The Tale of the Weeping State Security Officer

The Tale of the Weeping State Security Officer

I was struck by this detail from Liam Stack’s powerful interview with Zahara al-Shatir, whose husband and father are both facing a military trial, despite having been acquitted by an ordinary criminal court:

The officers pulled him out of the car in a very violent way. My children were screaming: “They are trying to kill my father! No, don’t kill him!” One of the officers was crying as he did it. (Afterwards, many of them asked me to forgive them. They said that they were just following orders. They went and bought sweets for my children.) [Read the full story in The Guardian Weekly.]

When I was researching Brotherhood detentions last year, I heard so many similar stories from families of the detainees. My boss and I ultimately decided not to include most of them because we feared it would sound like Brotherhood propaganda. But the interviews with the wives and the children of the detainees always left me feeling the most emotionally drained. If the detainees themselves were angry or upset at their treatment, they didn’t show it. Rashad al-Bayumi, a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council, smiled throughout his long description of the torture he suffered in Nasser’s prisons, as if to erase the sickened expression from my face.

I’ve been thinking about them as the pre-election arrest campaign against the Brotherhood escalates (more than 600 are now in jail). Periodically, as “the Muslim Brotherhood story” comes back into fashion in the Western press, foreign journalists come to Cairo, buy me coffee, and ask for phone numbers. Lately it’s been tough to help. I scroll through my phone’s address book and mutter, “Well, he’d have been good, but he’s in jail. This guy helped me set up a lot of interviews… too bad he’s in jail. I think Mohammed’s still free, but I’m not sure. He doesn’t speak any English, though. Is that OK?”

When friends here asked me to campaign on behalf of Khaled Hamza, the imprisoned editor of the Brotherhood’s English-language Web site, I first thought of his intelligent smile (I also thought of a blogger friend of mine who joked that he was going to make a fortune buying up domain names according to the formula “Free + Arab-Sounding-Name”). And I thought of the dozens of other Brotherhood members I’d met who are now in jail. I asked myself, “Why him, in particular? Or why Ahmed Ezz-ad-Din? Because I met them, and they’re nice guys? What about the nameless guy in Fayum or Sharqiyya?” And so I didn’t say anything for a while, caught between the churlishness of not writing a simple blog post about Khaled Hamza and the selfishness of neglecting the boys in Fayum because I’d never met them. I’m saying something now because it bothers me that hundreds of people are being arrested on blatantly political grounds and it’s so routine now that we barely notice.

Let me be clear: I don’t support the Muslim Brotherhood. I’m fundamentally opposed to their platform, and I distrust their new discourse of freedom and democracy. Even its most vocal proponents, impressive people like Abd al-Moneim Mahmud, see it as a means to an end. It’s embarrassing watching a Brother, even one from the “moderate, reformist” trend, trying to wiggle out of a direct question about Shia Muslims, Copts in positions of power, women, or gays. But I’m equally opposed to the government’s treatment of them on moral and practical grounds.

I also keep coming back to this detail of the weeping State Security officer bringing sweets for Khairat al-Shatir’s grandchildren. It’s things like this that make Egypt’s autocracy more livable than Tunisia’s, say, or Syria’s. I’m reminded of the prosecutor who joked with a young Brotherhood-affiliated student picked up at a 2006 protest in support of judicial independence when the student denied having insulted the president.

“Ya Mohammed,” he asked, telling the clerk to stop writing, “When you’re sitting with your friends, you don’t insult the president?”
“OK, yeah, I do.”
“Me too,” he laughed, and told the clerk to start taking notes again.

I’m reminded of a friend of mine whose leftist parents were so often detained in State Security raids that the State Security officer assigned to the case almost became a part of the family. My friend, now a leading human rights advocate, still calls this guy “Uncle So-and-So.”

I’m reminded of the cop who, when called to arrest a pair of non-Egyptian Arabs and their hours-old baby from the hospital because they didn’t have papers, reprimanded the doctors who’d turned them in, asking, “Is there no mercy left in this country? These two have just had a baby and you call me to arrest them? For shame!”

I’m reminded of the hapless Central Security conscripts forced to stand in 45-degree (Celsius) heat in heavy black uniforms and patiently endure the ugly slurs and shoves the young Fabians hurl at them, then forced to run and fetch the basha tea.

I’m reminded of the hundreds of human interactions and shared jokes between police and unarmed Egyptians I see on a daily basis. I’m reminded of the impressive courage and honesty of the prosecutor who delivered a ringing and succinct indictment of two police sadists in the “Imad al-Kabir” trial before a room full of highly connected mafiosi. Aside from Imad himself, that prosecutor was the biggest hero in the room: not the human-rights lawyers playing to the cameras, not the journalists who tracked the victim down, and not even the bloggers who posted the damning cellphone video online (though they all played a vital role).

And I’m reminded of the faces of the State Security officers and the informers I see around town. Sometimes you can tell them from their clothes: the bad leather jackets, the sunglasses. But mostly you can tell them from the expression on their faces. No one else seems as cynical, as angry, or as contemptuous. (The informers also seem cynical and angry, though more scared than contemptuous.) These guys were once young boys with bright smiles. What kind of toll does a job like that take on a man?

I’m afraid of State Security. My throat constricts whenever I pass by their dungeons in Nasr City. I’m afraid of writing this. But I also wonder what it must be like to be one of them. Did they take the job to catch terrorists and save lives? To catch Zionist spies? Because in this country there’s no safer place to be than cruising through Lazoghly Square behind the wheel of a black Peugeot with black plates, wearing black sunglasses? What’s it like to be asked to do something awful when you know it has nothing to do with the security of the state, and to know that you have no choice?

If there’s hope for this country, it’s as much in the humanity you can find within the much-maligned “apparatus of repression” as it is in the much-vaunted “courageous reformers.” Advocates of democracy, human rights, reform, revolution, or whatever—and their opponents—too often paint their pictures in black and white: as a simple clash between good guys and bad guys, oppressors and courageous reformers, patriots and saboteurs. Fact is, there are assholes on both sides. There are corrupt profiteers on both sides. There are good people on both sides. And they’re all stuck in the same nightmare.