An Egyptian Police Torture Story

Sometimes you have friends who you assume are incapable of talking about politics, most of the time you’re right but I was wrong about my friend “Mahmoud”. Mahmoud is your typical Egyptian, loyal, charismatic, funny and kind of a clown which is good enough for me, I don’t ask for much else. The ability to meditate on politics is something I truly enjoy and I was recently surprised to find out that “Mahmoud” is not only very politically conscious but without any question the most articulate and skilled debater I have ever met and that’s saying alot. I’ll pick a debate with anything breathing, you don’t even have to be awake just breath and I’ll talk to you.

Mahmoud has an interesting background, he was born here in the U.S. but at the age of 3 his family moved back to Egypt because his father desired to raise his children in his home country in order to guarantee his children’s “Egyptian-ness”. He lived in Egypt all of his life and only returned approximately 4 years ago. Since then he’s gone back to Egypt several times to visit growing increasingly involved in Egyptian political causes. A while back he joined the Kefaya movement, a group which I often disagree with but have supported given special circumstances.

Since joining he was involved in a protest against the Egyptian Government outside the Egyptian Consulate organized by Kefaya here in Chicago. While protesting he and the other protesters were photographed by employees of the Consulate. He wasn’t very concerned about it but some friends and family were terrified, they had lots of questions like…

“Is it safe for you to return to Egypt?”, “Is it safe for our families there?”

The true test came a couple months ago when he returned against the objection of his family and girlfriend. Luckily he passed through customs without incident but honestly the ghost of Ben-Gurion could pass through Egyptian customs unnoticed thanks to Egypt’s general lack of organization and information systems. His trip was completely uneventful until a week before his return. Mahmoud was at a bar in Cairo when he was approached by three young guys looking for trouble, they instigated a fist fight and ultimately Mahmoud was arrested. What happens next is frightening.

Many Egyptian Americans feel a sense of security when returning to Egypt because of the power an American passport holds with it. I can give you a dozen examples of how my passport allowed me to escape several forms of Police harassment. Like the time I was headed towards Sharm El Sheikh on a Coach bus. We arrived at a checkpoint where the officer in charge pulled 10-15 men including myself off the bus for “questioning” and told the bus driver to go on without us. I yelled to the bus driver to hold on one second because I would be on the bus shortly, he looked at me curiously but still waited. I turned to the officer and said, “listen I don’t have time for this, would you like to see my identification?” When I showed him my American passport his face turned red and embarrassed and he quickly apologized and allowed all the men to return to the bus. I guess those guys owe me.

Mahmoud was not so lucky, the police found Kefaya related material in his wallet and quickly became agitated, by the time they found his American passport they didn’t care where he was from, he could have been Prince Charles at that point. He was immediately blind folded, handcuffed and whisked away. When his blind fold was removed he found himself on the roof ledge of the police station handcuffed to another prisoner, the prisoner happened to be suicidal and severely obsessed with leaping off the edge and taking Mahmoud with him.

This is like one of those hypothetical questions your imaginative friend asks you when he’s bored, “O.K. you’re handcuffed to a suicidal guy on the roof of a building, what do you do?” I’ll tell you what Mahmoud did. He started by begging the guy to keep his feet on the ledge, then he tried the therapist approach, telling him life is good, think about your family etc. However sensing the suicidal maniacs nervousness and eagerness to jump he ran out of options and resorted to beating the guy into unconsciousness with his free hand to prevent him from leaping forward. Harsh but brave and clever. When the police returned to find one unconscious and both alive they were so entertained by Mahmouds desperate actions that they released him a couple hours later. Strange, I know.

When he returned he told me the story in a calm and relaxed voice like he was telling me what he ate for breakfast or something. I personally would have contacted Newsweek or Time in search of a pay day.

Just remember, if you’re an Egyptian American returning to Egypt, your passport is NOT a get out of jail free card. So be careful!