Having a policeman say he wanted to kill me wasn’t my most frightening moment yesterday in Cairo. That came when police and civilians smashed our car windows -- with the five of us inside it -- jumped up and down on the roof, spat on us, pulled my hair, beat my friends and dragged us into a police van.
The five of us were lucky: We emerged from our confrontation with President Hosni Mubarak’s police and operatives alive and relatively healthy. Violence over the past 11 days, much of it in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, has killed as many as 300 people in Egypt, according to the United Nations.
But it was a day I never dreamed could occur in my native city. It happened not because I was a reporter, a Sudan-based contract journalist for Bloomberg News returning to Cairo for vacation. The friends giving me a ride downtown were just trying to take food and first-aid supplies to those injured the previous night in clashes with pro-Mubarak protesters.
We got out of the car when we arrived at about 11:30 a.m. in Talaat Harb square near Tahrir, our planned transfer point for the medical supplies. We felt somewhat safe, as one of the demonstrators had told us it was a secure entrance. When I left the night before, it was controlled by anti-Mubarak protesters.
In less than a minute, a mob of about 40 civilian men surrounded our car, banging on the vehicle and grabbing our bags. They looted 1500 Egyptian pounds ($256) worth of medical supplies and 800 pounds worth of food and drinks, uninterested in our explanation of whom it was for.
I held onto my backpack, with my Egyptian ID card, as a group of 20 men tried to tear it from me. We managed to get back into the car and sped toward downtown. As we were driving away, one of the mob smashed a side window with a metal rod.
Then we saw an army tank. It was the army that permitted the massive march on Feb. 1 by promising not to fire on demonstrators. And it was the army that told people to return home the next day.
We pleaded with the soldiers on the tank to protect us: One plainclothes man had followed us in a car from Talaat Harb square, accompanied by others on foot. The soldiers did nothing and we drove quickly on.
Our next potential saviors appeared: a group of uniformed policemen, dressed in winter black pullovers. We approached them in the car, asking for protection. Then the man who followed us from Talaat Harb arrived and accused our driver, my friend Mahmoud, of running over seven people as we left the square. It wasn’t true.
A policeman took away the car key, and about 50 men in plainclothes and five policemen started pounding on our car. They asked our nationality -- we were all Egyptians -- and accused us of being Palestinians, Americans and Iranians. And, they said, traitors to Egypt.
For about 30 minutes, though it seemed more like an hour, the crowd grew, reaching between 100 and 200. They smashed the back windshield, shattering glass all over the car and in our clothing. Men got onto the roof of the car, jumping and yelling. We tried to hold it up with our hands so it wouldn’t fall on us.
Then uniformed policemen took our ID cards and searched the car, our bags and our pockets. They took both my mobile phones and Mahmoud’s Blackberry, promising to give them back.
Finger Across Neck
A policeman looked me in the eye and said: “You will be lynched today,” running his finger across his neck. Others spat on us. They hit the two men in our group in the face through the broken windows, scratching Mahmoud and punching my other male friend. Someone pulled my hair from the back.
An army officer was standing right next to the car as well. Several of us screamed during the hail of blows and grabbed his hand, asking for protection. He just looked at us and told us not to be afraid.
Two soldiers were also present, one of them standing on the trunk of our car. He fired two gunshots in the air in what seemed to be an attempt to disperse the crowd. When it proved futile, he did nothing.
The attack appeared to be orchestrated between the plainclothes men and the uniformed police. At times the police forces would yell “Cordon,” and the mob would hold hands and form a circle around the car. When they were told to sit on the ground, they again obeyed.
Then a police van arrived and the officers told us to get out of our car and enter the van one by one. At the same time, though, the non-uniformed men were crying, “If you leave your car, we will kill you.” We screamed and asked the army soldiers to open a safe passage; a soldier said he would protect us.
Dragged Into Van
The van pulled up right next to the car. A policeman opened our car door and dragged us one by one into the van as people watched down from their apartment windows, in shock.
Inside the van, three policemen armed with rifles were sitting at the back. The policeman who appeared to be the leader sat by us. “Look down, look down,” he yelled. “We haven’t slept since Friday because of you.”
They searched our bags again and claimed in phone conversations with their superiors that we were carrying “leaflets,” a very dangerous accusation in Egypt. They later acknowledged they had found nothing.
As we drove, I saw about 20 foreigners sitting on the pavement next to one of the roadblocks, surrounded by policemen and army tanks. It wasn’t clear whether they were journalists. Inside, I could see the marks of the attack: Mahmoud’s face was scratched and my other friend’s two teeth appeared to be broken.
The van stopped at the Abdeen police station downtown. A plainclothes policeman sitting in front asked us each our names, jobs, age and addresses. When I said I was a journalist, I was asked only whom I worked for. I told him, adding that I had come to Cairo for a holiday.
Then the police offered us water and tea, in the van. One asked why we were in Tahrir Square. We explained, and he said good citizens like us should stay at home and be safe, away from the troubles.
“You have no idea,” he said. “We arrested Israelis, Americans, Palestinians, Iranians and even Pakistanis in Tahrir. What were they doing in Tahrir? They want to destroy Egypt.”
“We were told you were a group of Palestinians. We were told we would arrive at the car to probably find you dead,” he said, according to my memory of his comments.
Not All Policemen
We asked who the people who attacked us were and he said they were just Egyptians fed up with the demonstrations. “We don’t want you to think that all policemen are bad,” he said. “They were banging on the car just to pretend they are also angry with you, or else these people would have killed the policemen themselves.”
“Now you should go home,” he continued. “Go on Facebook and tell your friends the streets are not safe, and that they shouldn’t come to Tahrir. You were lucky to get out of there alive.”
They returned our bags, empty for the most part. They advised us to get new ID cards and to forget about our phones. And they said Mahmoud’s car, a 2010 Champagne Kia Cerato that cost 120,000 pounds ($20,488), was completely destroyed after we left -- even though as we drove away policemen still surrounded the car.
After a long chat, the police escorted us to the edge of downtown, where a friend’s relative met us with a car and took us back to our homes. It was 4:30 p.m. Our ordeal had lasted five hours.