It was not the welcome I’d expected in Egypt: barely out of Cairo International Airport, I was stuck in a sparsely furnished room in a nondescript building somewhere on the outskirts of downtown, sweating in the heat. My car had been pulled over, and for 24 hours I was held in virtual isolation, forced to sit on a wooden chair, ordered to stand, told to sit again, questioned repeatedly, verbally abused and occasionally threatened. What was the purpose of my visit? What would I write about? Why had I been in Afghanistan?
The plainclothes police officers who rifled through documents and photographs in my laptop, scanned through my tablet and studied my camera equipment in fine detail, I discovered later, belonged to the Mabahith Amn ad-Dawla, Egypt’s dreaded secret police. During the 1990s, it was this group that was responsible for the worst crimes against the Egyptian people, which, according to Egyptian human rights activists, included kidnapping, torture and outright murder. Funny thing is, they were not supposed to exist anymore. “There’s a group within Amn ad-Dawla tasked with dealing with terrorists,” an Egyptian activist who provided only one name—Osama—would tell me later. “It was supposed to be shut down after the Jan. 25, 2011, revolution but the interior minister recently hinted that it had been reactivated.”
During the 2011 demonstrations that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, one of the principal demands of pro-democracy demonstrators was an end to police repression and the closure of Amn ad-Dawla. The secret police’s re-emergence, particularly the anti-terrorism unit’s, does not bode well for Egypt. Thankfully, during the course of my detention, I was unaware of what the police officers represented. Their rough demeanour and the shadowy, decrepit room where I was held were ominous, but no more so than that of other secret agencies I’d encountered in places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.
My ordeal was unpleasant, but enlightening. “I suggest you buy a plane ticket and leave Egypt,” the commander on duty told me, before packing me off into a taxi to my hotel in downtown Cairo. He prefaced his advice with a stark warning. “You are Pakistani,” he said, ignoring my Canadian passport. “You have been in Afghanistan and you live in Turkey. If you stay in Egypt, you will be arrested again, for sure.” The reason: I could be taken for a terrorist.
Since the anti-government protests that swept the country on June 30, and the July 3 coup that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, the word “terrorist” has been corralled by the Egyptian military and set loose on anyone connected to nations supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, or critical of the military.
These days the word has taken on a robust and sometimes surreal meaning. Americans are terrorists, as evidenced by posters plastered around Cairo of U.S.President Barack Obama sporting an Osama bin Laden-style beard. Turks as well, because their prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has vocally condemned the coup and called for the reinstatement of deposed president Mohamed Morsi. Foreign journalists are terrorist sympathizers because they write critically of the regime’s tactics and question the official narrative of events. Qataris, Israelis, most Europeans and of course Pakistanis, those people condemned to occupy the world’s epicentre of militant Islam: all terrorists.
Recent weeks have also seen the most frenzied crackdown on the Brotherhood in its 85-year history, according to members of the movement who spoke to the New York Times. Caught up in the dragnet have been others, including two Canadians, Toronto filmmaker John Greyson and London, Ont., doctor Tarek Loubani, who likely had nothing to do with the protests, let alone terrorism.
Since the coup took place, the word “terrorist” has dominated the Egyptian state-controlled media, with devastating effect. An endless parade of video evidence purports to show armed gunmen firing on Egypt’s security services and civilians during the army’s storming of pro-Brotherhood protest camps. While some of the footage is accurate (some Muslim Brotherhood supporters were in fact armed), the vast majority of reports from journalists on the ground at that time contradict the claim of widespread Islamist violence. Nevertheless, many Egyptians now believe their nation’s very existence is threatened by Islamic extremists.
“This is a dangerous time,” says Amr Husseini, a liberal, pro-democracy activist who participated in the 2011 demonstrations. “The Muslim Brotherhood has let foreign terrorists enter Egypt. They have stockpiles of weapons and were secretly planning to create their own Islamist army in the Sinai. If some innocent people are being detained, like you, it is only because the police are being careful.”
Evidence for Husseini’s claim of the Brotherhood’s secret agenda is thin and largely limited to accusations levelled by the military regime itself. But with a total lockdown on dissenting voices in the Egyptian media, it is the only story reaching the Egyptian people.
The danger now, however, is that the terrorist bogeyman could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, something that has happened before in Egypt. During the 1980s and 1990s, following the 1981 assassination of former president Anwar Sadat at the hands of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the military aggressively pursued Islamist groups, preventing the rise of any militarily competent jihadist outfit on its soil, though isolated attacks have rattled the nation from time to time.
Indeed, the brutality of the military clampdowns over those years helped to create radicals like the Egyptian-born and educated Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s chief and the ideological guide for bin Laden. Following Sadat’s killing, he spent three years in an Egyptian prison where he was reportedly tortured.
The recent round-up of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist leaders, including Zawahiri’s brother, Mohammed al-Zawahiri, feels too much like a repeat of history, prompting even some of the most ardent opponents of political Islam, including Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency turned liberal politician, to condemn the actions. Observers like ElBaradei see the writing on the wall: to marginalize and attack Islamists is to force them underground and push them closer to violent radicalization, a policy that ends at best with the army retaining its grip on power—using the threat of terrorism as justification—and crushing the democratic dream of millions of Egyptians, and at worst with an increased likelihood of Egypt spiralling into the vortex of holy war.
To counter the latter possibility, Egypt’s military has resorted to claiming divine right for its policy of hunting down terrorists. Egyptian clerics, according to the New York Times, have been employed in a series of videos reportedly produced by the military’s Department of Moral Affairs to justify the killing of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The videos were intended for soldiers and leaked to a pro-Muslim Brotherhood website. One video shows a Mubarak-era cleric telling Egypt’s security forces: “When somebody comes who tries to divide you, then kill them, whoever they are.”
The rhetoric hearkens back to the days of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who, after an attempt on his life in 1954, justified a brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by recruiting clerics to denounce the movement as heretical. That kind of thinking has leaked into the minds of everyday Egyptians to varying degrees. With the perception that terrorists are out there, plotting to destroy the country, comes a growing sense that the military must do what it needs to do to quell their influence.
For anyone branded a terrorist by the military’s loose definition of the word, Egypt has become a dangerous place. The small Pakistani community in Cairo has gone into hiding. At the 10th-century Al-Hakim mosque in old Cairo, where many Pakistanis go to pray, the atmosphere is tense. One older man, speaking Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, denies he is Pakistani. He claims he is Indonesian. A teenager working as a cleaner in the mosque claims he is from New York, though he speaks no English, only Urdu.
The mosque’s mufti, or religious leader, shrugs his shoulders when asked about the whereabouts of Pakistanis. “They used to come here every Thursday,” he says, “but since the military took power, they’ve disappeared.”
As for me, I have not taken the advice of that plainclothes police officer. I am still in Egypt. I have not been arrested again, though I was stopped on the street once and questioned by another plainclothes officer from the Mabahith Amn ad-Dawla. “You look Pakistani,” the officer said to me, flipping through my Canadian passport. “We have a problem with Pakistanis.”
At 4 a.m. on Tuesday, half a dozen Amn ad-Dawla officers raided my hotel room, one carrying an automatic assault rifle. They searched my things, questioned me and left.
This is the reality of Egypt post-coup. Anyone can be a terrorist. Everyone is a threat.