‘My Testimony': One person’s story of torture in post-Mubarak Egypt

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The following text was written by Aly Sohby, a well known Egyptian actor who was detained by the military on March 9, 2011 and released four days later. Sohby wrote his story as a note on Facebook and it was translated by Motaz Attalla and Wiam El-Tamami.

Note: ‘Raise your head high, you’re Egyptian’ is one of the most enduring slogans to come out of the revolution. It emerged on the day of Mubarak’s resignation, and was embraced by all of Egypt.

2011 634353994870538537 53
Aly Sohby (Photo: Al Ahram)

I’m going to start from 5 in the afternoon, from when I got up and left the al-Hamidiya coffeeshop in Bab el-Louq on Wednesday 9/3/2011with my friend Lobna Essam after a meeting with some friends. By chance we’d been talking about Egyptian prisons and what happens inside them (see God’s wisdom when he wants to prove something to you!). Anyway, Lobna and I started moving towards Dar Merit publishing house on Kasr el-Nil Street. When we got up to leave, we decided to take a look at Tahrir Square because we both hadn’t been there in four days because we’d been caught up in making a living.

We walked along Tahrir Street until we got to the square and we found it like we’d left it four days ago, plus a few traces left behind by the bunch of thugs who attacked them on Tuesday night and tried to beat them up and actually did beat them up but the kids were tougher than the thugs, as usual. Anyway the nicest change that I noticed in the square was that glorious Egyptian flag that was flying really high and fluttering, and looking at it made me want to stay in the square again. And honestly, it was that flag that appealed to me the most, not considering the sit-in, and maybe I liked it even more than the sit-in. Anyway we sat for a bit and waxed poetic about the flag and we walked around the roundabout and we saw a lot of our friends but they didn’t see us because we were walking around like tourists, just wanting to get to Dar Merit through Tahrir. Everyone’s fine, God be praised . . . Aida’s good, I can see her talking on the phone; Maysara’s fighting with the kid who took his tabla drum. Very cool.

2011 634356220597327883 732Sohby performing (Photo: Al Ahram)

So we kept on our path and walked straight until we got to Kasr el-Nil Street, across from our Egyptian Museum that the army’s been occupying and using to torture Egyptians, and there were lots of people gathered around that area and we thought it was protests and everything’s fine and life’s good. We went into Kasr el-Nil Street and before we reached Merit we heard loud noise coming from behind us. We looked back and we saw the army and the people (who turned out to be the thugs among ‘the people’) running towards the square. We went back to take a look and we saw that things were really messy and people were running back with tents and things and there’s chaos and people running and kids shouting “The People and the Army are One” and the thugs have wooden staffs and they’re taking the people from the square.

Lobna got really scared and this was the first time she’d gotten so scared which was strange since she’d seen worse before. That was mother’s intuition talking – she had a feeling that something really bad was about to happen. Anyway, I took her up to Merit and persuaded her that I’m going back down and I’ll be safe and I’ll talk to her on the phone the whole time and that she shouldn’t worry. I went back down to the square and when I got to the museum I saw, wonder of wonders, soldiers rounding up anyone taking photos… and anyone who looked respectable… and anyone who wasn’t saying “Pick them up those sons of bitches who wrecked the country! The People Want to Clear the Square!” and I found myself spontaneously saying “Yes pick them up those dirty sons of bitches, we can’t go to work because of them!”

Anyway after I became one of them and was got on the safe side I saw them taking Ramy Essam and heading with him towards the museum.

Aly: Ramy, what’s going on?
Ramy (stunned and terrified): I don’t know!!!!! What’s going on?!
Aly: Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.

So I called Kalabala and told him.

Aly: Shit, Kalabala, they arrested Ramy!
Kalabala (fast and anxious): Ramy who?
Aly: Ramy Essam, Kalabala.
Kalabala: Ok don’t worry we’ll get him out, but just come before they
arrest you as well.
Aly: No it’s cool don’t worry, I’m arresting them with the army.

Anyway, after a while I tried to get into the square but I was really going to get arrested so I decided to go back after I found out that most of the people I know managed to escape from the square. I went back to my spot and as I was going back I saw them arresting Ismail Gamal, God bless him, and the exact same conversation took place as the one with Ramy Essam, as if they’d agreed on it. I told him don’t worry we’ll get you out and I called Tari Gamal, his sister, and told her. A little while later I saw them arresting Youssef I-Don’t-Know-His-Dad’s-Name. I called Niveen el-Touny to find out his dad’s name and she told me she’d send it to me in a text message, which I haven’t received till now because the soldier took my phone as he was arresting me.

I called Salma Said to check up on her and Aida and I told her the names of the people I’d seen and she told me don’t worry, we’ll take care of it. Note: Everyone was saying don’t worry we’ll take care of it because they were confident that they were going to take care of it but I was saying don’t worry because I didn’t understand the reason for the terrified look on people’s faces, but after I came out of jail I knew.

Anyway – and this is probably where my cover was blown and they found out I was with the revolution not with the thugs – I saw a soldier carrying my orange tabla drum, the one I love, the one Maysara was fighting over with the kid, and walking towards the museum. I found myself running towards it and telling Salma on the phone “They took my
drum, Salma, I don’t care, make them let my drum go, too!” So she said again “Don’t worry, we’ll get the drum out as well” and she really sounded sure of herself. Anyway a tiny little while after I met a guy who was at the sit-in with us and he asked me about everyone and I reassured him and told him don’t worry everyone’s fine and he insisted I tell him where they were!

Two seconds later a soldier came and caught me and he was the same kid who had caught my drum . . . the drum had probably ratted me out . . . anyway “What’s going on, man?” “Come with me!” “Ok, what’s going on?” “Where’s your phone?” “Here it is,” I said, holding it in my hand and he took it and put it in his pocket. He was pushing me towards the museum and was holding the other kid that was with me by the hand! I walked with him without resisting, to preserve my dignity so I wouldn’t get beaten up in the street like the rest of the people (because I am a gentleman Artist and it wouldn’t do for me to get
beaten up in public). We got to the museum and he let the kid go and he sent me in (?????)

And this was the beginning. Sorry for that long introduction, but it might be useful.

Anyway I was pulled by this soldier kid inside the cordon that the army had created outside the museum like the one that their brothers, the police, had made before, but the difference is that before, the people were not cooperating with the police. First thing was a nice head-butt from a short soldier kid who couldn’t reach my head and I was telling him, “What’s up, my cousin, relax, what did I do” and, by the way, I call all soldiers ‘my cousin’:

My cousin: You screwed up the country you dirty sons of bitches!
Aly: Don’t worry man, everything’s gonna be fine, we’ll get you out.

Another was hitting me on the back of the neck and I could see in the background an uneven battle between people hitting and people getting hit and suddenly an officer, who looked like he’d had special forces training but super tough, was flying with his legs in the air like Bruce Lee right towards me. The soldier kids were holding me by the arms and pushing me forward for him and he slammed me in the chest with the army-issued boots that are worn by the army, the army that’s with the people, the people that used to say “The People and the Army are One.”

I took the blow square in the chest and precisely in the spot where I had my lung surgery two years ago, the scars of which are still there and which I still suffer from. I fell on the ground, sure that I would never stand again, and they dragged me by the hair (in the days when I still had hair) and this officer was jumping up and down on me and falling onto me and getting up and jumping up and down on every part of me. I moved forward a bit and then they stood me up and tied me by the hair from a horizontal pole – I don’t know where they got it from – and they kept hitting me in the knees and shins and I would fall towards the ground and my hair would pull me up. After some time of this torture my hair got loose from the the black tie and here I cursed my hair that I used to love. One soldier’s holding a razor and hacking away at my hair and an officer’s doing his Kung Fu moves on me and another soldier’s hitting me with a wooden staff across my back and another soldier’s electrocuting me!!!!! And only here did I begin to be sure of my strength, because I wasn’t dead yet. I started to say my testament of faith because at any moment I was going to get a blow to the head and suffer severe hemorrhaging and die. And that was all I kept repeating until I got into the car that would take us to Scene 28, where the set had been prepared and where we were filmed shackled and in front of us knives and cutlasses and Molotov cocktails and bombs made from tea sets.

My cousin: Lie down you son of a *beeeeeeeeeep*!

And he tied my hands behind my back and blindfolded me with this silly thing I could see everything through and then he dragged me into a place he made me feel certain I would die in.

It was like piles of meat thrown on the ground and the soldiers of Egypt’s armed forces on top of them, raining down on them all kinds of beating and torture: electrocution, sticks, wooden staffs, electric cables, their boots, they themselves. I was tossed among them and I became like them and every once in a while someone’s thrown on top of me so I end up getting a bit less beaten, but of course they’re much smarter than that.

After a bit they got this great idea, because we were refusing to die . . . so they thought, instead, they would kill the thing in us that, if it were to die, we would die.

All the soldiers together (military style): Raise your head high, boy, you’re Egyptian!

Us, the people, all of us: Wow, they laid off and finally got it, thank you God!

And as we raised our heads up because we’re Egyptian, they kicked us in the head with their boots.

The shock of a lifetime.

This happened to everyone, which proved to me that it happened in a collective way and that I’d really heard right when they all said together, “Raise your head high, boy, you’re Egyptian, BANG in your face.” Long live Egypt.

Here I decided to live and I started saying God save us from these infidels because I have to tell just this part of the story, the rest isn’t important to me.

After a while of this kind of thing, this officer came who looked like a big gun. I didn’t see him of course but from his voice he sounded like a big deal. My chin was on the ground the whole time and he said to the soldiers in a proud and formidable tone:

The Big Gun: Stop the beating.

In a second the beating had stopped and that’s how we knew he was someone important. A kind soldier came around giving us water and he seemed really moved by our appearance. Anyway they gave us water and then they sat us down on our behinds (making sure to call things by their formal names) and then they started taking close-up shots of our faces and they went through us one by one. Three hand-held cameras and one B-2 camera and a senior officer behind the B-2 camera telling the soldier shooting what to do (a Director of Photography).

They filmed us and documented the state we were in and everything’s all fine and then they gathered us together and searched us and took everything that was in our pockets except our IDs, all this of course with the hitting and cursing still going on, no respect at all for the big man who was just here a little while ago who said stop the beating. We stood in rows like in the army and one by one we were searched and then got on the bus. The buses were filling up then parking on the side, all in a row. We were thanking God that we were still alive and that we weren’t getting beaten at all, but we were terrified of our unknown fate.

Suddenly we heard a familiar sound, an attractive and feminine sound, collective, harmonious, a sound that, all of us, girls and boys, are fond of: “Raise your head high, you’re Egyptian!”

Wow.

Wow.

The girls decided to taunt the soldiers and chant to them our slogan! All the guys were embarrassed and looked down at the floor when they found out that the girls had more balls than them. But they didn’t know that the girls hadn’t been beaten which was why they didn’t care. And if we did the same thing, we would get totally screwed.

Anyway so we went to Scene 28 which was the Military Prosecution where the set was prepared for the arrest report that was broadcast on Egyptian television. An interior decoration officer was fixing up the set with two soldier assistants under him. A Director of Photography officer with three or four light crew guys and one cameraman, also soldiers. And a very respectable-looking senior officer who wanted everything to finish quickly and who kept hurrying them. This was the director.

Anyway they brought out the kids that looked dodgy – which included me because my front teeth are gone and my hair was a mess – and put them in the front. The rest of the kids – that they made look like they were from the streets – they put on either side of me and then they arranged us in rows like you saw.

The lighting is ready, sir.
The Director: Get me their seized weapons.

The soldiers got the knives and the Molotov cocktails and the bombs made out of tea and laid them out on the table and the Interior Decorator started adding his personal touch to the display. This next to that, this gas cooker next to that knife – and this, I have to be fair, was indeed the fine touch of a master film industry decorator.

Anyway, all ready, sir, and the Director of Photography gave his order to the cameraman and the man took his word and started to take close-ups and medium shots and wide angles and everything any director’s heart would desire.

The kid sitting next to me took out two tickets he had for the metro he was riding and put them in front of his face in a V for Victory and the officer said to him, Oh well done.

“This is the one who injured the officer, sir.”

The other officer said, “It’s okay, leave him to me. Put these tickets away, boy.” The strange thing is that he didn’t take them away from him even though they were evidence that he’s innocent, but unfortunately they made me bring him to them in the morning before we left and they took the tickets away from him and probably framed him for the officer’s injury and let’s just hope he doesn’t get a death sentence.

Anyway, so they filmed us and sorted us out and I got to be on TV and stuff, kids! Then they put us on the buses again and left us till the morning. Around 7 am this cute officer came and said, Come. I thought I was getting out and I started to cheer up but then I got a sinking feeling in my gut when I realised he hadn’t called me by my name. So how did he know me? Anyway, “Come, get me the kid that was sitting next to you with the two metro tickets.” I couldn’t say no because then I would’ve been the one who had injured the officer and then I’d be sentenced to death.

Anyway around 7 o’clock they brought a bunch of us down and put us into the prisoners’ transfer truck and we didn’t know where we were going. As soon as we got into this truck this guy called Hisham Abbas kept saying “We’re the people of the bus”* and Eid was hitting Se’eedy, the guy with the scarves with the Egyptian flag on them because he was the one who brought him here and me and Mohammad Tarek were trying to figure out where we knew each other from. And others who didn’t know where we were going and didn’t care because they were already as good as dead from the beating and it didn’t matter where we were going because it wouldn’t be worse than what had passed.

And the big surprise came when we found ourselves on the Cairo-Suez Road. Now we’re in trouble. After ages of course we slept and we got up and we did a bunch of other stuff and we still hadn’t arrived anywhere.

Anyway, we got to the Armed Forces’ Main Prison at Hikestep. And the first thing we saw was a huuuuuuuuuuge picture of their big boss Hosni Mubarak. And there by the prison gates was written all this crap about ‘the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces Mohammed Hosni Mubarak has done this and that’.

Shit.

Are we in Sharm el-Sheikh?

No-one’s got a clue about what’s going on.

We came out of the truck inside the prison and received a very respectable welcome that I daresay was not offered to our Israeli brothers who were taken as prisoners of war in the ’73 war.

A very respectable reception, we got. But this time we were, excuse me, naked, I mean only in our underpants. And of course we got a lot of things any tortured human being’s heart would desire, from stepping on our head to having a stick shoved into us to getting electrocuted in our sensitives. And this poor servant of God, not to boast or anything, they really gave him the treatment with this one. It was the talk of the whole prison around this time and was like a tourist attraction for the soldiers because they wanted to see ‘the actor’.

The Soldiers: What’s this hair, boy
Me: Sorry, sir
The Soldiers: What’s your job, boy?
Me: Actor
The Soldiers: Ohhh sweetheart, little sis is an actor. What do you act in
darling?

Some beating and then a poke and then he puts in the stick.

Good morning!

And so I realised they could rape me here. Soldiers and they’d gone 45 days without removing their boots, and that was the only problem that made them beat us . . . that they hadn’t taken off their boots in 45 days. Hallelujah.

Anyway, so they sheared my hair off, of course, like a sheep. And then we went in to see the doctors who asked us if anyone had any surgeries before.

Me: Yes sir, I’ve had surgery on my lungs and I can feel its effects now and I’m having trouble breathing.
The Doctors: Okay okay.

They noted this down and took a look at us and then we went into their clinic and they documented our states precisely: bruises and superficial wounds. Sign this, boy. Yes, sir.

And this is the doctor.

A complete community.

We went out in a big line and were celebrated by all the soldiers we met. They took us into a big space called Prison 3 – Visitors. And they locked us up in cells, 14 cells in total. From time to time we saw a new group coming in, looking like the same number had been done on them. And of course most of us fell asleep from the beating we took and the exhaustion and fatigue.

We woke up to them gathering us all and this was the first time we were all gathered together, a huge number. Many people knew each other and even more people didn’t. They took us to a place outside this part but still inside the prison called the Command Building. This building had the name Hosni – shit – Mubarak written on it twice. And it only had 2 photographs.

One of him.

One of General Tantawy.

Excellent. Now we get the game.

Every group is ten kids, young as roses. Heading them is a cute officer they call a Public Prosecutor who’s investigating the cases. They’re all kidding around and laughing and hitting each other jokingly and then hitting us for real. I swear to God it was like they were on some fun field trip.

None of them is pissed off at the fact that they had to come all this way or even that he’s had this army uniform on for 45 days. He’s working, locking people up, no big deal.

A field trip.

Anyway I went in, me and two people I don’t know, for questioning. We went in one by one. As I was sitting waiting for my turn the public prosecutor was questioning a girl called Mariam and he was talking to someone on the phone saying, “Come on man, why don’t you come spend those couple of hours with us.”

I swear to God this happened in front of my eyes and my ears and my whole body that was tossed on the ground stealing a look every so often so I can see who’s this sweet public prosecutor . . . and who’s this chick Mariam who’s letting a guy like that investigate her.

Anyway then it was my turn and I went in to the prosecutor. And this guy was something else. Open jacket, very cool dude, looked very decent and he’d written a very decent arrest report. The report mentioned all the things that were on the table that you saw with on TV, and also . . . breaking the curfew.

I mean, if I were him I would just shoot me right then and there, no investigation needed. After he finished the report he said, “What happened with you, darling?”

I told him the whole truth, no more, no less. That I was standing watching the army arresting the thugs and then they caught me with them and that I came here by mistake. He said that’s what they all say and then he said to the writer, “Did you write that, son?” He said “Yes”, so he told me “Okay, sign.”

I signed and then I said “Okay sir, so what’s gonna happen to me?” He looked at me smiling this smile that I swear to God I will never forget as long as I live, and said:

Prosecutor: Hahahaha nothing, you’ll appear before the court hahahahahaha and you’re gonna get 5 to 7 years, hahahahahaha

I: started laughing.

I came out of the prosecutor’s falling apart, crying after I sat outside for a while longer waiting for the third guy to get done with the questioning and I heard a girl who was about 20 years old begging the prosecutor to not sign the report and kissing his shoes.

It was the first time I cried.

We went out and sat for two hours in the cold until the prosecution were finished and then they took us, ten at a time, into the court.

The Black Comedy

We’re being tried in the officer’s mess. And for those who don’t know what a mess is, it’s the canteen.

And the cooks were working away and the court was in session and everyone’s playing, man, everyone bright and perky. And every so often the judge would tell a soldier to tell those kids to shut up, so the soldier would go to the soldiers in the kitchen and tell them “please lower your voices because we can’t work like this.”

And the soldiers would go “It’s not like we’re playing, we’re working too.” And the soldier would go “It’s not my fault, he’s the one who said.” I swear to God they drew my attention away from the court and all the important things that were being said by the judge and the lawyers, those extras that I’ve seen in a lot of great films.

And so on.

And so on.

And so on.

Acting, acting, and more acting.

And they were screwing me over because I’m an actor.

Anyway, I forgot to say that before we went in to see the prosecutor we ate for the first time. I don’t know what time it was but we ate raw rice and boiled vegetables that tasted really good I mean seriously good, I’m not kidding, and it was the thing I liked most after that kid Se’eedy and Eid who for the whole four days until I left were hitting each other.

Anyway we went to the cells and slept deeply and dreamed beautiful dreams that didn’t have any torture or electrocution in them because we were almost stoned from the rice and the very nice boiled vegetables.

And that was the only day we ate rice.

And that was the only day I managed to sleep because of my chest and my back and my – excuse me – behind and my knees and my index finger that was swollen and that kept jabbing the guy sleeping next to me, Ahmed Asaliya. Anyway.

I got out safely, me and a group, after pressure for our release by people outside, and if it wasn’t for that we would’ve gotten court-marshaled. And here I am after all that saying everything without feeling emotionally affected.

And here I am telling them because they’re going to see these words sooner or later.
I’ve never been as strong as I am right now and I know that I won’t
be done until I die,
and the only way to get rid of us is
to finish off the people of Egypt.
Long live the struggle of the Egyptian people.

Aly Sobhy
An artist
who decided to become a thug.
But not to everyone.
Monday 14 March 2011

* “We’re the People of the Bus” is the title of a 1979 Egyptian film about political dissidence.

About Adam Horowitz

Adam Horowitz is Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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4 Responses

  1. Philip Weiss
    March 17, 2011, 10:56 am

    Aly,
    Thanks for this incredible story that you have offered the world. My heart is hurting for you, and I wish you a healthy recovery from your injuries. Thank you for ending on such an inspiring note. You are brave people, and the world is behind you!!

  2. eljay
    March 17, 2011, 11:04 am

    Powerful stuff…

  3. Potsherd2
    March 17, 2011, 11:24 am

    I hope you soon recover from your ordeal.

    I hope Egypt does.

  4. Avi
    March 17, 2011, 7:19 pm

    It takes a special brand of courage to be able to describe one’s own experiences of torture and abuse. Sometimes, it is liberating to tell the world that no matter what oppressors do, that one will stand firm until the very bitter end.

    I wish Aly Sobhy a quick recovery from his wounds. God bless you.

    From a political perspective, I would be interested to hear from Egyptians about the prevalence and frequency of such incidents throughout Egypt, a month after Mubarak’s ouster. In other words, is it a national effort by the military to maintain its control of the country culminating in a military dictatorship, or is it merely the case of a few beneficiaries of the Mubarak regime who set out to get their revenge? Have certain factions of the military been paid, directly, by foreign governments to carry out these attacks?

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