Egypt, February 2011.
The sickening, rapid click-click-clicking of the electrocuting device sounded like an angry rattlesnake as it passed within inches of my face. Then came a scream of agony, followed by a pitiful whimpering from the handcuffed, blindfolded victim as the force of the shock propelled him across the floor.
A hail of vicious punches and kicks rained down on the prone bodies next to me, creating loud thumps. The torturers screamed abuse all around me. Only later were their chilling words translated to me by an Arabic-speaking colleague: “In this hotel, there are only two items on the menu for those who don’t behave – electrocution and rape.”
Cuffed and blindfolded, like my fellow detainees, I lay transfixed. My palms sweated and my heart raced. I felt myself shaking. Would it be my turn next? Or would my outsider status, conferred by holding a British passport, save me? I suspected – hoped – that it would be the latter and, thankfully, it was. But I could never be sure.
I had “disappeared”, along with countless Egyptians, inside the bowels of the Mukhabarat, President Hosni Mubarak‘s vast security-intelligence apparatus and an organisation headed, until recently, by his vice-president and former intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, the man trusted to negotiate an “orderly transition” to democratic rule.
Judging by what I witnessed, that seems a forlorn hope.
I had often wondered, reading accounts of political prisoners detained and tortured in places such as junta-run Argentina of the 1970s, what it would be like to be totally at the mercy of, and dependent on, your jailer for everything – food, water, the toilet. I never dreamed I would find out. Yet here I was, cooped up in a tiny room with a group of Egyptian detainees who were being mercilessly brutalised.
I had been handed over to the security services after being stopped at a police checkpoint near central Cairo last Friday. I had flown there, along with an Iraqi-born British colleague, Abdelilah Nuaimi, to cover Egypt‘s unfolding crisis for RFE/RL, an American radio station based in Prague.