A firsthand account: Detained by the army for walking

I was detained by the military at around 7 pm last Tuesday for walking home. I must have been walking a menacing kind of walk. I often place one foot in front of the other and propel my body forward through space, which I now understand could be interpreted in the wrong way and constitute what George Orwell might call a “walkcrime.” 

“Where are you going?” asked a young military officer who caught up with me and slid his arm through mine. I explained that I had been trying to walk around a military checkpoint blocking my route home. “Come with me,” he said, smiling, as he guided me back toward the checkpoint.

Xenophobia in Egypt has significantly increased over the last year, as state media and government and military officials blame what they like to call “external hands” for recent clashes. As a result, foreigners have become increasingly suspect.

Tuesday was not the first time I was detained. In late September, I was taken into custody at the military museum in Cairo’s Citadel for taking pictures of a massive mural celebrating now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak. In the center of the mural, a giant flag had been placed in front of Mubarak.

“He is not our president anymore, but he is still our leader,” one of the museum guides, who later turned out to be a soldier, told me at the time. This was interesting, and in the process of pressing further, I apparently acted too much like a spy and found myself detained by the military for seven hours.

With street fighting between protesters and security forces becoming a regular feature of downtown Cairo, the catch-a-spy mentality has taken on fresh momentum.

Once through the checkpoint, I was surrounded by young soldiers who had no idea what to do with me. One took my phone and began shuffling through my pictures — I guessed he was interested in pictures of misspelled English signs around Cairo. To my luck, the soldiers who detained me won a brief tug-of-war with their comrade-in-arms and returned my phone.

I was then taken to see a senior officer, who called me “Wall Street” and wanted to know what I think about the Occupy Wall Street movement. I tried to explain to him that I left the United States before it began, but it didn’t seem to register. I am an American journalist, and therefore an activist, and therefore connected to the Occupy movement, and therefore — and I could see where this was going — connected to Egypt's revolutionary movement.

“What is your opinion of the revolution?” he asked.

I responded in my deficient Arabic. “I don't have one. I'm not Egyptian.”

A junior officer wanted me to know that an American-Iranian spy was arrested in Tahrir Square the day before for inciting violence. He also mentioned that I had a picture of a military checkpoint in Sinai on my mobile phone, but since it was dead, I had no way to disprove his claim.

I realized that this line of questioning seemed more and more similar to that of my last detention, but doubted it would last as long. It followed a similar pattern: A minor misunderstanding led to questions, and my inability to adequately answer them — partially due to my poor Arabic — only stirred up further suspicion.

The junior officer tried to comfort me. They were keeping me for my own good, he explained, since the surrounding area was very dangerous.

I was taken into a well-lit office in the front of the Interior Ministry, a contrast from the cavernous dungeon I expected. A man on state television seemed to be lampooning the ongoing protests. I waited for about two hours before two plain-clothed men entered the office and began asking more questions.

“What are you doing in my country?” one asked. I told him that I work here as a journalist for an English-language publication. After they emptied out the contents of my backpack, they told me to come with them so they could “check on my condition” and let me go.

I was stuffed into the back of a cramped sedan with another plain-clothed man. I got the feeling that he was just catching a ride. We took the Salah Salem Tunnel heading northeast, the same route I took the last time the military unloaded me onto the police.

The man in the passenger seat handed me a blindfold and told me to put it on. I asked why that was necessary, and he mumbled something about standard procedure. To demonstrate his magnanimity, he dangled a pair of handcuffs in front of me.

“You see these? We could put these on too, but we won't,” he said with mock reassurance.

Silence followed. My mind was left to explore frightening and outlandish scenarios.

“What are you doing with this?” the man in the passenger’s seat asked after a few minutes. I couldn’t see what he was holding, but I assumed it was my monkey mask. For some reason, my detainers had used it earlier to hold my mobile phone, passport, wallet and camera.

“It was a gift I got at work.” I told him. “People at my office are giving presents to each other.”

“Who gave it to you?”

“I don't know, it's a secret,” I responded. The gift wasn’t so funny anymore. He wanted to know why I wouldn’t tell him where it was from.

I realized I was all-in; I had to explain the concept of Secret Santa.

“It's a game at my office. First everyone takes a name out of a hat. Then over the span of a couple weeks, they are supposed to be nice to that person and buy them gifts, but they can't reveal who they are until the end.”

A long pause ensued.

“I don't believe you,” he said. “You're not telling me everything.” I briefly considered saying that I incite violence around Tahrir Square by running up to people with my monkey mask and making unintelligible sounds.

“Well, it's the truth,” was all I could muster. I felt like a kid in the principal's office for stealing someone's cookies at lunch — but blindfolded.

They turned up the radio volume, and I assumed they were either trying to disorient me or just enjoyed listening to unreasonably loud music. We finally reached our destination, and I was guided out of the car to sit in a chair.

After a half-hour, we were moving again. I was told to remove my blindfold. When I did, I found myself in the same room I was taken to in September. Cushioned armrests from some of the chairs were still lying on the floor, as they were last time. But the apple juice box under the chair on the opposite side of the room was a welcome addition.

A surprisingly friendly man entered and sat down across from me. “Why were you taking pictures in Tahrir Square?” he asked. I wasn’t, but figured that he was trying to trick me with a loaded question.

He also wanted to know why I chose to walk from Garden City, through Tahrir, to Falaki Square. “This is 15km,” he said, thinking he had cornered me. The walk is at most 1.5km. I'm no Google Maps but I told him something to this effect.

My interrogator left the room, telling me he'd be back in 15 minutes. Three hours and a nap later, he returned and told me they were ready to release me. I didn’t even have to sign a confession like the previous time when they made me write that I was sorry for what I did and would never do it again, though it was never clear what I did. All they wanted me to do this time was say that I wasn't harmed, which is true, and that all of my stuff had been returned, which is also true.

This whole process struck me as a waste of time for both parties involved. I was transported in a police van to a military hotel in Heliopolis, where I played games on my phone for a half hour until the US Embassy's military attaché arrived to pick me up. 

When I finally got home, I discovered that the police had changed my desktop settings (in addition to stealing my passwords and bank account information, I guessed).

In an act of defiance, I changed them back.

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