to this rule. Parked on the side of the road, we were immediately surrounded by members of the police and state security who set about gathering and writing down our names, ages, addresses and occupations with a tedious assiduity. The process was make doubly excruciating because of the large numbers of foreigners involved, and the necessity of spelling out their names in Arabic.
Aside: While the police are always equipped with a clipboard for this task, I have never yet seen a state security police officer with one. They favour small pieces of paper procured from God knows where, making them look like trackside bookies. The suits and general dodgyness only adds to this impression.
When we inquired why we being held, we were told that this was normal procedure carried out with all foreigners who find themselves in Qalubeyya. They ensured us that we would be released in 20 minutes or so, though the three police vans and some 10 – 15 police officers surrounding us wasn’t reassuring.
The activists had decided to conceal the political nature of their march, and instead told the police that we had come to Qalubeyya “just for a visit”, prompting guffaws from one state security officer who asked, “why would anyone visit here?!?” I understood this sentiment because I’m from Croydon.
We were stopped at around 5 p.m., and kept there for four hours in the ever colder weather. Juice and biscuits were supplied for us by the police, who all the while insisted that, “another 10 minutes and you’ll be on your way.” The food and drink was brought by car, by two blokes wearing gallabeyyas. I overheard a police officer say to one of them, “enta taba3na?” [are you one of us?] to which the man responded in the affirmative, and wondered what exactly was the nature of the relationship.
I informed Moftases about what was going on and, in what turned out to be an excellent decision, he subsequently arrived in his car, with a lawyer in tow, God bless them.
While there are many worse features of dictatorships and oppression, I am always reminded that one of its defining aspects is tedium, and that it involves hours of standing around waiting with that awful mixture of boredom and fear in your chest.
While waiting I shot the shit with a state security officer who told me that they are not allowed to travel abroad, not even during their holidays. I wonder if there is any way to establish the truth of this.
At around 8.30 p.m. We were informed that we had to photocopy our I.Ds and that the nearest photocopying shop was near the Abu Zabal police station, conveniently. We went, in a convoy of a police car in front, the microbus, Moftases’ car and the police general’s car behind us.
Further waiting took place outside the police station, until state security suddenly requested that Philip go inside the police station “just for half an hour to answer some questions.” He declined, of course, saying that he would not go inside until the lawyer came back from overseeing the I.D photocopying. Negotiations took place, with the state security officer getting ever more impatient and aggressive. In the end they agreed to wait until the lawyer came back, before going inside. They were subsequently joined by another lawyer, Ahmed Ezzet.
Possibly the saddest thing about this part of the whole sorry episode involved the microbus driver. After Philip went inside we were told that we were free to go. We didn’t leave of course, and took shelter from the bitter cold inside the microbus. The driver, a man in his 60s called Said was desperate to leave, to make some money and return the bus to its owner but said that he couldn’t leave us in the cold. He stayed with us.
Lawyers informed us that the officers were “waiting for a phone call”… Below we bought food. While five of us were sitting outside the police station, eating, some kids on a bike went past and shouted out “el Ingleez e7telo el balad!” [the English have occupied the country!] providing what turned out to be that last moment of humour that night.
All hell broke out at 11 p.m. The lawyers rang down to say that Philip had been kidnapped: state security officers had told him that they wanted him for questioning without the lawyers in a room next door. They took him downstairs and put him in a Suzuki microbus which, when it appeared at the police station’s exit, we attempted to prevent moving by blocking its path. It forced its way through while state security officers frenziedly threw us out of the way.
Moftases meanwhile had started his car. Droubi and I got in it, Moftases put his foot down and the police attempted to stop us moving by standing in front of it. Moftases drove anyway. Per Bjorklund subsequently told me that they were pulling the police officers off the car. Good for them.
There then followed a car chase, Moftases establishing that if he ever tires of Psychiatry he should consider a second career as a rally-driver. The microbus – whose rear number plate had been obscured by a piece of cloth – moved at great speed through the busy main street before suddenly veering off into a neighbourhood of narrow alleys where it attempted to lose us. They hadn’t reckoned on Moftases.
Philip was sitting at the back of the microbus, with roughly four or five men including the driver in front. At one point he turned around, saw us, and smiled. I hope we provided some comfort, however fleeting.
This – extreme speed, dangerous overtaking, sharp turns – went on for about 45 minutes. I don’t mean to make it sound exciting. It wasn’t. It was sickeningly absurd and unglamorous (a Suzuki microbus for God’s sake), frightening, dangerous, and I needed the toilet throughout.
After about half an hour it turned around and went back the way it came. Playing with us, we thought.
It turned out that they had been waiting for a police general who had been at the police station to get himself and his assistants to a police checkpoint building where they extended barriers across the road. We were done for: the microbus – and Philip – disappeared into the night.
The general, beside himself with fury, descended on us with his men. Moftases was ordered out of the car and taken into the police checkpoint building, a crappy looking one-storey, one-roomed block. Me and Droubi were ordered to stay by the car, on the other side of the road. I could hear the general’s voice as he bellowed at Moftases even from there. Worse still, I overheard two men coming from the opposite direction saying, “beyedrobo 7ad gowa” [they're beating someone inside].
It turned out that general did punch Moftases – a psychiatrist who works with victims of violence and torture – but “only” once, in the shoulder. This is of course totally unacceptable, but one of Egypt’s greatest tragedies is that the sheer volume of suffering and injustice means that a sort of spectrum has emerged. The myriad, “minor” injustices such as a punch by a policeman are overlooked. Goes without saying that it is exactly the fact that these minor injustices are ignored which allows the truly gross violations to take place.
Moftases was also subjected to a lengthy and tedious bellowing by the general about how he (Moftases) is his son’s age, and a respectable individual who should know better etc etc which – peppered as it was by supposed witticisms – was arguably more painful than the punch.
A police officer told me that “what Philip is involved in is bigger than you think”. Whatever. The only explanation we have come up with so far is that his two-year stint in Gaza (as a humanitarian and political activist) is what has made him of interest to the authorities.
Ezzet appeared at the police checkpoint and interceded. Car keys (and my and Droubi’s mobile phones) were returned to us, and we were allowed to go, at around midnight.
Needless to say we all went home feeling devastated. I won’t go on about what a lovely, passionate, caring bloke Philip is because it’s irrelevant. Even a total shit doesn’t deserve to be kidnapped.
And this was a kidnapping: on Friday night Philip Rizk could have been anywhere in Egypt. There wasn’t a hope in hell of establishing his whereabouts because usually when a kidnapping occurs recourse is sought to the police and/or the ordinary judicial system.
This kidnapping occurred with the complicity of the police – the laughing general – so the police are out of the picture. The judicial system meanwhile has been entirely emasculated by what is a mafia given a legal licence to operate freely. They are above the law in the sense that they have trampled, spat and shat all over it, reducing it to the crumpled up betting forms which litter racetracks after bets gone wrong: yes in theory there is a remote chance that the law might protect you, but your odds depend on who you are, and where you’re from, and who you know, and the mood of the state security officer holding you.
Like me, Philip is half-Egyptian, half-another nationality which carries some weight, and I truly hope that this both protects him while he’s in the custody of this gang and ensures his release.
But think for a moment of the Egyptians without another nationality and the protection is affords, without foreign friends. What a truly sorry state of affairs, Egyptians in state security custody who are turned into ghosts, the odds of their escaping this mafia intact – physically, mentally and in terms of their dignity – virtually impossible. Unreachable and lost.
On Saturday morning, outside the public prosecution office an unpleasant state security officer said to Philip Rizk’s father, “rabbina yetamminak” [may God comfort you]. He may of meant this genuinely, but coming from him it sounded like a warning, or a joke.