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Spies like us

In 1949, George Orwell claimed that the NS was a warren of communists and fellow-travellers. Yet up to the 1950s, it was anything goes; information, disinformation, propaganda black or grey — all in a day’s work for either Queen and country or Mo

It should come as no surprise to those who know about the New Statesman’s history that in the 1940s and 1950s a number of the staff “walked on both sides of the street”. They were reputed to be serving the communist cause while also reporting to the British secret services. In 1949 George Orwell gave the government’s Information Research Department a notorious blacklist of “cryptocommunists and fellow-travellers . . . who should not be trusted as propagandists”.

It included the NS editor, Kingsley Martin, and a future editor, Richard Crossman (although Orwell thought he was “too dishonest to be outright FT”), the revered columnist J B Priestley, Dorothy Woodman (another NS writer, who was Martin’s partner) and the assistant editor Norman Mackenzie, though he was qualified by a question mark.

Yet at the same time, according to Anthony Howard, who edited the NS from 1972-78, the staff’s “FTs” were also reporting to MI6: “The relationship between journalism and the Secret Intelligence Services has always been a grey one. It was probably most closely consummated in the offices of the left-wing New Statesman.”

The most inscrutable “double agent” was another assistant editor, Aylmer Vallance. He turned up at the “Staggers” offices at the outbreak of war in 1939 wearing the uniform of a lieutenant colonel in the War Office; yet he was also about to marry a member of the Communist Party who was close to its general secretary, Harry Pollitt, and others in its leadership. At the end of the war, Lieutenant Colonel Vallance slipped this unsigned editorial into the NSwhile it was at the printers, thereby avoiding the red pencil:

Its foundations [the new world order]  must be based firmly on recognition of the essential unity of the working people of all nations. Their needs and desires – work and security and a “dinner of herbs where love is” – are one and the same. The Captains and the Kings have made, between them, a century of greed, aggression, hatred and blood. They may now depart. (12 May 1945)

George VI and the Chief Captain (Churchill) had just received the ovation of the crowd at Buckingham Palace. Leonard Woolf, who was one of the directors of the NS and editing the paper that week, was furious: “It [the leader] is full of the slants, snides, sneers, and smears which Communists and Fellow Travellers habitually employ as means for building a perfect society,” he wrote.

During most of the war a dual allegiance cannot have mattered much. The enemy was fascism. The policy of the NS was the same as the government’s: to encourage uprisings in the occupied countries so that they might lead to the creation of democratic socialist states after the war. Let us “set Europe ablaze”, Churchill exhorted; hence Martin and Crossman wrote 100,000,000 Allies – If We Choose. Vallance called his son Tito. Basil Davidson (a favourite to succeed Martin as editor in the late 1950s) parachuted in to Yugoslavia to assist the communist partisans.

NS writers doubled up by working clandestinely as propagandists for the Political Warfare Executive. Ritchie Calder, the science correspondent, was a founder of PWE. Crossman, described as “a master of the art of psychological warfare” in the PWE official history, pulled off a coup by persuading Bomber Harris to broadcast on the BBC German Service telling the “enslaved peoples” to sabotage the Nazi transport systems. This was “grey” rather than “black” propaganda – the “big lie”.

A very successful example of the big lie was Soldatensender Calais. It was a fake radio service, purporting to come from German military radio stations in France but in fact broadcast into the Nazi empire from a powerful transmitter hidden on the South Downs. Gracie Fields sang “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World”, and so the transmitter was codenamed Aspidistra. NS writers contributed to Soldatensender Calais, which recorded off-air German domestic programmes, spliced into them highly convincing and destabilising propaganda, and broadcast them back. Information? Disinformation? Propaganda? It was all part of the journalistic stock-in-trade.

The NS had form. The very first editor, Clifford Sharp, had worked secretly for the Foreign Office Political Intelligence Department from 1918-19, writing strongly anti-Bolshevik reports. When these later appeared in the NS the content had changed to a condemnation of counter-revolutionary excesses, because Sharp had decided that the paper needed to move left to catch the postwar mood.

The Second World War was followed by the cold war and it became very nasty from the late 1940s. Dual allegiances to Britain and the Soviet Union were severely tested. Norman Mackenzie was the NS’s expert on communism. When he left for academia in 1962, the editor, John Freeman, wrote:

He has long been our expert on communist affairs on both sides of the Iron Curtain. His interpretation of the Soviet CP since Stalin has proved far more accurate in his prognosis than many of his more publicized rivals in the field.

This was because Mackenzie visited eastern Europe many times in the 1950s; there, his reputation as a “fellow-traveller” smoothed his path while his MI6 contacts led him to inside knowledge. An extraordinary instance of this is the highly confidential information Mackenzie was given on a pedalo at a Bulgarian Black Sea resort late in 1955. Khrushchev had just tipped off the Cominform at a secret meeting in Sofia about the extent of Stalin’s purges, fully four months before he stunned the communist world by revealing them at the notorious 20th Party Congress. Mackenzie’s Bulgarian contact had memorised much of Khrushchev’s disclosures and repeated the content to Mackenzie at their meeting. It was a great scoop – but nobody was interested. Neither MI6 nor the Foreign Office, not even Kingsley Martin, wanted to take any action. When Mackenzie read reports of Khrushchev’s speech the following February he recognised passages word for word.

Mackenzie had been, first, a member of the Marxist socialist Independent Labour Party and then, briefly, a Communist before he joined the Labour Party in 1943. He sometimes wrote for Telepress, a Soviet-backed news agency in Fleet Street. Leonard Woolf once described him as “the most dangerous man in the New Statesman”, which Mackenzie found “rather strange”. At the same time he had a succession of “minders” at MI6 dating from the early 1940s. As the war broke up and eastern Europe fell into the Soviet-occupied zone, so increasingly he travelled into communist Europe on an MI6 ticket, though he received no other payment. His special areas were Romania and Bulgaria.

On one occasion he was caught photographing the outside of a prison camp near Bucharest and was briefly imprisoned before being moved to a hotel, still under arrest.

Here, he heard the mellifluous sounds of David Oistrakh’s violin floating through his window. Soon afterwards he was handed two tickets by the security operatives – one was an air ticket to London, the other a ticket to an Oistrakh concert. Mackenzie said the whole episode was like “a fairy tale” but that can’t be how it appeared then. Many years later he met an old friend at a school reunion who sounded embarrassed: “I’ve been feeling guilty all these years. Didn’t I see you in chains on Bucharest station?”

Mackenzie confessed it was true and added that he had begun to worry when the plane transporting him out of Romania appeared to be heading towards the Soviet Union. “I gather you’re doing useful work in the Balkans,” said Kingsley Martin enigmatically when he returned to the office.

Anthony Howard, who began writing for the NS in 1956, recalled that after one press trip to eastern Europe he noticed a colleague reporting to MI6. “When I raised the matter with him, he got quite shirty and inquired whether I regarded myself as a patriot or not?” The trouble with walking on both sides of the street is that it’s often not clear which direction you’re walking in.

With Mackenzie there can be no doubt. In the spring of 1956, at Martin’s request, he travelled to Budapest to assist a former NS writer and BBC broadcaster, Pál Ignotus, who had just been released from jail following the Khrushchev disclosures. Ignotus had spent the war years in London but had decided to risk a return visit to the land of his birth in 1949, just after Hungary had become a communist state under the severely repressive Mátyás Rákosi.

Aylmer Vallance’s daughter remembers her father urging him not to go back; so did Mackenzie. They were right to do so, because Ignotus was then thrown into prison, tortured and locked in solitary confinement.

There is a coda to this story. On his release, Ignotus married Florence, the woman from the neighbouring cell, with whom he had exchanged months of increasingly romantic “tapping” messages without once seeing her. They decided to remain in Hungary but fled in November 1956 after the Soviet puppet János Kádár betrayed the ideals of the October Revolution.

The next year Mackenzie was one of the first journalists to detect vote-rigging in the Electrical Trades Union which fixed ETU elections for far-left candidates. As Freeman wrote: “It was entirely due to his foresight that the NS became committed to liberate ETU members from the communist caucus.”

Aylmer Vallance was more inscrutable. At the start of the war he was 47. He had joined the intelligence services in 1915, had played the “Great Game” in the Himalayas and had been sacked from the editorship of the News Chronicle over a sex scandal. He had spent many a weekend at a Scottish castle fly fishing, drinking heavily with his house party and then driving back down to London for a Monday editorial meeting. He looked like a Scottish laird and behaved more like a bon vivant than an earnest socialist. Yet he was a consummate journalist who turned out wellinformed copy on finance, fisheries and food, filling any gap at short notice where necessary when a few hundred words were required. He was on the staff of the NS from 1937.

His job at the War Office was to liaise with the press for news management. In this role, in December 1939, he wrote to the BBC and suggested that P G Wodehouse, or “Beachcomber”, should give evening talks to counteract Lord Haw-Haw’s “ingenious” propaganda broadcasts from Hamburg.

Staff on the New Statesman joked that his work at the War Office really was so secret that even he did not know what it was.

So, on which side of the street did Vallance walk? One verdict comes from C H Rolph, who ought to know because he joined the NS and worked as assistant editor with Vallance after 25 years as a serving police officer.

It seems likely enough that [in the 1940s] he was playing a fairly devious game, using the New Statesmanwith the knowledge of the Intelligence Department to plant useful items of pro-Allied propaganda, but also planting, under cover of the two-way prestige this gave him, “fellow-travelling” material about war theatres like Yugoslavia. This was a source of constant friction; and the commonly heard accusation that the New Statesman was a fellow-travelling paper was due not only to Kingsley’s ambivalence about Russia, but also to Aylmer’s stealthy insistence on putting in [to editorials], deliberately too late for censorship or amendment, extreme statements about eastern Europe.

Edward Hyams, who also worked for the NSduring this time and later wrote its official history, considered Vallance a political cynic: “His technical skill and inexhaustible goodwill were not supported by any faith in causes or, indeed, in the destiny of mankind.” Given the chance, Hyams said, Vallance would have turned the NSinto another Canard enchaîné– that is, an investigative journal best known for its satire and jokes. These two views are not contradictory.

Disappointingly, I have only a few circumstantial clues to add. Vallance resigned his army commission in 1945 but kept and used his title of lieutenant colonel until 1954. He travelled behind the Iron Curtain during this time and used Gateway Tours, a travel agency in Highgate, north London, rumoured to be a money-laundering front for MI6. On one occasion when his son, Tito, introduced himself at a London club, the response was: “Not Aylmer’s son? He was a damned fine intelligence agent.”

Nonetheless, while Vallance was working for Telepress, Hugh Gaitskell’s wife, Dora – a White Russian – considered the NS a nest of communist spies and described Vallance arrestingly as “Stalin dressed up as a nun”.

And finally, until the end of the 1940s he was married to Helen (née Gosse). Family scrapbooks show her with Olive Parsons, Eva Reckitt, Bill Rust and other “inner-circle” members of the Communist Party. Extraordinary that she was married to a lieutenant colonel in the intelligence services.

Visited frequently in his last months by John Freeman, Vallance died in 1955. In 1995 Freeman wrote to Tito: “My own friendship with him was close and very rewarding. And yet, looking back 40 years and more, I realise that I never really knew who he was or what he believed in.”

Hugh Purcell’s most recent book is “The Last English Revolutionary: Tom Wintringham” (Sussex Academic Press, £19.95) Read his profile of John Freeman at:

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide

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Where are all the people going?

In a new wave of repression under the Sisi regime, Egyptians are being forcibly disappeared.

On Monday 1 June, Esraa el-Taweel, a 23-year-old sociology student, went out for dinner with two of her friends to Chili’s, a branch of a Tex-Mex chain that is popular among middle-class Egyptians. The restaurant is on a large ship permanently moored on the Nile in the Zamalek district, one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in central Cairo. Esraa often hung out with Souhaib Sa’ad, an economics and politics undergraduate, and Omar Ali, who, when he wasn’t lounging around the city’s many cafés, could be found at an architecture college. Both men are slim with curly hair and Esraa is short, wears colourful hijabs and sometimes uses a cane to walk. Less than 18 months earlier, she had been shot in the spine by security forces at a demonstration. Despite months of physiotherapy, the feeling had not fully returned to her legs.

Earlier that afternoon, Omar had picked Esraa up from her home, as he had often done since her injury, and they went horse riding near the Pyramids. Souhaib joined them later at Chili’s. They liked to try a new restaurant every week and Omar, who initiated the tradition, had never been there before. When they finished their meal, they goofed around taking selfies. At about 8.30pm, after Souhaib had completed his evening prayers, they stepped out on to the corniche, the uneven, tree-lined pavement that runs between the river and a quiet, two-lane road. Shortly afterwards, the three friends disappeared.

By 11pm, Esraa’s younger sister Duaa, with whom she shares an apartment in Cairo, started to worry. Duaa tried calling several times but Esraa’s mobile was switched off, as were Souhaib’s and Omar’s. She tried to reassure herself that Esraa might be staying with a friend, but the next morning she learned that Souhaib and Omar were also missing. The families of the three students decided to wait until 3pm, when Souhaib was due to report to a police station as part of his bail conditions. He had been detained in January 2014 after police found footage of anti-government protests on his phone and he was one of the less-publicised defendants in the trial against the al-Jazeera journalists accused of spreading false news and supporting the recently banned Muslim Brotherhood. After more than 400 days in jail, Souhaib was freed in February pending a retrial, but had to report to the
police daily. If he didn’t show up, the families would know for certain that something was seriously wrong.

Souhaib missed the bail appointment. Relatives of the trio began to look for them frantically in hospitals and police stations across the city but found nothing. Esraa’s parents and three of her younger siblings live in Saudi Arabia, where her father works as a translator, and though her mother boarded the first available flight to Cairo, Duaa, who is 22, and her younger sister Alaa had to manage alone for the three days.

On Wednesday 3 June, 48 hours after Esraa was last seen, Duaa filed a missing person report with the prosecutor general, the standard first step when anyone goes missing in Egypt. She and a few friends set up a Facebook page and launched a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #Where_is_Esraa. They produced a video of her and posted it online. The film opens with footage of Esraa on her bicycle: she waves at the photographer and cycles into the distance. It shows a series of still photos of her with her arms wide open, a camera flung around her neck and a floppy sun hat over her headscarf, and she grins, wearing pink Mickey Mouse ears. Even in the final shot, taken while she was in a wheelchair, with a blanket over her legs and a laptop on her knees, she is smiling.

The video doesn’t show how Esraa struggled with her six-month confinement in a wheelchair – the countless times she tried to lift herself out of it, only to fall on the floor and cry with frustration – but Duaa thinks that it captures her elder sister’s personality. “She’s childlike. She just loves going out and playing and hanging out with her friends,” she said, when we first met at a Zamalek café in mid-July.

Duaa, an art student, is tiny and dresses trendily, her wavy hair piled high on her head, her iPod headphones dangling out of her handbag. She answered my questions carefully, almost robotically, and each time she finished speaking she slumped into her  chair as though she had been pushed. Esraa disappeared during Duaa’s end-of-year exams and, although some friends rallied around her, helping her to submit her coursework so that she wouldn’t fail, others were told by their parents to stay away from the el-Taweel family to avoid getting caught up in the case.

The two sisters are very close. Duaa moved to Cairo from Saudi Arabia for her studies in July 2011, a year after Esraa, and her elder sister seemed to have grown streetwise in the time they had spent apart. Two days after Duaa arrived in the city, Esraa took her to her first demonstration. When the crowd was attacked by beltagiya (“thugs”), the sisters were so scared for one another that they decided they would never protest together again, though they often went separately. I once suggested to Duaa that the way she handled her sister’s disappearance was brave but she just shrugged. She told me that she often wished that their roles were reversed: Esraa would have known what to do.

In the weeks after the disappearances, the photographs of the missing trio circulated online and the questions of their friends, relatives and young people – “Where is Esraa?” “Where is Souhaib?” “Where is Omar?” – echoed unanswered on Twitter and Facebook. Yet the families were starting to build up a picture of what had happened. They approached contacts in the security forces, who reported that all three had been arrested and were being detained. Former inmates at Egypt’s national security headquarters also reported seeing the trio there. Yet, without official acknowledgement, there was little that anyone could do. Esraa’s lawyer, Halim Hanish, told me that he had presented the families’ evidence to the prosecutor general’s office but received no response.

The three students had joined the swelling ranks of Egypt’s forcibly disappeared. The Freedom for the Brave group, a loose network of activists, lawyers and detainees’ families that monitors such cases, recorded that 163 people had been secretly detained by Egyptian security forces between April and June this year. Hanish, a member of the group, said that the figure could be higher, as some families are too afraid to speak out. Another local NGO, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, announced in August that it had recorded 1,250 cases since January. Sometimes, the disappeared are eventually located in a jail or at a police station. Often, new arrivals at a prison will find an inmate who is expecting a visit and ask them to pass on their name, family contact details and a short message. Families can be left waiting for days, weeks or months for news of missing relatives. Discovering that they are in prison is one of the better possible outcomes: occasionally, the disappeared resurface dead.


In 2011, many Egyptians believed that revolution was a way to end such police abuses. One of those who inspired the uprising did not live to see tens of thousands of people across the country take to the streets to chant their demands for “bread, freedom and social justice”. Khaled Said was a 28-year-old man who was beaten to death by security forces after being arrested at an internet café in 2010. A Facebook group created in his honour declared “We are all Khaled Said” and gathered hundreds of thousands of online supporters in the months leading up to the 2011 protests.

Wandering around Cairo today, you might still catch a glimpse of Said’s youthful likeness memorialised in graffiti: a clean-cut, wide-eyed kid in a hoodie. It is a symbol of defiance or, perhaps, of disappointment. In February 2011, when Egypt’s then president, Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown after almost 30 years in power, the interim authorities were quick to abolish the much feared State Security Investigations Service, which was responsible for crushing dissent, replacing it with the Homeland Security agency. But in the past two years, following the popularly backed military overthrow in 2013 of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s elected president and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Homeland Security has become ever more powerful.

Following years of unrest, Egypt’s military leadership promised peace and stability – after the bloodshed. In its first few months in power, it sought to regain control over the country’s streets by launching a brutal crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters, killing more than 1,000 protesters and arresting many more. In July 2014, an official from the interior ministry told the Associated Press that 22,000 people had been detained in the year since Morsi was ousted, most of them supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamists. The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, a local group monitoring political arrests, believes that the figure is closer to 41,000. Several prominent secular activists have also been arrested.

An armed insurgency in Sinai, where jihadists have declared loyalty to the so-called Islamic State, and a steady series of terrorist attacks in the rest of the country have convinced many Egyptians that their country needs the new marque of authoritarianism offered by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s imperious leader. Al-Sisi, who led the 2013 takeover and was elected the following year with an eyebrow-raising 96 per cent of the vote, had served as head of military intelligence under Mubarak. His new interior minister, appointed in March, shares a similar pedigree: Magdy Abdel Ghaffar is a former chief of Homeland Security. “It’s like the security services are controlling everything in Egypt now,” Nada Saad, a human rights lawyer, told me.

It might seem that Egypt’s security state is simply returning to its old ways but that is not quite accurate. The feeling, often expressed by activists and lawyers here, is that this new wave of repression seems to sweep up citizens indiscriminately. Mohamed Elmessiry, an Egypt researcher at Amnesty International, told me that he had spoken to someone who had spent 11 years in detention under Mubarak and then been detained by Homeland Security. “[He] said at least under the Mubarak government, national security knew what they were doing and who they wanted. National security [operatives] now are completely random: they arrest people randomly; they charge and investigate and torture people randomly.”


On 17 June, the first day of Ramadan and 16 days after Esraa went missing, Duaa finally saw her sister. A stranger had called Duaa to say that she had spotted Esraa in al-Qanater women’s prison in Cairo. When Duaa arrived at the gate of al-Qanater, the guard on duty remembered the young woman who had arrived alone and been unable to walk, and advised Duaa to wait with him rather than go inside the prison. Though neither the family nor her lawyers had been informed, Esraa was due to be transferred to court for a hearing. A few minutes later, Duaa saw her sister being escorted into a police van. She called out her name and Esraa, fearing for Duaa’s safety, burst into tears and asked her to leave. Duaa called Halim Hanish, the lawyer acting for her sister.

Hanish and Esraa are good friends. They met during the 2011 street protests and when, on 25 January 2014, Esraa was shot at a peaceful demonstration outside the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque, he carried her to hospital. He says that they were protesting in favour of a “third way” that rejects both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. It’s not uncommon now for Hanish to represent old friends. “You have to comfort them, even while you know for sure that nothing good is happening any time soon,” he said. “You have to comfort the families, as well. You have to lie to their faces, look them in the eye and tell them how it seems bright, insha’Allah they will be fine, even though you know [they won’t be]. It gets to you eventually.”

After the call from Duaa on 17 June, Hanish rushed to the prosecution office but was repeatedly told that Esraa was not there. Then he saw her from a distance. He shouted out to Esraa, to tell her that she was no longer alone and he was here for her now. As a result, he says, her hearing was cancelled because the prosecution lawyer wanted to speak to her privately. According to Amnesty International’s Elmessiry, this fits a common pattern for forced disappearances: often the first, second and sometimes third court investigations are conducted while the families are still unaware of their missing relative’s location and while the defendant does not have legal representation. This allows Homeland Security more freedom to conduct the initial investigation and usually extract a confession, which will form the basis of the case against the detainee.

It was not until 27 June that Hanish was able to attend a hearing. The judge said that he needed more time to consider the case against her and postponed her session until 29 June, but that day the prosecutor general, Hisham Barakat, was killed in Cairo in a bomb attack. Esraa did not appear in court until 11 July and since then her pre-trial detention has been renewed every 15 days.

Hanish understands that Esraa has been charged with belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, spreading false news and disturbing the public by showing footage of police brutality but he knows this only informally: his requests to see the report against her, which details the reasons for her arrest, have been refused. So, too, was a request for her to be moved closer to hospital so that she can receive treatment for her back problems. The ministry of interior did not respond to my requests for an interview, though previously officials have insisted that her detention was legal and have issued denials that forced disappearances take place. Esraa’s family and friends deny all charges against her.

The only available account of Esraa’s ­two-week disappearance is an open letter that her family smuggled out of prison, which was published on local news websites. She wrote that shortly after she and her friends left Chili’s, three men stopped them to ask for their ID cards and mobiles and then forced them into a minibus similar to those that operate as shared taxis in Cairo. Souhaib and Omar were blindfolded and one of the men – who identified himself as an “officer” – asked Esraa to use her hijab to cover her eyes. When her headscarf proved too short, Souhaib took off his T-shirt and she used that instead.

They were driven to Homeland Security headquarters, where she stayed for 15 days. Her blindfold was removed only at night, when often Esraa would ask for one light to be kept on so at least she would see something. “Day-long investigations, hearing voices and screams of tortured victims, men crying out loudly. Souhaib and Omar were taken away and I was alone. I was the only girl
there,” she wrote. On her final day at Homeland Security, before she was moved to al-Qanater, she was interrogated for 18 hours.

Esraa wrote another letter on 28 July. At times, it makes her she come across like a giddy teenager, joking that it is terrible to be stuck in an all-women’s prison as: “Everyone who knows me well knows that most of my close friends are guys. Do you know how tragic this is? J” She describes a cosy companionship with her cell mates (they eat crisps and drink chocolate milk together) but also the hardships: the cockroaches, the heat, the rationed bottled water and the tap water that smells like sewage and gives her skin infections, her worsening mobility, the boredom, the harassment from the “criminal” inmates. She seems to oscillate between dejection (“Sometimes I think, ‘Why do I eat? Why should I still survive?’”) and defiance, quoting the Egyptian activist Mahinour El-Masry: “We don’t like prisons but we’re not afraid of them.”


On 16 June – the day before Duaa caught sight of Esraa – Omar and Souhaib were spotted in Tora, a sprawling prison complex on the outskirts of Cairo. It wasn’t until 10 July, however, that their lawyer, Mohamed Elbaker, learned of the charges against them in a ministry of defence video that named Souhaib and Omar as part of “one of the most dangerous terrorist cells” of the Muslim Brotherhood and alleged that they had been arrested at their organisation’s headquarters.

Souhaib is shown confessing to purchasing a pistol later used to kill a police officer, and to giving protesters fireworks to throw at security forces. You could easily fail to recognise him. His nose and lips are swollen, he is pale and he seems confused. Elbaker says that his client was tortured for ten days before filming.

I met Elbaker in the discreet, unmarked office of Adalah, an organisation he helped set up to represent victims of torture and students in detention. It moves every few months to avoid police raids. Elbaker wore a striped polo shirt and had a long, square beard; at the top of his forehead he had a zabeeba, or “raisin”, a patch of darkened skin that is worn down by Islamic prayer. He reeled off a list of his affiliations – a group called the Costa Salafis, which holds interfaith discussions at branches of Costa Coffee, and the Strong Egypt political party, which was founded by a reformist former leader of the Brotherhood – but said that his greatest political commitment was to human rights. It was 1 August and Elbaker told me that he was trying to record officially the torture used against Souhaib and Omar. Souhaib still had marks on his body but Omar, who did not appear in the ministry of defence film, was in a worse condition. He still could not lift up one of his arms and he was suffering from urinary problems as a result of being repeatedly electrocuted.

The use of torture by national security forces in Egypt has been documented by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and local rights groups (the Egyptian government periodically refutes their findings). New arrivals at a prison or police centre can expect what is commonly referred to as a haflat al-tashreefa (“welcoming party”), in which guards beat them up. My discussions with lawyers and rights groups suggest that the torture taking place in state security or military intelligence buildings is more systematic: detainees are often blindfolded and may be beaten, suspended from the ceiling, electrocuted, burned with cigarettes or raped to extract a recorded confession.

To be transferred from national security detention to prison is like “going to heaven”, Elbaker says, because it brings with it an end to this torture. Still, Omar’s and Souhaib’s struggle is not over. Unlike Esraa, they are facing a military trial. Their case now falls under the jurisdiction of the ministry of defence, not the justice ministry, and their judge (though fully trained) will be a military official.

A presidential decree of late 2014 has facilitated an increase in the use of military courts against civilians in Egypt. Halim Hanish, who is also representing Omar, described working on a military case as “a hundred times more difficult” than working on a national security case. Lawyers can’t bring their phones into court, so they can spend hours waiting around, unable to contact their colleagues or other clients, and are searched on their way in. Sometimes, they can’t take pens or papers inside. He ­remembers that once a lawyer was forced to take off his shoes and socks in case he was hiding paper in them.

Other than Souhaib’s filmed confession, the Egyptian ministry of defence has not made public any evidence in support of its accusations. The men’s lawyers say that they have not been allowed to see the prosecution reports. Both Souhaib’s and Omar’s fathers had affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood – Omar’s was killed by security forces at a Brotherhood protest in August 2013 – but their lawyers and families insist that they do not share their fathers’ views and are not members of the group. Everyone I spoke to about Omar described him as fundamentally uninterested in politics – as Hanish, who knows him well, put it: “If you meet Omar for an hour, he will spend 45 minutes talking about food.”

Souhaib was different; he took to the streets to protest in 2011 and frequently after that. But his brother, Osama, told me that Souhaib worked on the presidential campaign of Strong Egypt’s leader, Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh. This suggests that Souhaib is critical of al-Sisi’s government but unlikely to be a member of the Brotherhood. The problem that Omar and Souhaib now face, however, is that the military video will now form the basis of the case against them. They are, in effect, guilty unless proven innocent.

When those who were forcibly disappeared emerge again, they must navigate a legal system that is already mobilised against them. The terms of their detention violate international as well as Egypt’s domestic laws. Egyptian law contains specific provisions banning the use of torture, requiring that detainees receive adequate medical attention and specifying that individuals may not be held in police custody for longer than 24 hours without charge.

Souhaib’s detention has caused him the additional complication that he ended up missing sessions of the Jazeera trial. When he finally did appear in court on 29 June, he tried to tell the judge why he had been absent, explaining that he had been held in secret detention for 15 days and tortured. The judge cut Souhaib off, saying that he could register a separate complaint if he wished but the information was irrelevant. On 29 August, Souhaib was sentenced to three years in jail in the Jazeera case – but the other charges against him are so serious that this news barely mattered to him.

Ezzat Ghoneim and Mohamed Sadek, lawyers with the Egyptian Co-ordination for Rights and Freedoms, told me that they tried to file a case at Egypt’s highest court, the court of cassation, to force the prosecutor general to investigate the disappearances. Their case has been rejected several times and they are currently appealing the decision. Neither is feeling optimistic. Those who defend the disappeared do so at great personal risk. In February, a lawyer died at a police station after being tortured. “We face harassment all the time. We always work in fear,” Halim Hanish told me. But last year, Souhaib’s bewildered and devastated father, Sa’ad, who had worked for many years as a metalworker, decided to enrol in law school. He has completed his first year of studies now and spends his evenings hunched over his books. If it’s too late to help his son, he reasons, he might yet be able to offer counsel to others.


The last time that I met Duaa el-Taweel was on 1 September, three months after Esraa’s disappearance. We chatted in Esraa’s bedroom, sitting on her floral bedspread, surrounded by her bright-coloured cuddly toys. A month earlier, Esraa’s beloved cat, Woody, had three kittens and Duaa had named them Esraa, Souhaib and Omar.

Duaa’s and her mother’s routine now revolves around their weekly visits to al-Qanater prison. They always bring her favourite foods, such as kofte and pizza – and deliver messages from Omar and Souhaib. It can take two weeks for the notes to arrive but they have helped the three friends keep up their old banter. Esraa jokes about how she, unlike the boys, has a bed. Omar writes that he can’t imagine Esraa in jail as she’s so pernickety about food and she replies that he’s not exactly tough, either.

Every week, Esraa tells her sister that this might be her last visit: perhaps next week she’ll be free. Then another seven days pass and Duaa makes the trip again.

Sophie McBain is a New Statesman contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left