Friday, November 7, 2014

A cop on every corner

The morning after the removal of Morsi from power, I was astounded to walk down from my flat and see a white-uniformed police officer. After about a year and a half in Egypt, I could not recall seeing one before. As I walked to the gym, I was taken aback by how many there were now—not just one but a handful. Also some APCs, but that was a different issue. Citizens were going up to the officers, shaking their hands, thanking them for their service, and celebrating the ousting of the erstwhile president.

Today, over a year later, the police are still on the street. In recent months, there has been an uptick in checkpoints in and around Cairo. From my house to a location about twenty minutes away, I was stopped at two checkpoints. These checkpoints are often in the middle of busy streets, in the middle of rush hour. Traffic, already jammed, stops. What are they checking for? Ostensibly, terrorists. Since Morsi was removed from office, Egypt has experienced a wave of bombings and armed attacks, mostly aimed against members of the uniformed services. But there’s a sense of unease whenever I have approached a checkpoint, whether I am with a foreigner or an Egyptian.

On the ground, it feels like these checkpoints are aimed at you. You drive up and you get scared. What do I have on my phone? What do I have in my purse? It’s a similar feeling whenever I go through any kind of airport security here. One guy a few months ago was arrested for possessing a drone—a motorized helicopter toy for his kid. There are many stories like this, and after hearing them over and over, you realize it only takes one guy who decides your two laptops mean you’re a spy and ma’salama, hope you enjoy Egyptian prison.

When I first arrived in the early summer of 2011, I was at a grocery store and a policeman tried to cut in line. All the people behind him said absolutely not, you go back in line. He did. Hard to think that would happen now. Because the checkpoints are a show of force, a sign that we’re back to business as usual.

A few months ago, there was a break in in one of the apartments in my building. The victim of the theft, a diplomat at the Russian Embassy, hired plainclothes police to find out what happened (because, of course, regular police can’t do it). For days, random men sat in the lobby. One day, some random guy came up to me and asked who I was, what I was doing here, am I registered to be here, and wanted to see my passport. Random Egyptian man with no uniform—absolutely not. I asked to see his badge, which he did not show to me. He told me he was police only. He followed me into the elevator and rode with me to my apartment. He kept on asking these questions—and only of me, not of my fellow elevator passenger, an Egyptian. Not wanting to get my roommates involved, I gave him a photocopy of the passport when we got to my door, hoping that would be enough. Twenty minutes later, he and four other large, plainclothes men came to my apartment and rang the doorbell. Absolutely did not answer it—never would I answer the door with five strange men standing outside. But they stayed for a long time, kept on knocking on the door. It was threatening, and in no way would it ever be acceptable for five strange Egyptian men to go into a girl’s apartment. My roommate said they were just doing it to scare me—and it damned well did. I messaged my journalist friend who I was supposed to meet for dinner that if I don’t show up, he should write a story about how these guys were sitting outside my apartment. Only half-joking.

During the Mubarak days, these checkpoints were rampant throughout Cairo. Police would detain random people, torture them, and get them to admit to unsolved crimes. Or just detain them, disappear them for no reason whatsoever. And slowly, that feeling of invincibility of the uniformed services is coming back.

All of this is taking place during a time where press freedom is nonexistent. Local newspaper editors agreed a few days ago to not publish anything critical of the government—we are in a war against terror, after all. All NGOs will have to register with the government under a new law that critics say will infringe on the organizations’ independence, give the government undue sway over what they do. To be honest, democracy and human rights NGOs will be nonexistent or token in Egypt in about a week. Bassem Youssef and other lesser-know open-minded media folks, such as Yousry Fouda, have resigned, silenced by pressure from the government. Egypt’s human rights practices are under fire in the UN, and local human rights NGOs refuse to cooperate with the international organization, saying the pressure and threats they have received from the government is too great. Because what is a better way to convince the world “Egypt is open for business,” Egypt is “moving forward,” Egypt respects human rights than to threaten human rights activists. They talk about—and most likely do—monitor social media, the Internet. To actually see these changes taking place, to feel the fist of the state clamp down on the press, on activists, on any form of dissent or even opinions, is suffocating. 

The government announced plans to create civilian, neighborhood watch-type organizations with the power to detain. They ask people to inform. My friend today posted a story mildly critical of the government, and I commented, “You only say that because you hate Egypt.” He responded, “Don’t report me to the police.” Haha, funny joke.

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