Egypt’s Missing Protesters: Lost Between Two Regimes

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Riot police take cover from stones that were thrown by protesters during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo, 13 September 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

By: Mohammad Khawly

Published Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians protested during the revolution that led to the ousting of president Hosni Mubarak. Some of the men and women that took to the streets to reclaim their rights never came back home.

“He told me he would not return until Mubarak falls. Mubarak fell and he never came back,” says an Egyptian mother, speaking of her son’s disappearance during the January 25 revolution.

Twenty months have passed and he is still missing. And he is not the only one. The disappeared of the revolution are an open wound that will not heal.

Those who were killed were called martyrs and carried to their final resting place where their parents can visit them. Those who were wounded are either being treated or have been neglected. Prisoners are sustained by the hope of freedom.

The disappeared are neither dead nor alive. There are no Government records about their cases.

“He went out and disappeared,” can been seen painted on the walls of nearly every street. Next to the words there is usually a picture of a person and a phone number.

Families cling to the hope that someone will recognize the picture and call.

Some went missing during the first days of the revolution. Others disappeared in the events that followed, under the rule of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

One of those still missing is Mohammed Saddiq Tawfiq, whose last hours were cobbled together by activists and friends.

He took part in the January 25 protests, returning home at dawn the next day when the Tahrir Square sit-in was broken up by force.

“We agreed to go back to the square on Friday January 28 and not come back until the tyrant leaves,” Tawfiq told his mother.

He attended the “Friday of Anger,” joining a march from his neighborhood in Hilmiyat al-Zaytoun, east of Cairo, to Tahrir Square.

He reached the square and disappeared without a trace. Communications networks were cut that day and his mother could not reach him. She waited until dawn but he never returned.

She went to the square to look for him and did not find him either. She looked for him on prison registers, and in hospitals and morgues, but he was not there.

When the phone networks were back up, she kept calling. His phone was off until finally, on February 11, the day Mubarak stepped down, she called and he answered.

“Yes mother, I am detained” he told her. Then the line went dead, so she called again. She was answered by someone “who sounded like an officer.”

“He insulted me and my son, threatening him, ‘because they wanted a revolution’,” she told Al-Akhbar.

She kept trying to call, and a few months later, another voice replied. He told her he was a conscript in the armed forces and had found the phone on the ground near the military base in al-Jabal al-Ahmar.

According to the collected stories and testimonies, most of the disappeared went missing on 28 January 2011, known as the “Day of Anger.” It was when the worst clashes between demonstrators and police occurred. The events that followed then led to more disappearances.

Mohammed al-Shafei Mohammed Ibrahim was a conscript in the army. On 30 January 2011, he was on leave. Driving by the village of Dahshour with his cousins in a private vehicle, they were stopped at an army checkpoint.

The soldiers asked for their papers but Mohammed did not have his, so the officer arrested him “under investigation,” a common Egyptian phrase meaning to arrest someone and then check their criminal record.

His cousins were informed they could pick him up the next day from al-Haram police station. But when they went, he was not there.

The officer at the station denied that someone by that name had been admitted, so they rushed back to the checkpoint where he was arrested. Nobody would tell them where he was. He is still missing to this day.

The testimonies show that disappearances during protests continued until recently, just before the election of the current president Mohammed Mursi.

Mahmoud Mohammed Khadra, a teacher, went missing as recently as 4 May 2012, during the Abbasiya events, according to activists.

Khadra was participating in the protest with Hazimoun, a movement connected to disqualified presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail, as part of the supplies team. Following the events outside the defense ministry, he disappeared without a trace.

Most accounts say that the disappeared were arrested and are being illegally detained, but new details that have been uncovered might indicate otherwise.

Counselor Hamdi Bahaa al-Din, a legal officer at the Tahrir Square Missing Movement, tells Al-Akhbar that one of the nurses at al-Demerdash Hospital morgue told him there are 57 mutilated corpses who cannot be identified and do not carry any papers.

Most of those missing “were killed and their bodies hidden,” al-Din said, adding that security forces who killed demonstrators took their identity papers so no one would know who they are.

The Department of Forensic Medicine is where people go to get a burial permit. It is the only institution in charge of autopsies, assigning cause of death, and keeping records.

Egypt is still suffering from the lack of a freedom of information act, and gaining access to these records can be difficult. One of the department staff members who spoke to Al-Akhbar was hesitant to go on the record and so declined to use his name.

“We used to see many corpses without any papers,” he said. “We would put them in the morgue fridge and contact the forensics department.”

“They would arrive, take the fingerprints of each of the corpses, and photograph them,” he continued.

“The public prosecutor would also be notified and would come and order an autopsy. The bodies were later buried in al-Sadaqa cemetery,” he added, referring to the cemeteries used for unidentified bodies and people without families.

Another forensics department staff member told Al-Akhbar that the legal period for keeping any unidentified body in the morgue fridges is only 15 days. During the revolution, it was extended to 45, but there were many corpses that were never identified.

They were buried without their families being informed, after “receiving permission from the public prosecutor.”

The most difficult part of searching for those who went missing during the revolution is the lack of any official figures. It does not seem that the government is making any serious effort to investigate the fate of the missing.

When contacted by Al-Akhbar, the interior ministry could not identify an individual or office that could even answer questions about what the government is doing to resolve this matter.

Al-Akhbar found out from sources inside the ministry that they do not have a precise number for missing persons from before, during or after the revolution. Minister of interior for general security Major General Ahmed Hilmi declined to provide us with information when asked about the issue.

Asad Haykal is a member of the freedoms committee in the lawyers syndicate who is charged with the disappeared dossier in the Truth Commission set up by Mursi.

“There is no precise count for the number of disappeared since there is no official body collecting the information,” he said. “All the available numbers are from human rights associations and activists who are trying to count them but their numbers are not precise.”

He says the current estimate of people who went missing during the revolution is around 1,200.

The role of his committee is to collects information, he added, but it does not have the authority to search the detention centers.

There are three possible scenarios for the fate of the disappeared during and after the revolution:

The first is that they are already dead and buried in unknown locations.

The second is that they are still detained by security forces who have not yet declared that they have them. They could be in military or secret prisons. Prison inspections are not regular.

The third scenario could be that they suffering a mental breakdown during detention that prevented them from returning home.

As far-fetched as it may seem, there have been cases of lost protesters being found wandering and confused. One such young man was roaming about a village in Giza in tattered clothes, suffering from amnesia, when a relative happened to spot him.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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