In Giza

Carol Berger

I arrived at Al-Modireyet Amn al-Giza, the Giza Directorate of Security, late in the morning of Monday, 8 February. ‘But where’s the entrance?’ I asked the taxi driver as he stopped on the edge of a six-lane road jammed with traffic. Twelve-foot-high concrete anti-bomb barriers ran the entire length of the street. Behind them were the offices of the directorate, which is leading Egypt’s investigation into the death of Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old PhD student at Cambridge, affiliated to the American University in Cairo. He was carrying out research on labour in Egypt and appears to have met some of the most prominent labour organisers in the country. He had been in Egypt since September.

Regeni disappeared on the evening of 25 January, the fifth anniversary of the revolution that unseated Hosni Mubarak. He was expected at a birthday party being held near Tahrir Square, but never arrived. When friends tried to reach him, his mobile phone was off. Nine days later, on 3 February, Regeni’s body, naked from the waist down, was found on the outskirts of Cairo, by the side of the desert road to Alexandria. His body was covered in cigarette burns and knife wounds; his face was bruised and there were cuts on his ears. Reuters reported that Regeni had ‘seven broken ribs, signs of electrocution on his penis, traumatic injuries all over his body and a brain haemorrhage’. The Italian press reported that nails on his hands and feet had been torn out: that he had been tortured as if he were a ‘spy’.

The headquarters of the directorate cover several acres. I entered the complex through a break in the barriers. At reception I said I wanted to see one of the lead officers, and listed four names, all generals or senior investigators. I knew that protocol required me to submit a written request to the Ministry of Information, which would then be passed on to the Ministry of Interior and then, most likely, be denied or simply not answered. But I also knew that social etiquette requires that deference be shown towards people who appear to be important, and to mothers. A middle-aged foreign woman with grey hair, who speaks reasonable Arabic and says ‘Good morning’ to the plainclothes officers who stand outside government buildings, is never turned away – or such has been my experience.

After just a few minutes, my press pass was turned over to an officer. When he returned, he took me up to the second-floor office of General Yasin Seyem, the chief of public relations. The general insisted that I take tea and asked how much sugar I would like. I asked him about the display of photographs on the ground floor of the building. To the right of the elevator I had seen framed photos of officers who had died since the 2011 revolution. To the left, in a single large frame, were many more headshots, smaller and several times greater in number. These were the rank and file policemen who have been killed during the same period. Seyem handed me a heavy hardcover book. It was a record of every policeman from the Giza Governorate who has died in the past five years. Each page bore a single photograph and a paragraph or two describing who the policeman was and how he died.

‘So these are all policemen who have died since the revolution?’

‘No,’ the general corrected me. ‘These are martyrs.’

His use of the word ‘martyrs’ says much about the troubled relationship between the nation’s police and its people. Since the removal of Mubarak in January 2011, the police have reclaimed their position as the controllers of life in Egypt. But for a time, in the immediate aftermath of the revolution and during the one-year presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, the police refused to work. They returned to duty on 3 July 2013, when Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi arrested Morsi and assumed power. Since then Islamist groups have claimed responsibility for the killing of hundreds of policemen. Sometimes they die in bombings; sometimes they are shot.

Today armed men in black uniforms stand outside state offices, their faces often concealed by balaclavas. They take up positions at important intersections and on bridges; they roar through the streets in new four-by-fours. And unknown numbers of plainclothes policemen monitor the lives of almost everyone who lives in Egypt, foreigners in particular.

In the last year or so local and international human rights groups have reported the unexplained disappearances of more than four hundred Egyptians. The government for months denied any knowledge of their whereabouts, then confirmed in January that 99 of them were being held by the state. Several people have died recently in police custody, their bodies bearing signs of torture.

As a foreign resident in Egypt, depending on the length of your stay, you may or may not have dealings with the police. The experience is never reassuring. A visit to the local police station to get a stamp on a document for a driver’s licence quickly goes awry. A plainclothes officer may be sent to ask your neighbours about you while you sit in the station unawares. If, as in Regeni’s case, you speak Arabic and are in contact with Egyptians who are critical of the state, you will be followed, perhaps questioned and even arrested.

While my tea was being prepared, the general made a phone call to tell someone that I was in his office. He noted that my press pass had ‘expired’ (the end date read ‘2015’). I assured him it was valid: all foreign journalists are currently waiting, in what has become an annual event, for the belated issuing of cards for the new year.

Then there was a discussion between myself, the general and a second PR man called Ahmed Gamal, who translated the general’s replies to my questions. A third man, poorly dressed, with cracked glasses and rough, stained hands, joined us and sat silently at the end of the row of chairs, his presence unexplained.

‘What do you think happened to the Italian?’ the general asked me. I said that I had no information on this and that my purpose in coming to the directorate was to find out what the Egyptian investigators had discovered.

‘Did you see what the Italians said yesterday?’ I asked. The general said no, he had not. I told him that the Italian interior minister had said that Regeni died as the result of ‘animal-like violence’, that he had been tortured and killed in the most grievous way.

‘Why are they saying that the police are involved?’ Gamal asked me. ‘Why would the police do such a thing: take someone off the streets?’

I had said nothing about the police.

The general also wanted to know why there was so much ‘propaganda’ about the case in the foreign media. Why were other countries so interested?

I didn’t get to meet any of those working on the case. I, like most other journalists, will have to wait for a communiqué to be issued through the Foreign Press Office. And I will scan the local Arabic-language newspapers for small details, invented or leaked. There is usually some purpose to these reports, some effort to turn attention in a particular direction.

It was only as I stood up to leave the general’s office that the third man spoke. He was there, it was now apparent, because he had a ‘good news’ story about the police. He told the story in perfect English, but had to hurry as I headed for the door. The police, he said, had come ‘so quickly’ when a man threatened his son with a knife. He made broad, theatrical gestures, imitating the thrust of a knife entering his chest. I assured him that I too would call the police should I find myself in an emergency.

As I left the directorate, a uniformed policeman who had also been in the general’s office stopped to speak with me. ‘People outside, they have a bad impression of the police,’ he said. ‘But we are losing two or three people every day, in the Sinai, in Giza.’ He believed the killing of Regeni was ‘political, not criminal’. It was, he suspected, committed by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, ‘to damage relations between Egypt and Italy’.

On 13 February, President Sisi spoke to the country’s newly elected parliament. He began by calling on the MPs to observe a minute’s silence for the ‘martyrs of Egypt’.