It’s one thing to terrorise your people with uniformed officers, but quite another to let loose swaggering plain-clothed men in helmets bearing cattle prods, metre-length planks of wood and rubber truncheons.
Yesterday a group of mostly young men marched outside the Ramsis Hilton chanting what has become the anthem of this uprising, el sha3b, yoreed, esqaat el nezaam [the people want the regime removed].
At the head of the procession a man stood aloft a four-wheeled waste container full of burning rubbish. Its acrid smoke filled the air as the crowd proceeded forward before stopping underneath the October Bridge where some of them placed an iron barrier in front of traffic before others removed it.
A riot police cordon stood in the distance in front of the television building and they stopped, uncertain where to go. Like all of the other demonstrations I have attended, this one had no clear leader and I did not see a single activist I recognised. This is both a strength and a weakness, I think. Protestors milled about, still chanting, as traffic pushed its way through. The countdown to the crackdown started and sure enough it appeared, but this time they weren’t the young conscripts in black.
Instead it was the men in moustaches. My friend Liam Stack joked that being descended on by them is like being assaulted by accountants, such is their proclivity for beige casual jackets and slacks. But the similarity ends there. A female friend of mine was hit on the side of the head by one of them with such force that she temporarily lost her hearing.
We fled up the October Bridge. Below a state security officer I recognised gave orders. A group of young men was bundled underneath a bridge exit by a huge number of state security officers and baltageyya the plain-clothed thugs employed by the Interior Ministry to do its dirty work.
They waited, and then one of them, carrying what looked like an iron rod stopped a passing microbus (Egypt’s unofficial public transport network given the hopelessness of the state bus network) full of passengers. He summarily ordered them to get out. Yalla ya welad el metnaka! [quickly you motherfuckers!]. Then he commandeered the vehicle and its driver. The detainees were bundled inside.
There was an odd scene after that when a huge green public bus already almost full pulled up and men got on. We were unable to establish whether they were detainees or not, nor where they were going.
A short walk down the street we passed the NDP headquarters. It was gratifying to see that rows of riot police are now permanently stationed outside it. The demonstrators are very clear about their targets and the message has got through.
Another spontaneous protest downtown, on Mohamed Farid Street. Around 400 men and women, again no activists. Whistling and clapping rang around the surrounding buildings and then again, another riot police cordon, another standoff.
What has been really heartbreaking in all this is that as protestors approach the police they begin chanting selmeyya, selmeyya [peaceful, peaceful], when they almost certainly know that they are marching into a world of pain. So far I have not seen any protestors instigate any violence. Any rock throwing has been in response to police violence, and remember we are talking water canon, tear gas, rubber bullets.
Both riot police and the plain-clothed thugs were deployed this time. I took refuge in a shop and watched as outside men in motorcycle helmets carrying cattle prods chased people into dead end alleys. Elsewhere groups of four of five brandishing various assortments of homemade and police-issued weapons laid into individuals. I saw one man with a plank of wood almost as long as he was tall.
About this time I tweeted “The really dirty games have begun. State security now running things”, and what I meant is that where the police and riot police are clumsy and heavy-handed and casually break the rules, when it comes to state security there are no rules to break. This is a body that kidnaps people, drives them away in vehicles without number plates and abuses them in unknown locations. Rarely if ever, are their officers held to account for acts of torture and murder. They are a state within a state and flaunt this with unabashed arrogance. Yesterday night, when they were not beating the shit out of people they were screaming at shopkeepers to shut their shops while invoking the shopkeepers’ mothers, all the time waving huge sticks in their faces.
It is difficult to describe the feelings of insecurity produced by knowing that a gang of armed men with carte blanche to do as they please is running your world.
One brave man, who I interviewed here, objected vociferously to their treatment of the protestors, pointing at the thugs and showering them with abuse. An exchange followed before the thugs started gathering and walking towards him. He retreated, still shouting and they began banging their sticks on the walls and anything before them. We all legged it.
In Champollian Street the shops were all shut and the mechanics shutters’ drawn in anticipation of violence. Around 150 mostly young people had gathered underneath the giant picture of Abu Tarek and his “only one branch” of Koshary shop. A young woman led the chants and, when the thugs appeared told the men to stand firm.
The thugs of Champollian Street were particularly obnoxious. As they faced off against the protestors one of them grabbed his crotch while he waved his truncheon at them. Then suddenly they charged, disappearing down the street.
To my delight they reappeared three minutes later in retreat, under a hail of protestors’ rocks. They were subsequently dispersed with tear gas.
I had two interesting conversations last night. As I was standing around covertly looking at the thugs in their track suits crouch on the ground one of them asked me what I was doing standing around. Conversation followed and I asked him what his job is.
“Ana mowaten 3ady” [I’m an ordinary citizen] he said, as he swung his truncheon.
The other exchange was with a traffic cop. As we walked by we heard him say to someone, “el shorta fe khedmat el sha3b” [the police are in the service of the people], to which Moftases and I erupted in laughter.
The man, a middle-aged bloke who generally seemed like a not bad sort launched into an impassioned defence, insisting that he has nothing to do with the group behind him, which as we spoke had seated a group of young men on the pavement like prisoners of war, presumably waiting for a police truck.
I asked him why he doesn’t take off his uniform and join protestors. He said that he couldn’t, that he’d ruin his future, i.e. his professional future. But there was no condemnation of the protestors and he was desperate to distance himself from the thugs.