Egyptian Journalist experiences police state first hand at May 4 anti-Mubarak demo
Posted May 5th, 2009
The April 6 Youth Movement - a small group of young activists who are a regular feature at anti-government demonstrations and in police stations – announced at the end of April that their birthday gift to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on May 4 would be a protest “to let people know that Mubarak isn't holy, and that he's a failure as a civil servant.”
The group planned to hold its demonstration at Cairo's State Council, where the administrative judiciary is hearing the ongoing case against Egypt's gas exports to Israel.
Five of the group's activists were arrested even before they reached the State Council and immediately taken to the nearby Dokki police station. 17 people were detained over the course of the day.
There was considerable activity at the State Council. Mubarak's birthday coincided with two other high-profile cases being heard by the court other than the gas export trial: the banning of aid caravans to Gaza and the constitutionality of interior ministry police officers on university campuses.
The case roster read like a laundry list of sensitive issues for Mubarak.
At around noon some 30 central security trucks surrounded the State Council. Plain-clothed thugs employed by the security forces on occasions like these were spread out on the building's steps. State security investigations officers, who interrogated everyone attempting to go inside, prevented journalists from entering the State Council.
'Yalla, to the police station'
Journalists hanging around outside the building were given a scouring by gusts of sand-filled wind (sandstorms hit Cairo this weekend).
The tedium of waiting was dispelled suddenly when the gas case hearing concluded and activists who had somehow got inside the State Council earlier that morning emerged. About twenty of them now stood on the steps – on the opposite side to that occupied by the plain-clothed thugs.
Approximately two minutes before they came out a particularly zealous state security officer approached me and instructed me to put my camera in my bag. I refused, on the grounds that how I choose to carry my camera when not using it is none of his bloody business.
The protesters then emerged, and people on the steps immediately started filming them with mobile phone cameras.
“Look, they're being allowed to film,” a press photographer complained to the officer, at almost the same moment as police officers and plain-clothed thugs descended on them.
“Not anymore,” the officer said.
Mayhem then ensued as individual protesters were surrounded and attacked. The police apparently gave no thought to the danger posed by the location of the protesters – on the steps - and as a result two people fell or were pushed to the ground.
One female journalist tumbled down on her back, her head bouncing off each of the ten steps. She was helped up looking visibly dazed, and staggered away.
While watching all this, open-mouthed, I heard an officer say, “take the camera” and suddenly found myself in a bizarre tug of war with a man who had grabbed my camera's strap.
This went on for about thirty seconds before he got the better of me, at which point another officer pulled my mobile phone out of my hands.
“Yalla, to the police station,” the officer said. Uncertain as to whether he meant me or just my electrical goods, I legged it.
Police criticize press
I got my stuff back eventually (the few photographs I had managed to take had been deleted, of course) after an hour spent in Dokki police station.
The arrested April 6 Youth activists had been left outside the police station in a locked police truck where they busied themselves with chanting “down with Hosni Mubarak”.
Twenty minutes of the time spent in the police station was spent working out my name. I have Egyptian nationality but a British father, and the foreign middle name and surname apparently caused considerable confusion.
The rest of the time we listened to a bored police station employee (his exact job was unclear) hold forth on the press (“I read all the papers but trust [independent daily] El-Masry El-Youm most”) and press criticism of police violations (“Nobody is above criticism. Even doctors make mistakes and should be held to account”).
“The difference is that nobody takes a scalpel out of a doctor's hand while they are in the middle of performing an operation,” someone said, in reference to my camera.
“You're not going to provoke me,” the man replied.
(Editors note: All 17 of those detained on Monday were released later that night according to sources in Cairo.)
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