"Men With Moustaches": Egypt's Still Powerful Secret Police

"Men With Moustaches": Egypt's Still Powerful Secret Police

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"FEAR HAS BEEN DEFEATED!" declared the newspaper Al-Ahram, President Mubarak’s mouthpiece, shortly before his resignation. The editors prepared this headline for fear of their office being torched by the protesters. Their fear of the mob was greater than their fear of the government.

Though for many Egyptians, the tyrant has left Cairo, his police state remains intact. It is this apparatus that most, if not all, Egyptians have encountered at some point in their lives. Using the Emergency Law, police have wide-ranging powers of arrest and detention without trial.

What will become of the Interior Ministry’s 1.7 million reported police? Will Egyptians see a marked change in their daily encounters with the police? Will the beatings and torture lighten up?

To get a better sense of the police state, wander over to Horreya (Freedom) Bar, located in Falaki Square, a few minutes’ walk from Midan Tahrir, Liberation Square. It is a local watering hole for lapsed Muslims, intellectuals, socialists, journalists, expatriates, secret police, AUC students and just about anybody else in need of a drink, looking to drown his sorrows, or catch up on local gossip.

It is in this cafeteria-like café—where the sad saffron wall paint is peeling away, after years of benign neglect—that I met Maged, a young Arabic tutor to foreigners. In his mid 20s, he wears a light mustache and a warm smile. He laughs easily. Half Palestinian and half Egyptian, Maged once taught at Fajr, my Islamic language center, run by big beards. He was fired because he was not “religious enough.” In other words, he would not pray regularly with his teaching colleagues.

Maged spent a week wara ashams, or behind the sun—another colorful euphemism for behind bars. His crime? Whatever it was, Maged was innocent. That is all he would tell me of his quality time spent with the thugs of the Interior Ministry. His face blanches when he recalls that time. Before the revolution, he was trying to make his way to Italy, where he could join his Italian girlfriend.

During the protests, some of the Horreya patrons kept their heads down, sleeping on each other’s couches and nervously listening for the police at their door.

The secret police always had a presence at Horreya. Easy to spot, they usually sat alone, emotionless. In recent days, the window tables—always a favorite place for such "men with moustaches" to sit and watch patrons over a single Stella—were empty. David Stanford, a freelance British journalist, believes that, “Either they had not been deployed to eavesdrop in Horreya, or they had been replaced with new faces, more imaginatively spread around the room.”

Meanwhile, many people had been “scooped up off the streets and taken away for beatings and torture” as they left the square and were whisked away for some “re-education.” However, these beatings only persuaded some Egyptians who were previously on the fence, and made other Egyptians more determined.

One such Egyptian is “The Facebook Girl,” who helped to organize the April 6 strike in 2008. Her story has been told many times in the Egyptian press. After being tracked down and held for several days, incommunicado, she was released and made to promise not to engage in any “subversive activities” again. Many people are released only after they've signed a statement declaring they were treated humanely, and promise never to contact the media. And so, the true nature of their horrific experiences never surfaces.

“The walls have ears!” Under Pharaoh, say anything subversive and someone was bound to utter this warning. A laugh may ensue, but underneath the laugh is an unpleasant truth—Big Brother is watching. And listening. (My Jordanian Arabic teacher warned me before I moved to Cairo that many cab drivers are part of the informant network.)

Were it not for the army’s intervention—necessary to protect what remained of the state from total destruction—perhaps, the memorial would be even larger. And the intervention was welcomed by protesters. Whereas the Interior Ministry used their guns with the people, the army shook hands with the people. This critical difference confirmed Egyptians’ patriotic love and respect for the military. Hence, the crowds in Tahrir chanted, “The people and the army are one hand.”

Restoration of Egyptian pride

The Tyrant has stayed away from the chaos of Cairo for many years, preferring the sands of Sharm El-Sheikh, the holiday hideaway by the Red Sea. Now, he can rest there in perpetuity, and perhaps, even become mummified, like the Pharaohs of old.

Pride has returned to a downtrodden people. To inspire the good people of Egypt, President Gamal Abdel Nasser originally promoted the slogan, “Hold your head up high! You are Egyptians.” Last week, we heard the return of this classic chant from Liberation Square. What a contrast from just a few weeks ago. Or a few years ago. I recall one Egyptian lady, who looked at the Swedish matchbox in my hands and lamented, “We can’t even make matches in this country!” Frustration and embarrassment infused her voice.

Well, now the youth have sparked a flame of freedom with a torch of their own making. One that cannot be doused or easily put out. Certainly not by the pharaoh. Nor his thugs. And not by the old men claiming to be the fathers of Egypt’s people.

Using the language of wrath, my Egyptian brother Hazem described the effect the protests had on the tyrant: “They put a stick up his ass!” He is not surprised by the people’s revolution. After all, the tyrant’s regime was “always taking care of the rich people, not the poor people.” As for the revolution, he believes it is good to “make new blood. The people will not stay silent anymore!”

When I walked the desert outside Damascus, a Syrian shopkeeper disparaged Cairo’s streets as zift, or asphalt, a common euphemism for shit. Likewise, my Saudi students share an equal disdain for the city, if not the people, of Egypt. I suspect that in the days and weeks to come, Cairo’s image in the Arab street will enjoy a relative rise in the eyes of fellow Arabs. And perhaps, Egyptians can once again proclaim with more credibility, Masr Umm Ad-dunia—Egypt is mother of the world.

In antiquity, Egypt was at the center of the Arab world. It boasted Al-Azhar, the premier Arab university. It was home to Ibn Khaldun, philosopher and consigliere to the Sultan of Egypt. Also the first sociologist of the Muslim world, he penned the Muqadimma, a revolutionary way to view the political economy. And in recent times, Egypt hosted the Arab League, the arbiter of war and peace. Now, Egypt can proudly boast of its peaceful defeat of dictatorship. No small accomplishment in this neighborhood.

Now is a time to consider Egypt’s future, but also a time for remembrance. To see the faces of some martyrs of this revolution, simply visit this website http://1000memories.com/egypt and you will understand their sacrifices. Most are under 30, well-educated professionals. Mohamed, 20, was shot in the head. Sally, 23, was hit with a baseball bat. Eslam, 18, was run over by the Interior Ministry goons. Like any photo memorial, their expressions are filled with smiles and hopes. And unrealized aspirations.

Whether the Committee of Wise Men chooses to dispense with the Emergency Law, among other reforms, will be crucial to Egypt’s progress. How will they proceed? Like they’ve always proceeded. With optimism blended with fatalism:

In the middle of Liberation Square, a priest and a sheikh shook hands and hugged to have their picture taken together.

Egyptians with brooms in hand cleaned the streets leading to Tahrir. Under the Tyrant’s reign, this was a rare sight. Clearly, those who feel invested in the country are more willing to nurture it.

Wael Ghonim, Google executive and part-time revolutionary, vows to fundraise LE 1 billion to rebuild Egypt.

In my experiences with Egyptians, nearly all have a strong streak of fatalism coursing through their souls. Which explains not wearing seat belts. Or the regular criss-crossing of frenetic freeways without worry or fear of the stream of steel approaching them at 60 kph. It is this spirit that will carry Egyptians forward on their uncertain journey toward a more open political system.

After all, fear has been defeated.

Andy Lei is a California native who lived in Cairo, Egypt from fall 2007 to Summer 2009 studying Arabic, teaching English to Sudanese refugees and working at a English language magazine. He is a first year graduate student in the MPP Program at the Hubert Humphrey School, University of Minnesota, focusing on Global Policy.