Show Hide image

The chocolate king of São Tomé

Xan Rice visits a man who has been on a quest to produce some of the finest dark chocolate in the wo

On a small Atlantic island on the equator, in a lemon-coloured bungalow with a clear view over a tinfoil bay, lives the Italian honorary consul. In his drive-way are two ancient Fiat Pandas. In his back garden is a chocolate factory. The consul’s name is Claudio Corallo. He is 57 and lean, with neat grey hair, a matching moustache and an inventor’s lively eyes. He speaks five languages fluently, and English sparingly and excitedly.

"Paradise!" and "Magic!" are a few of his stock English words, and could describe the allure of the rainforest, or the transformation of the humble cocoa bean into fine chocolate. "Shameless!" and "Shit!" are other favourites, and might refer to the marketing gimmicks of some of his competitors, or the state of western society.

For the past decade, Corallo has been on a quest to produce some of the finest dark chocolate in the world. His bars, which range in cocoa content from 60 per cent to 100 per cent, and may contain ginger, arabica coffee beans, orange rind or plump raisins soaked for months in his home-made cocoa-pulp alcohol, sell for between seveb and nine euros (£6.20 and £8) for 100g in Europe, the United States and Japan.

That puts Corallo in the same market as the world's leading gourmet chocolate-makers, such as Valrhona and Pralus in France and Italy's Amedei and Domori. Yet he has little in common with any of them.

For one, Corallo makes his chocolate at, or at least very near, source - on São Tomé, off the west coast of Africa, population 160,000 (including ten Italians), where the electricity is intermittent and flights to Europe depart once a week. Equally unusually, he controls the entire process, from the tree to the bar.

Most fine chocolate-makers buy their cocoa from farmers thousands of miles away. Corallo grows his own cocoa on a 120-hectare plantation on Príncipe, the twin island of São Tomé, 90 miles to the north-east, where he spends part of each month living in a tumbledown colonial-era house, with no power, no hot water and a system of air-conditioning that involves leaving all the windows open.

And then there is his attitude to life and to business. Corallo describes himself as "a free man, an anarchist" and counts among his closest friends a Basque man exiled to São Tomé two decades ago because of his alleged links to the terrorist organisation ETA. Though he wants people to eat his chocolate, Corallo abhors having to persuade customers to buy it. He lost a contract with Fortnum & Mason a few years ago principally because he refused to make fancy wrappers for his product.

"I hate compromise," he says. "And marketing is compromise."

Even today, the simple packaging on his bars contains only his name, and his chocolate's place of origin. There is little hint of his story.

As a boy growing up in Florence, Corallo dreamed of forests. He studied tropical agronomy after school. When he was 23, he gave up his job as a diver for a dredging company in Trieste to move to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). It was 1974. Muhammad Ali had just fought George Foreman in the epic Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa. Mobutu Sese Seko's government, which had staged the fight, hired Corallo as an agricultural researcher. The job did not inspire him, but the jungle did.

Big cars, mobile phones, watches, clothes. They are for people who want to fill their emptiness with nothing

Five years on, he bought a run-down, 1,250-hectare coffee farm in Lomela, right in the centre of the country. The safest way to get there from the capital was a thousand-mile boat trip up the Congo River, taking up to two weeks. His wife, Bettina, the daughter of the Portuguese ambassador to Congo, was the first white woman local people had ever seen arriving on a pirogue.

"It was a paradise. Shorts, shirt, no shoes, machete. All you needed to live," says Corallo.

He ignored the textbooks on coffee cultivation, relying instead on trial and error. His methods ranged from the strange - talking to his pack cows rather than using whips - to the improvisational - using lianas from the forest rather than nails to join fence poles. He sent his export-quality robusta beans to Kinshasa using a modified barge originally owned by Belgian missionaries.

By 1989, shortly before the world coffee price plunged by more than half in a few months, he was making good money and employed more than 1,000 workers. He had a daughter, Ricci arda, and Bettina was in Argentina, where her father was now the ambassador, about to give birth to a son.

Facing financial ruin, Corallo left the plantation and headed into the forest. He took a single book with him: Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. "I felt like Colonel Aureliano Buendía, with the world crashing around me," he says.

When he emerged six months later (he would not see his son and current right-hand man, Niccoló, until he was nearly a year old), he had an idea to boost sales by working with nearby coffee farmers. The plan worked and his farm was saved, but other dangers were looming.

Congo was growing unstable, with rebel forces becoming active in the area. By late 1996, when Laurent Kabila's militias began marching towards Kinshasa from the east, signalling the end of the Mobutu era, Corallo knew that his time in Congo was coming to an end. Returning to Europe was not an option. "If I had been forced to go, there were two possibilities: either I would have been put in prison within two months, or I would have been forced to take heroin - with an industrial pump."

He wanted to stay in central Africa. And he wanted to farm.

Cocoa is believed to have originated in the forests between the Amazon River in Brazil and the Orinoco River in Venezuela. It thrives in the tropics. Around 1822, sailors brought seedlings from Brazil to São Tomé and Príncipe, also a Portuguese colony.

The trees took quickly to the rich volcanic soil. By the turn of the 20th century, São Tomé was the biggest producer of cocoa in the world. Customers included the leading British chocolate manufacturers Cadbury and Fry, both Quaker-rooted companies that prided themselves on their principles.

There was, however, a terrible secret to their supply chain - slavery. In 1904, the American magazine Harper's sent the British war correspondent Henry W Nevinson to West Africa to investigate reports of forced labour along the coast. "The islands possess exactly the kind of climate that kills men and makes the cocoa tree flourish," he wrote of São Tomé in his final despatch, titled The Islands of Doom. The 20,000-plus slaves on the plantations - more than half the country's population - were doing most of the dying. On Príncipe, the annual death rate was 21 per cent - giving a slave a life expectancy of under five years.

Shamed into action, the British companies soon shifted their supply source to the then Gold Coast (now Ghana), signalling the start of São Tomé's steady decline among the international cocoa producers. By the time Corallo arrived in São Tomé in 1997, many of the old plantations had long been abandoned. After much searching, he stumbled across the Terreiro Velho farm on Príncipe's humid coast, and purchased it from the state. The colonial house had gone to ruin; a resurgent jungle had hidden many of the 20,000 cocoa trees.

On the beach Corallo built a wooden bungalow for his young family, and they began to clear the plantation. He was confident that he could farm cocoa successfully. But could he also turn it into fine chocolate?

Although the plantation had old cocoa trees of a quality superior to that of the more recently introduced hybrids found on mainland Africa, they were still forasteros - the most common of the three varieties of cocoa, and the blandest in taste. Almost all fine dark chocolate is made from trinitario and, very rarely, criollo beans.

Corallo was undaunted. He believed he could make up for the beans' inherent limitations by applying the same commitment that winemakers and olive growers show their crops - the sort of attention rarely seen in the world of chocolate.

"Good chocolate is not necessarily a problem of variety," he says. "It is a problem of work."

One morning at 6am, Corallo picked me up at my guest house in São Tomé, the islands’ capital city. He wore his usual uniform: old polo shirt, a cheap Casio digital watch, well-worn moccasins and faded Bermuda shorts. Hanging from a green string on his belt was a tiny Swiss army knife.

He was driving his dark green Panda, which he bought for ?500 in Italy and shipped to São Tomé. Even on an island of constant surprises - the previous evening I had seen a man driving down the main seafront road with a monkey bouncing on his shoulder - the car marked Corallo as different. Most expatriates here drive expensive 4x4s.

"Even if I was offered a Mercedes I would keep the Panda," he says. "Big cars, mobile phones, watches, clothes. They are for people who want to fill their emptiness with nothing."

We headed away from the Atlantic Ocean, towards the smoky mountains that loom over the town. Banana plants and breadfruit trees formed part of a luxuriant green wall pushing against the narrow, twisting road. After half an hour we had travelled 11 miles and ascended nearly 1,000 metres to reach Corallo's Nova Moca farm on São Tomé, which doubles as a coffee plantation and an extension of his chocolate factory. On terraced fields either side of an old abandoned farmhouse grew seven different varieties of arabica, robusta and liberica coffee.

The trees give him a small yet high-quality crop - his yield is little more than one-hundredth of that on a commercial coffee farm - and it is sold only in Portugal. Cocoa is what makes the money.

On the plantation on neighbouring Príncipe, Corallo's workers cut the ripe, melon-shaped cocoa pods from the trees using machetes, and crack them open with sticks to extract the beans. Nearby small-scale farmers who share his farming philosophy harvest at similar times and sell him their cocoa, as he pays much more than brokers in São Tomé.

Convention suggests forastero beans should be fermented - a process that gives them their chocolate taste - for about six days. But Corallo insisted on doing his own experiments to find the optimum period.

"I always start from zero [scratch]. Even if people say I start one way, I start with zero."

His trials suggested six days was not enough; instead, he ferments his beans for well over two weeks on his own bespoke racks. (He asked me not to reveal the exact number of fermentation days. It's a trade secret.)

The traditional way to dry the beans after fermentation is to lay them in the sun. But Corallo has his own methods that he believes to be superior: either spreading the beans over a platform of heated clay tiles, or placing them in a huge aerated cylinder that a friend built for him in Italy.

Once dried, the beans are packed aboard an old fishing trawler for the six-hour journey to São Tomé. They are then transported to Nova Moca for careful cleaning and sorting, roasted in Corallo's factory at his beachfront house, and returned to the coffee plantation.

Under a covered platform, with the ocean shimmering in the distance, stood several long wooden tables. Thirty men and women, each wearing a white overcoat, a hairnet and a face mask, sat with a pile of cocoa beans in front of them.

Carefully they stripped each bean of its outer shell and discarded the tiny, acrid germ, leaving just the cocoa nibs. This process, winnowing, is usually done by machine, but Corallo believes that the quality of the chocolate suffers as a result. By doing things manually he is also creating employment; at peak times there are 60 people on shelling duty, each earning what is, by local standards, a decent wage.

From Nova Moca, the nibs are returned to Corallo's four-room factory in his backyard, which he built using two shipping containers as the skeleton, lined with African teak. In the narrow entranceway, workers use a system of fans to blow away any residual particles of dust clinging to the nibs. The nibs are then ground by machine into cocoa liquor. After a few other refinements - some secret - the cocoa is ready to be turned into chocolate.

Later the same day, I visited the factory, following the aroma of dark chocolate from the driveway. Workers were scurrying around with trays of chocolate ready for cutting and packaging. Corallo, meanwhile, was eating - and drinking - into his profits. He had already guzzled "about 30" samples of his newest creation: chocolate balls featuring a core of 2 grams of ginger inside a layer of 100 per cent cocoa.

He had also taken several sips of his prized alcohol, 74 per cent proof and chest-warming, with a rich, fruity aftertaste. It is made from the sticky white pulp that surrounds the cocoa beans inside the pod and which is discarded by most farmers.

As with his coffee, the yield is tiny - one litre for every tonne of beans - making commercial production impossible. Instead, he soaks raisins in the alcohol before hiding them inside fat, 50g chunks of dark chocolate. It is easily his bestselling product.

But the chocolate he puts in front of all visitors, many of whom arrive at his gate unannounced and are welcomed into the factory, is his 100 per cent pure cocoa bar. Sugar gives chocolate its sweetness - tasting a bar without any "is like examining the cocoa beans under the microscope", Corallo says.

He cut a small piece and laid it on a tray. Then he took out several bars made by his competitors and cut a morsel off each. Finally, he poured a glass of water.

A few of the samples were so bitter as to be inedible. Others, marginally less bitter, tasted fatty and clung to the palate. It was hardly a scientific test, but there was no doubt that Corallo's bar tasted sharper and was by far the least bitter.

"You see?" he said. "The type of bean does not matter. If it tastes good, it's good."

After a decade on the island, Corallo is well known, and respected. One afternoon I was interviewing Rafael Branco, a former foreign minister, when Corallo's name came up. "You see the car he drives, the simple way he lives, the things he does for this country? Don't give us aid - give us ten clones of Corallo," said Branco.

In the gourmet chocolate industry, however, Corallo remains the quirky outsider and has yet to gain the recognition he feels his chocolate merits. (He claims never to have tasted any bar that can match his own.)

Martin Christy, editor of, a UK-based website for chocolate aficionados, describes Corallo's bars as "earthy, rough and ready, and interesting to try". But he says they have yet to equal the best chocolate made with non-forastero cocoa from South America, south-east Asia or Madagascar.

"The problem is the beans' genetics. Even with the best processing you might get a very good, cheeky chocolate, but not a great one."

Even so, Corallo's sales are growing, and reached about ?360,000 last year despite minimal marketing. Although he is designing a new website, and attends the occasional trade fair - usually the prestigious Salon du Chocolat in Paris - it is always done grudgingly.

"The Salon is shit," he says. "But sometimes we have to make prostitutes out of ourselves."

Often, he is introduced to new markets through people approaching him after tasting his chocolate. He has recently opened up a market in Japan, after a woman from Tokyo tasted his chocolate on a visit to France.

When she contacted Corallo by email, he offered to send her some samples. Instead, she insisted on visiting him, flying from Japan to Lisbon to São Tomé, and finally taking the notoriously unreliable flight to Príncipe to see his plantation.

As she lay down to sleep in his plantation house the first night, she saw bats sweeping through the open windows. "The air makes circulation, the bats make circulation," says Corallo. "Very acrobatic."

The following night she booked herself into a hotel.

The culture shock was reversed when Corallo visited Tokyo last year. On his first day he lifted the toilet seat only to find instructions on how to warm the seat. "The energy to do that. Crazy!"

Chloé Doutre-Roussel, a fine chocolate expert, first introduced Corallo's bars to Britain when she was at Fortnum & Mason. She has visited São Tomé several times. She agrees with Christy's view that the chocolate is good, although not the finest. However, she admires his tenacity - and his honesty. Some chocolate-makers concoct less-than-truthful stories about the origins of their beans and the degree of care taken in production. Corallo, on the other hand, refuses to use positive labels he might easily adopt, such as "organic" and "slow food".

"He is the complete opposite of the sharks that use marketing to fool customers into buying their chocolate," says Doutre-Roussel. "He is in his own world, conducting this experiment with a wonderful obsession."

But an obsession can be draining. One evening, Corallo told me that for the first time in years he was feeling exhausted. Last year he and Bettina were divorced. She still handles the distribution side of the business from Lisbon, where she now lives with Ricciarda, but her absence is keenly felt.

After Bettina left, Corallo asked Niccoló, now a tall, mild-mannered 19-year-old, to postpone his final year of schooling to help him manage the business. It is not something he is proud of.

"I am now the number one for child labour - my own son," he says. "But without Niccoló I could not do this."

Later that night, when he took Niccoló and his younger son, Amedeo, 14, out to dinner at a seafront restaurant, Corallo perked up, excitedly picking out the Big Dipper in the sequinned sky.

He talked about the future. He aims to source more of his ingredients locally, which should help the other farmers on Príncipe. Already he has got some of them growing ginger, and he hopes to get cane sugar from them, too.

If that happens, he might try to make rum. Exporting smoked fish is another option. In a few years, if things improve in Congo, he might even be able to spend part of his time on his old coffee farm in Lomela, close to the jungle of his childhood dreams.

As he says, "My heart belongs in the middle of the forest."

Xan Rice is a contributing writer of the New Statesman. His "Letter from Côte d'Ivoire" was published in our issue of 27 October 2008

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

Show Hide image

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