Behind the Sun

18 March 2011

An Egyptian human rights worker takes a walk inside the abandoned State Security Investigations headquarters.

By Sarah Carr

I used to love entering abandoned buildings as a kid, for the adventure and the thrill of finding belongings left behind, clues to the untold stories silenced by the walls. Yesterday I entered an abandoned building that contains a million stories, all of them of deceit, pain and power.

The Nasr City State Security Investigations (SSI) headquarters is a peculiar fortress-like building combining drab box like buildings with the sensuous curves of gun turrets and the circular building at its centre. A friend of mine who was kidnapped and detained there in 2009 says that while blindfolded he was repeatedly forced to walk round on a circular path. Maybe that was one of its uses. Exercise.

Protestors, watched by the army, entered the building around 6.30 p.m. The protest had begun at 4 p.m. A relatively large number of the protestors were men with beards and therefore fitted the profile of Nasr City State Security’s main clientele; individuals identified as “Islamist” and therefore legitimate targets by security officers. Emergency law powers allow state security officers to operate with virtual impunity, and the results of this policy entered the building yesterday, furious and defiant.

It was mayhem when we entered. Some protestors were adamant that they had heard the sounds of knocking and insisted that prisoners were still below us in underground cells. They searched frantically for the entrance to these cells and when they did eventually reach them found them empty.

Despite the chaos, a weird, almost suffocating stillness pervaded the building and its marble walls and modern frosted glass dividers. It was that stillness I remembered from my childhood adventures, like entering the room of someone who you mustn’t wake up is sleeping in, that fraught silence.

State Security Investigations combined fear and terror with the banality of Egyptian bureaucracy. I remember at protests the men with the little scraps of paper who wrote down chants and names and a myriad other details. Everywhere in the Nasr City building there was paper, both shredded and intact, thousands upon thousands of files, the diary of decades of suffering.

In one office a notice warned against smoking. Next to it was a picture of an unidentified man in police uniform. Another room had a poster of Mecca, and a prayer rug underneath a monitor. One desk had a handwritten index card underneath its glass surface detailing the arrangement for some sort of subscription payment.

The building was immaculately clean and luxurious, unlike the majority of other, underfunded, public institutions. The “Crisis Management” room in particular was particularly lavish, a huge circular desk next to a bank of computers. We went through the door next to this and suddenly found ourselves in a living room of Louis XV furniture and decorative trinkets.

State Security has kitsch tendencies, we discovered, as is clearly shown in a Youtube video showing former Minister of Interior Habib El-Adly’s Nasr City SSI headquarters suite which - in addition to containing his and hers bathrobes - was furnished with the same glitzy furniture and had on display a golden stallion statue. One can only wonder at what message Habib intended to send with the stallion and bathrobes combination.

Coincidentally that morning I attempted to attend El-Adly’s trial on fraud charges. Only a handful of journalists were let in. The courthouse was ringed with riot police and movement controlled in the nonsensical way characteristic of SSI. There was a small demonstration, variously calling for the death sentence and life imprisonment for El-Adly.

In its day, SSI invariably broke up demonstrations. Sometimes these were demonstrations of 20 people, and the brutality with which they were dispersed attracted more attention than alas the demonstration could ever have hoped to garner. I always thought that these policies were driven by the sadistic cruelty borne of impunity, rather than say, willful stupidity, but a chance encounter last week made me think otherwise.

Two friends and I were in Abdel Aziz Street, Cairo’s kingdom of knock off mobiles and other electrical devices getting our telephones seen to, a process that would take four hours. We were passing the time talking to Tarek aka “Teko”, one of Abdel Aziz Street’s resident mobile phone gurus, about the Tahrir sit in when a man walked in. Teko greeted him warmly.

I didn’t immediately recognize him as a SSI officer because he wasn’t wearing flashy sunglasses while ordering a minion to beat the living daylights out of someone. But he did have two mobiles, which was a clue. He handed one of these, an iPhone, to Teko, who clumsily “whispered” to us that the gentleman was “Interior Ministry”.

He was tall and just a couple of years ago was probably impressive, physically. But the first signs of age and fragility were starting to appear, a very slight shake in the hands, a defeated collapse of the upper eyelids giving him a doleful look. Teko disassembled his iPhone and instructed an assistant, “Wezza”, to take part of it elsewhere to be looked at. The man meanwhile took one of Teko’s instruments without asking and began using it to fiddle around purposelessly with the remaining part of the phone, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth.

A conversation started, inevitably about the Tahrir sit in. The first indication that politics was not the man’s forte was given when he asserted, insistently, that not only does the army back Shafiq, but that He of the Pullover will be Egypt’s next president.

Conversation then turned to the Muslim Brotherhood, as it generally does when you are talking to members of an apparatus whose whole existence is predicated on containing the Bearded Threat.

The man, who by this time had revealed that he is a State Security officer, informed us that the Brotherhood are the only group sufficiently organized to perform well in upcoming elections, and that what is more they have a dastardly secret plan to take power. My friend Sharshar pointed out that it is not perhaps so secret since they have been involved in negotiations with other political powers and the army since Mubarak’s fall on February 11th.

The discussion went south and really entered Weird Street when the man asked my other friend, Moftases, what political group dominated university activity when he was there, and then answered his own question: The Muslim Brotherhood of course!

“That’s because State Security doesn’t allow any kind of political activity by anyone at all on campus,” Moftases responded.

“That’s not true. We only take Brotherhood students”, the man riposted with the tone of a man correcting a grave and hurtful misconception and reasserting his moral superiority.

The debate continued. The man listened as he stared down at the instrument that he was now using to scrape dirt off Teko’s counter. We started discussing demonstrations. Demonstrations must be broken up, the man said, adamantly.

Why, we inquired, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that for what felt like 200 years we played a Swingball of why? – just because – why? – just because.

Eventually we were able to establish that he has two main objections to demonstrations. He gave the example of a student who takes part in a protest against police violence against the Brotherhood. This, he says, makes the protestor by default a Brotherhood sympathizer if not a member of the Organization Formerly Known as the Prohibited Group who must be apprehended immediately.

Secondly, demonstrations inevitably lead to violent disorder, he said. No, they don’t, we said. Yes, they do he insisted, and this carried on ad nauseum. I resisted the urge to say that the disorder only begins when State Security arrives.

“Imagine if in Tahrir Square when there were a million people in the square a group of ten people in the middle were creating violent disorder. How could we reach them?” the man asked in all seriousness as we stared at him blankly.

Then the bombshell: State Security Investigations knew that the January 25th uprising would happen “five years ago”! The mirth could not be repressed. Frankly we almost shit ourselves.

The man backpeddled and said “we thought it would be a “sawrat al-giyaa3” (“revolution of the hungry”) and that it would happen sooner” but I was left with the unshakeable impression that SSI is a stupid organization which relies on inaccurate intelligence and on the basis of this has formed stupid security policies which have destroyed people and Egyptian public life as a whole - all at the behest of the regime of course.

There is a nice expression in Arabic, howa wara el shams, “he is behind the sun” used to describe people’s disappearance at the hands of security bodies. It is fitting that the beginning of what (we hope) is the end of this body began with people, - its victims – entering its very heart. It is the documents they seized from SSI headquarters that will drive out the darkness. How deliciously apt that State Security Investigations will die under a mountain of shredded paper, killed by the horror it so painstakingly documented.

Sarah Carr is a freelance journalist and a senior researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. sarah.carr[at]eipr[dot]org