The National – Monday, February 14, 2011
In the turbulent days before president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, BBC correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes had an unexpected insight into the workings of Egypt’s secret police.
IN the last few days, I have been receiving a steady stream of messages from friends – and even people I have never met – who had heard about my detention at the hands of Egypt’s dreaded Mukhabarat, or secret police.
My response to them, as now, was that it was nothing, a minor brush with some rather unpleasant men.
Neither I nor my colleagues suffered any physical harm and, after a few hours, we were released.
It was, though, a fascinating and somewhat terrifying glimpse inside the workings of Hosni Mubarak’s police state.
The day had started with an interview with one of president Mubarak’s close advisers in the posh Cairo suburb of Heliopolis.
It was as we drove back into the city centre that events took an unexpected turn.
As we approached the presidential palace, a red Lada appeared alongside our car.
Inside were four large, angry and thuggish-looking men. They were screaming at us, demanding we pull over.
When our driver refused, they drove us off the road, swerving wildly until we pulled up in front of a military base.
Naively I looked at the soldiers with their red shoulder patches with relief. At least they would protect us from the violent-looking men in the Lada.
I am still not sure whether the Lada men were freelance vigilantes or paid-for government bully boys.
Either way, the soldiers appeared far more convinced by what they had to say than by our protestations of innocence.
The soldiers, who it now became clear were from the presidential guard, ordered us out of the car. Our passports and mobile phones were taken.
Next came the men in brown leather jackets.
A white Toyota van pulled up and out they climbed. They had the quiet insouciance of secret policemen the world over.
We were ushered on board and driven to an unmarked compound. On the outside walls, large signs in Arabic and English proclaimed “No photo!”
It was at this point that things started to become more menacing.
As we stepped from the van, we were blindfolded, our arms forced behind our backs and the cold steel of handcuffs locked around our wrists.
Stupidly, I suggested it was a bit unnecessary.
Immediately a hand reached around my back and tightened the handcuffs two more notches until the metal cut into my skin.
Now, in some pain, I was frog-marched across the compound and into a small room where I was ordered to sit.
Blindfolding and handcuffing is designed to disorientate and instil fear. And it works.
Time seems to telescope. A few minutes can feel like 20. You realise that, if someone wants to hit you, you have no way of defending yourself. If you fall, you have no way to break it.
You suddenly feel incredibly vulnerable.
I knew in the back of my mind it was extremely unlikely they would use violence against me but it still took all my will to remain calm.
After a few minutes, my handcuffs and blindfold were removed.
They apologised for what they called “the necessity”.
I cannot say for sure that it was a scream but they clearly did not want me hearing whatever else was going on in that compound.