Scenes From My Ongoing Egyptian Captivity

How an innocent trip back home has ensnared me in a labyrinth of endless imprisonment

Scenes From My Ongoing Egyptian Captivity
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“Why did you come back?” The prosecutor paused to ask.

He was giving his stenographer the final instructions and wrapping up the three-hour long interrogation when he received a phone call, apparently from a family member, not a superior. I looked around the room. It was spacious and the natural daylight still lit it up, though it was Ramadan and we were approaching the time for breaking our fast. The furniture was a motley assortment: the generic baroque style you find in the offices of high-ranking government officials, the faux leather couch and the visibly well-worn chair that I sat in, made of some synthetic material of grayish color. The prosecutor’s desk was cluttered with sundry local mementos. The only papers on it were forms with the logo of the Egyptian Public Prosecution Office.

A bookcase stood against the wall facing me. It carried something like two dozen hardcover books in shades of blackened green and blackened brown, all in Arabic. I could only make out the name of one author, the legal scholar Ahmed Fathi Sorour, the last speaker of the parliament during the reign of president Hosni Mubarak. Minutes later, the prosecutor (whom I will call Zakariya Ridwan) ended the call and plugged his phone into the wall socket to recharge it. With a nod he directed his head toward the stenographer as if to ask: “Where were we?” He then paused for a moment and glanced at me. “Why did you come back?” he asked. His tone did not sound interrogative. It sounded baffled, even vaguely sympathetic.

It was May 26, 2018, and I had just emerged from my days of disappearance inside an unidentified national (or state) security facility in Cairo, where I was handcuffed and blindfolded round-the-clock. If I could trust my sight then, which was not good, as my spectacles were confiscated, I would tell you that I saw on the prosecutor’s face the traces of a sad smile.

The answer that immediately came to my mind was technical and cautious, but not untrue.

“It was a requirement, a necessity,” I said, adding that people who work on a doctorate degree in comparative politics are required to do fieldwork. Since my dissertation is a comparative study about judicial politics in Egypt and Pakistan, I had to come back to Egypt to do what social science people loosely call “fieldwork,” which chiefly means interviews. I knew my answer was inaccurate, but I did not deliberately make it so. What the question was really getting at was: why did I come back to Egypt now, in this political climate, to work on this sensitive topic? I dodged this question, perhaps unconsciously, because at the time my mind had not yet formulated a more complete or coherent answer.

“Anyway,” said Ridwan, who was in his mid-30s and soft-spoken, his tone remotely resigned. “You will have to have a lawyer with you the next time to complete the interrogation.” Was I going to name my own lawyer or would I prefer the prosecution assign one to me, he asked. I told him that I wanted Essam El-Islambolly to be my lawyer and wished for the prosecution to contact him on my behalf. “Essam what?” the prosecutor asked, apparently alarmed by the lawyer’s family name, which was also the family name of the mastermind of the assassination of president Anwar Sadat in 1981. Realizing why the prosecutor appeared taken aback, I said: “He is a well-known constitutional lawyer. I interviewed him for my dissertation days ago.”

“OK,” Ridwan said. “But let me just tell you that a well-known constitutional lawyer is not automatically the best at dealing with terrorism cases.”

Two days later in the mid-afternoon I was on my way to Tora prison for my remand, or pre-trial detention, genuinely ecstatic that I was leaving behind the round-the-clock blindfolds and handcuffs, which remained on my person even when I went to the restroom. Tora was to be my home for over six months, from May 28 until Dec. 5, 2018. The preliminary charges were: “Membership in a banned terrorist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, while fully aware of its purposes, and spreading false news with the objective of undermining national interests and disturbing public peace.”

When Ridwan first informed me of these charges, I almost sighed in relief. They were patently absurd and, I thought, could easily be dismissed for lack of evidence. After all, I am on record as having written critically about the Muslim Brotherhood during their brief time in power. In my published work from the summer of 2013, I openly support the removal of Mohammed Morsi. I told Ridwan that what especially infuriated me about the Muslim Brotherhood’s conduct while in power was that they tolerated sectarian incitement that resulted in the lynching of an Egyptian Shiite citizen, an infamous incident that occurred in June 2013. It was the first such event in recent memory, and I argue in my writing that it was moving the country toward civil war. I told Ridwan about this public stance that I held. He told me that I should have my lawyer make a print copy available to the prosecution and that they could be useful.

The charge I really feared was “insulting the judiciary,” a loose accusation that had ensnared lawyers and politicians in 2018, and led to convictions and three-year prison terms. My research on Egypt could be interpreted as critical of courts and thus “insulting” to the judiciary. It would be trickier to fend off than the absurd charges of being a terrorism suspect and publishing “incendiary writings” that don’t exist, I thought.

Once I arrived in Tora, though, I realized that these distinctions existed only in my head. The unanimous message I was getting from fellow detainees, some of whom were not first-timers, was that contrary to what Ridwan had told me, there was nothing that would be considered “useful” in extricating me from jail. Once one landed in Tora as part of an ongoing “political case,” there was no way out before at least five months have passed. The more realistic wait time was likely much longer.

At first I was in denial about my new reality. Why would Ridwan lie to me when he did not have to? But my fellow inmates told me that there would be no “next time to complete the interrogation.” In almost all “political cases,” the defendants sit for a one-time interrogation session followed by a pre-trial detention that could run up to two years, sometimes longer.

Time in Tora unfolds in two stages. In the initial period, detainees don’t get to go outside their cell, (I call those breaks “cage-free time”), and they can only have prison food. Twelve days later, the detainee is transferred to where he or she will spend the rest of their detention where they would enjoy the privilege of cage-free time for two hours daily, as well as the ability to receive food from loved ones during family visits. The “room” (not the “cell,” mind you, because I was not a convict) I landed in, like most rooms, was about 10 feet by 27 feet, and hosted 14 to 17 men, in addition to the in-room restroom. We did not have beds, nor were we provided with blankets or mattresses. Blankets came from outside, from the detainees’ families. We also abided by seniority: longer-serving detainees took the most coveted spots in the room (by the corners), which I quickly learned was an ancient tradition in prison accepted by all as if it were cosmic law.

“No beds?” Ridwan asked me during one of the hearings at the prosecution during my first five months, which were spaced at 15-day intervals. “No beds,” I said, and explained how veteran detainees fashioned “mattresses” out of carefully folded blankets. During those hearings he gave a long leash to his curiosity, inquiring about where we kept our food leftovers and what we ate during family visits. It was a strange inquisition on his part, and sometimes this made me feel like the subject of an anthropologist at work.

In my Tora stint, the question most often posed to me especially during cage-free hours was: “Why did you come back?” Even when sympathetic, my inquisitor wanted to know what on earth I was thinking, returning to Egypt when I did not really have to, after I had set up a life for myself elsewhere. I was reminded very often that people were dying to get out of Egypt — and yet I had decided to return to the country willingly. What on earth for?

A Turkish colleague at the University of Washington in Seattle used to say: “We go so far to study issues so close to us.” Many of the comparative politics researchers were international students. We go all the way to Seattle, to the edge of the Earth, and puzzle over what ails or animates our own societies back in the very Old World.

My chosen concern was lawyers and courts. When I was applying to graduate school in the fall of 2011, I wondered what made courts, especially Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), the favored destination for the political disputes that were roiling in the aftermath of Mubarak’s ouster, and whether such involvement would help or hinder the hoped-for democratic change.

By the time I arrived in Seattle (along with my four-year-old daughter and her mother) on Sept. 10, 2012, the SCC had recently issued two far-reaching rulings. On June 14, the court annulled the election law thereby disbanding the first post-revolution parliament, which was dominated by the Islamists. It also annulled a lustration law enacted by that legislature, allowing Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister, to contest the run-off round of the presidential election that was days away. I found it curious that lawyers and politicians continued during 2011 and 2012 to turn political disputes into legal questions that they promptly filed in the courts, even though those very lawyers and politicians had their share of frustrating outcomes in those courts during the preceding decades. Constantly invoked, courts were serving as the arbiter of the political process that followed Mubarak’s overthrow.

When Ridwan, the prosecutor, asked me in May 2018, toward the end of the interrogation session, what my doctoral dissertation was about, I offered this puzzle as the animating question for my research.

“So you are saying that the judiciary is politicized?” he asked. This was his first substantive comment on anything I said. “No,” I protested. Courts did not unilaterally take on the controversial political questions — and could not do so even if they wanted to — but were brought into the fray by litigation and impatient lawyer-politicians, I explained.

“That still means you are saying that courts were politicized,” Ridwan said. “No,” I swiftly retorted again, and tried to mount a better defense against this charge. To decide whether or not the judiciary was politicized was outside the scope of my scholarly concern. I reiterated that my dissertation’s focus, in a nutshell, was this: What were the conditions that made lawyers and political actors turn political questions into legal questions and throw them into the laps of courts for resolution?

By this point in the interrogation there was no ambiguity as to why I had been arrested and interrogated. Unlike the broad questions that opened the session, the line of questions the prosecutor pursued was single-minded. What was my master’s thesis about? Where was it published? Who were my academic supervisors? Who funded my graduate studies? Why did I choose that topic? What were the chapter titles of my (yet to be written) dissertation? Why did that specific American university give me funding? Who were the members of my dissertation committee? Why did they choose me? Why did I choose them? Where would the dissertation, once finished, be published? And, again, why did I choose this question? Whom did I meet for fieldwork interviews? And who put me in touch with those I met?

I explained that in American doctoral programs, at least in the social sciences and humanities, students also serve as university employees like teaching or research assistants, grading papers and teaching classes among other duties. The University of Washington gave me no special favors. I worked under the same arrangement as my American, Chinese, British, Japanese, Turkish and Israeli colleagues. I insisted that everything I did in the course of my research, like the questions I posed and the people I met, was motivated by nothing but scholarly and academic concerns.

“But what about Al-Jazeera?” he asked.

I moved to Qatar along with my wife on Aug. 16, 2005. It was the first time I traveled beyond Egypt’s borders. The reason for relocating was education. I was 26 years old and called myself a journalist, but did not yet have a college degree. I had gone to college in Egypt in the late 1990s, attending the schools of pharmacy then dentistry, before I dropped out unceremoniously. I was too creative to stay in the former and too squeamish for the latter. After a few more false starts, I finally learned of a fairly new education project in Doha, called the Education City, that hosted first-rate American schools like Cornell University’s medical school, Carnegie Mellon University’s business and computer science programs and Texas A&M’s engineering program. The newest addition, in 2005, was Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. I applied to Georgetown and to my surprise was accepted. During my Georgetown years in Qatar, from 2005 to 2009, I witnessed the country’s regional profile rising fast. Doha under its emir, Hamad bin Khalifa, inserted itself into many regional disputes as a mediator or peace facilitator, from Lebanon and Sudan to Hamas and Israel. The small country sought to ensure its security (especially vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia) by making itself indispensable to as many regional and global players as possible. The large powers in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, thought Doha played a dangerous game with Al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab, Doha-funded news channel, using it to agitate against the region’s regimes. (In June 2017, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with Bahrain and Egypt, imposed a sea, land and air blockade against Qatar, then set the closing down of Al-Jazeera as one of the chief conditions for lifting the embargo).

During my years there I also witnessed the breathtaking expansion of Al-Jazeera. Having started as an Arabic-language news channel in 1996, the news channel was by 2009 a network, featuring in addition to a documentary channel an English-language news channel, a sports channel, a research center and a media training institute.

I joined Al-Jazeera on Dec. 18, 2010, just as the ball of fire that became the Arab Spring ignited in Tunisia. Most of my two years at Al-Jazeera were spent at the newly established Editorial Standards and Quality Assurance Division.

Al-Jazeera was always controversial but it also had the best news-gathering operation in Arabic language news, at least until 2013. Its critics rightly pointed out its contradictions, like when the channel gave much airtime to anti-American discourse (especially during the early years of the Iraq war) while Qatar hosted the largest United States military base in the region. Al-Jazeera routinely hosted opposition figures who were banned on local channels in their countries but avoided directing its probing gaze at the regimes nearby, especially in the Persian Gulf – again, such was the case at least until 2013.

When the protests exploded in Egypt on Jan. 25, 2011, Al-Jazeera “flooded the zone,” as Howell Raines, the former editor of The New York Times, described his approach to the coverage of major events. To the region’s autocrats and their underlings Al-Jazeera did not just cover protests, it incited them. By mid 2013, Doha and Al-Jazeera were viewed by many throughout the Arab world as partisans in the region’s electoral contests or domestic conflicts.

“How much did you make at Al-Jazeera?” Ridwan, the prosecutor, asked me during an interrogation session in May 2018. I told him the truth. “And what did you do for them to earn those thousands of dollars?” he asked. I was a founding member, though a junior one, of the editorial standards department, I explained.

“Was it mere coincidence that you joined Al-Jazeera just days before the start of January 2011?” Ridwan asked. “Couldn’t a reasonable person connect the dots and conclude that they groomed you at Georgetown in Doha and then stationed you at Al-Jazeera?”

My superior at Al-Jazeera who later became a dear friend is a Palestinian-Jordanian man of radiant intelligence. While we worked together I recalled he only tolerated big ideas, which I must say was a rarity at Al-Jazeera. He believed I was crazy to leave Al-Jazeera and the Arab world in order to pursue further studies in the remotest corner of the U.S., especially at the onset of the Arab Spring. “It was the moment for Arabs living abroad to come back to rebuild, to remedy injustices, to start anew,” he told me, adding that I was moving in the opposite direction and such a move was “just nuts.”

Besides, he pointed out, Al-Jazeera was only gaining in popularity in the region. To occupy a position of leadership in the network, which he promised I could attain soon enough, would afford me the ability to advance the change and enlightenment agenda I had been thinking about, more so than if I were in government in any of the region’s countries. I told him, flippantly, that if he visited Seattle as I had he would change his mind. More seriously, though, I told him I knew I wanted to be a public servant in Egypt and I needed the training and credentials to pursue such a career. I was not going to Seattle to stay. I was going to Seattle so I could return to the region as an effective member of the cohort of change.

Twice I was barred from boarding a plane to Seattle, once in May 2020 and, again, in May 2021. The first failed attempt was devastating because I was quite certain I would be allowed to travel. I had paid my dues, I thought. I had endured all the suffering that I deserved for doing research that the government disliked, and for having the wrong former employer. And yet it was not just about that, I was assured.

Along with two men in my case who had the same charges (a famous blogger and a documentary filmmaker), I was released from Tora on Dec. 5, 2018. It is unclear why we were let go at that time. It was also technically not a “release”; “probationary measures” replaced detention in Tora.

Under those measures I had to report to the police station near my house twice a week, and stay there for two hours each day. Though they extended the nightmare of incarceration, those measures were still better than remaining on the other side of the wall, inside Tora. The prosecution lifted my probation on February 22, 2020. No longer was there a legal impediment to my international travel. But then came the pandemic and all its complications. In the blink of an eye, international travel ceased and countries around the world sealed off their borders. To ensure I would not be stopped at the airport, I had asked the leadership of a Cairo-based university with which I was affiliated when I was arrested to test the waters through their contacts with the security authorities about my plans to travel as soon as possible. “No problem,” the answer came back, with the added notation that the security services had “nothing against” my travel plans.

But then came the rude surprise at the airport on May 8, 2020, when my passport was confiscated and I was told to go home, not to Washington, D.C., where my plane was bound, but to my dwelling in Egypt. I was also ordered to go in for an interview the following day with a national security officer whom I shall call officer Maged Shukri.

“Do you still receive money from Al-Jazeera?” Shukri asked me during an interrogation session held on May 9, 2020.

“No, I resigned from Al-Jazeera in August 2012, and that was the end of any contact with it,” I said.

“How do you make a living, then, and provide for your daughter?” he asked.

“Essentially by relying on my siblings for financial support. I also do translation and writing gigs,” I said.

“Why do you want to go back to the U.S.?” he said.

“To finish my dissertation there. My advisers and most of the books I need are in Seattle,” I said.

“You can’t finish your dissertation here?” he asked.

“No, I can’t, for the reasons I just mentioned,” I said.

“Why did you come back?” he said.

“To do fieldwork for my dissertation,” I said.

“Why should I believe you on this?” he said.

“You don’t have to take my word for it. You can communicate directly with my university in Seattle, or the university I am affiliated with in Egypt to verify for yourself what I’m saying,” I said.

I then added that for over two years, and through three interrogations and nearly seven months in Tora, no one had bothered to tell me what the authorities found to be so problematic about me. If it was my dissertation, I would have happily changed it. I could take Egypt out of the dissertation altogether, in fact, if that resolves my legal case. To see my daughter again and to recover my full freedom was far more important to me than any academic research. I did not know why I was being kept here, I exclaimed.

Shukri fixed his gaze on me. After a pause he said he would call me in a week or so to go back to collect my passport, (a call that never came). He finally said: “Just finish your dissertation.”

“I tried. It does not work that way,” I said.

“Make it work,” he barked.

In the spring of 2016 I was finally done with the comprehensive exams, the last requirement in the doctoral program before presenting my research proposal for the dissertation. Suddenly I was not sure I wanted to work on Egypt’s courts and lawyers. The political climate in Egypt was increasingly charged and intolerant of independent voices. I decided to explore a dissertation on a different topic: the role of foreign advisers and management consultants in state-building in Saudi Arabia. My life in Qatar and at Al-Jazeera had alerted me to the oversized role that global management consultancies played in the Gulf countries (and I myself ghost-wrote, in 2008, a small section of a consultancy firm’s report for a Gulf emirate). At that time, in 2016, Saudi Arabia’s “2030 Vision” was widely reported to have been devised and guided by the consultancy firm McKinsey & Company. My intuition was that the Saudi bureaucracy tasked with implementing that vision would resist or reshape it, or do both simultaneously. As a research question for a dissertation project, it looked promising. I spent a year reading books and journal articles on the subject.

But I was also thinking about the reasons people write dissertations. Without a deep connection to the subject matter, dissertations are absurd projects. If I was to spend who-knows-how-many-years puzzling over a question, I needed to pick the question carefully. It had to be of more than scholarly utility. Courts and lawyers and Egypt’s derailed democratic transition fit the bill far more than Saudi Arabia and McKinsey did.

In the course of my incarceration in Egypt, in and out of jail, since May 2018, I gradually realized that non-research considerations exerted a powerful influence on my research decisions, including the choice to do fieldwork in Egypt.

I planned to do fieldwork for a year, about nine months in Egypt and three in Pakistan, starting in September 2017. I was not fully aware of it at the time, but I can see now that I wished for those nine months to fill several gaps. One gap was with my mother, with whom I had a fraught relationship for years. Both my maternal grandparents as well as my father died while I was living abroad. I did not have a chance to be with them long enough before their time was up. I dreaded that this could be the situation with my mother, too. With the fieldwork trip I could at least spend months with her, and not just see her in visits that only lasted for a week or two.

Then there was the gap with my siblings. The youngest two were still in their teens when I first left Egypt in 2005. We always had a strong bond, but I also wondered if I was being too selfish living abroad constantly when my younger siblings perhaps needed me around. How could I claim I loved them when I wouldn’t spare enough time for them? I needed to come back to Egypt to tie up several loose ends. Instead I was caught up in the country’s political and security tangles.

I was now in the backseat flanked by two men. I said to the one to my right: “I can tell that you are security personnel, but what if I’m just being kidnapped? Can you please show me any proof you are shortah (police)?” He hesitated for a second but then showed me the back of his work ID, which displayed the word shortah and the interior ministry’s logo. “You seem to be a mossаlem (peaceful) guy,” he later volunteered to me as we waited for the other men to finish searching my car. Minutes later he blindfolded and handcuffed me.

This exchange happened on Wednesday, May 23, 2018. An hour earlier, at 2 p.m., I was arrested in northern Cairo by plainclothes national-security officers, right outside the office of Nour Farahat, a lawyer and a constitutional law scholar, whom I had just interviewed for my dissertation work. They surrounded me and one of them asked to see my ID. When I showed it to him he smiled triumphantly and said: “Where were you? We have been looking for you.” He then snatched my spectacles and led me to a crimson sedan parked nearby.

Just over a hundred days earlier was the last time that I saw my daughter in person, in Lublin, Poland. It was on February 10, 2018 – 1,508 days ago counting back from the time of writing this essay. She was about three feet and seven inches tall, and fascinated by owl and turtle plushies. Now she is 5’5 and finds more delight in movie plots (Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” is great, she tells me, but it has “too much exposition”). She turns 14 years old this month.

Toward the end of the third month and, again, at the end of the fifth during my detention at Tora — both instances in 2018 — Ridwan the prosecutor allowed me what was perhaps an unprecedented concession: to make calls to my daughter in Poland. She was 10 years old at the time. I would wait seated on the faux leather couch in the room with generic baroque furniture until my brother came up so I could use his phone. “Do you know when they will let you go?” she asked in the first of the two calls. “No, unfortunately, but soon, I hope.”

“But I heard this can take as long as two years,” she said. I was astonished because it was an accurate statement. “How did you know that?” I asked. “I heard my grandparents and Mom talk about it,” she replied.

But then the nightmare, unfettered, surpassed what we both feared most.

What is a nightmare? Mine unfolded in phases. The first leg of my nightmarish journey was the abrupt change, when I was tossed into a new environment, one I did not foresee, did not know and was ill-prepared for. Then there was the layered waiting phase; waiting until I was released from Tora, and later until the “probationary measures” expired. In both those phases the nightmare was circumscribed. Its end, even when not yet in sight, was inexorably approaching by virtue of time’s passage.

With the third phase, starting with the unofficial travel ban in May 2020, I grasped a new insight. A nightmare that is worth its name begins when that which is nightmarish becomes open-ended, unbound. After I was stopped at the airport, I was baffled by why I was forced to have to wait even longer before I could reunite with my daughter and resume my life. The waiting had no expiry date now. During my time in Tora I secretly took pride in the fact that I adapted, that I had not been broken, that soon enough I could claim that the nightmare came and went and I walked out of it undamaged. After Tora I realized that the actual nightmare started at the point not when one’s fortitude held up to the test, but when it frayed; when it started to unravel. This I felt after May 8, 2020. I sought psychological therapy.

Apparently, one can still harbor hope amid nightmares. I have taken my case to the recently revived National Human Rights Council. Its people seem genuinely empathic, but I’m not sure how effective they are. I had the University of Washington as well as several American academic societies write letters to the Egyptian authorities. I filed a petition to the Public Prosecution’s Office to remove my name from travel-ban lists (to which I was added hours before my second travel attempt, on May 23, 2021), but it was rejected in February, without explanation. The court designated to hear travel-ban cases has refused my lawyer’s filings several times since August 2021. I believe I know why I have not given up. When we become parents we take it as our duty to sustain our children. Over the journey of the last four years, my daughter has sustained me back, furnishing me constantly with reasons to recommit to living, to life, reasons to remain irrationally hopeful. But she doesn’t know this yet. She will when she reads this essay, which I hope she will do some time in the future after the nightmare is behind us.

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