You always hear about police brutality – or see examples of it in videos posted online – but it’s far, far different when it happens to you.
On Saturday, 19 November, I was assigned to cover the volatile situation in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of Egyptian popular dissent since the January uprising that brought an end to the Mubarak regime.
Clashes began at around 3:00pm between protesters and Central Security Forces (CSF). The situation rapidly escalated as fresh protesters arrived in the thousands to show solidarity with the handful of their colleagues who had been forcibly ejected from the square that morning.
Rocks, Molotov cocktails and tear gas canisters flew through the air in every direction. Tahrir looked more like a warzone than a public square, with smoke billowing in the sky and casualties being rushed to awaiting ambulances.
I kept a safe distance from the clashes – as I usually do – carefully watching for stray rocks and gas bombs. At around 5:30pm, the CSF ratcheted up their assault on the square, showering it with tear gas and forcing protesters to flee from the foul and agonising smoke.
Shortly afterward, the square was flooded with hundreds of security personnel, who enjoyed what would turn out to be a short-lived victory over the protesters.
I, along with a colleague I had recently met, began roaming the streets of downtown Cairo, hoping to report on any ongoing clashes. At the corner of Bostan Street and Talaat Harb, some 50 CSF soldiers were firing tear gas and throwing rocks back at protesters that had gathered further down the street.
I was talking on my mobile phone with my editor, describing the scene, when a plainclothes individual – holding a t-shaped metal stick – grabbed my arm and began cursing at me. He thought that I was one of the protesters, since my shirt was wrapped around my head to lessen the effects of the tear gas. I hastened to tell him that I was a journalist, to which he responded by pushing me towards the soldiers.
I thought I was being arrested – or at least turned over to a higher authority who would decide what to do with me. But to my surprise, a uniformed soldier slapped me hard on the back of my head and began shouting insults at me. He was soon joined by several colleagues who began to apply their thick black batons to my back.
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” I shouted. In a mocking tone, while slapping me in the face, my plainclothes tormenter replied: “You were throwing rocks, you son of a whore.”
I was later told that I had been lucky to have been beaten with batons made of hard rubber. Some officers, I learned, used batons of thick wood that can literally break bones.
Without ending the phone call, I put my phone in my pocket – allowing my editor to hear everything – and covered my head with my hands as my captors continued to pummel me.
The situation reminded me of another incident I had witnessed earlier in the day, when a handful of protesters had seen a policeman from the security staff of the nearby Mogamaa building, an icon of government bureaucracy. After being mistaken for a CSF soldier, the poor man was nearly beaten to death by a group of zealous protesters – despite having nothing to do with the ongoing clashes. He was ultimately saved from the angry mob and spirited away inside the building.
Like me, this man was not seen by his assailants as a human being, with feelings and, perhaps, a family. Rather, he was stripped of his humanity and objectified as “the enemy.” Needless to say, a police force that is financed by taxpayers should not simply act as an out-of-control mob.
As “the enemy,” all my efforts to reason with my assailants were useless – telling them I was a journalist only seemed to encourage their malice. They murmured insults and phrases, such as "You’re ruining the country!" and "Why are you attacking us you son of a…"
"Why are you doing this?" I asked, only to be answered with more insults, punches and slaps. Earlier, I had spoken with a few CSF soldiers whose squad was preparing for battle on Kasr El-Ainy Street. They told me that they did not even know exactly why the people were protesting.
"So what are you doing here?" I had asked, to which one of them responded: "They told us to go to Tahrir for an operation. What are we supposed to do? We will beat those people over there."
Generally speaking, these soldiers are poorly educated and poorly trained. Many come from impoverished areas of Egypt's sprawling countryside. They represent everything that is wrong with Egypt.
I wasn't being assaulted by brutal soldiers, I realised, but by the product of decades of poor state planning, inadequate education, poverty and marginalization.
During the beating, I felt a hand angling for my wallet and mobile phone. I tried to resist, but couldn’t. "Not my wallet, you thieves," I shouted. I realized later that, along with the physical assault, relieving me of my valuables had been part of the punishment.
The beatings eased slightly, but a stocky plainclothes policeman continued to hold me firmly by the arm. I tried to appeal to a senior officer, but he simply dealt me a slap in the face along with a few more insults. This prompted the soldiers to renew their beating; one pounded me with a baton on my lower back, causing the area to swell up painfully.
Soon afterwards, the same plainclothes policeman dragged me back to CSF-occupied Tahrir Square, where he wanted to hand me over to police stationed there. Fortunately, I managed to talk my way out of captivity and returned to the police squad that had assaulted me earlier.
I walked straight up to the two senior officers, one of whom carried a teargas dispersal weapon. I complained to him that his soldiers had struck me and stolen my wallet and phone, to which he retorted that I should file a police report. I asked him how he would feel if he had been subject to similar treatment, to which he simply replied, "No one could do that to me.”
I roamed the area for a while, a little disoriented, haplessly trying to find the soldier who mugged me. I later approached another senior officer, who said he would be willing to help if I could point out the soldier in question. "I have lots of soldiers under my command,” he said. “You don’t expect me to search every one of them, do you?”
Unlike his colleagues, he was polite – and even seemed sincere – but, ultimately, he proved to be of little help.
At around 8:00pm, I returned to the newsroom to find my anxious colleagues and editor, who had feared that I had been detained by police. I went home shortly afterward, feeling a strange combination of humiliation and relief. Having heard about other protesters who had been badly injured – some even killed – I was thankful for having passed through the ordeal with my life.