Obama unmasked

What's going wrong for the man who would be president? Our US editor Andrew Stephen reports from Was

We at the New Statesman must take some of the blame, I suppose. Barack Obama had been a senator for just ten months in 2005 when we devoted a cover to his face, anointing him as one of ten people likely to have an impact on the world. It was only during 2007, however, that the American media fell head-over-heels in love with Obama; when he trounced Hillary Clinton in the Democratic party caucuses in Iowa on 3 January, it seemed that the electorate was swooning in a headlong rush to the altar with Obama, too. By the end of the first week of the '08 presidential election year, the media had all but handed over the keys to the White House to him.

So it all came as a shock to the pundits and pollsters on the night of 8 January when, despite predictions of an overwhelming Obama triumph, it became clear that the voters of New Hampshire had given Hillary Clinton the victory over Obama she badly needed. The reason for the media's distortions, I believe, is that Obama's relationship with the press and the electorate is still at the stage of starry-eyed infatuation. Yes, he is a mesmerising political orator who offers a magic elixir that somehow contains both stimulants and sedatives: that we need not worry about the present or future, because we can look forward to a new dawn of hope and reassurance in the safe hands of President Obama. Exactly how and why this would happen is not clear, but it is heady and exciting stuff.

I suspect that the longer the relationship continues, however, the more Obama's many faults and shortcomings as a presidential candidate will emerge. In his speech admitting defeat in New Hampshire on Tuesday, for example, a hint of his bad-tempered haughtiness emerged. He is not the fresh-faced young idealist the media like to portray, but a hard-headed 46-year-old lawyer whose monumental drive and political calculations make the Clintons seem like a pair of amateurs. The media and electorate may have fallen in love with him spontaneously, but Obama has been carefully plotting his strategy to seduce them for decades.

A little "blow"

Even dedicated political operators such as the Clintons, for example, did not publish self-promoting memoirs at the age of 33 - but that is exactly what Obama did, revealing his use of cocaine ("a little blow") before anybody else could beat him to it, for example. In those memoirs, Dreams from My Father, he burnished a personal and political résumé that, in places, seemed almost unbelievable - so I was not surprised to read in his introduction to the reissued edition of "selective lapses of memory" and "the temptation to colour events in ways favourable to the writer".

I'll provide two brief examples of how Obama did just that. He wrote movingly of a turning point in his life when, as a nine-year-old, he read in Life magazine of a "black man who had tried to peel off his skin". But the Chicago Tribune - it and the Chicago Sun-Times being honourable exceptions to the media quiescence I have described - reported that "no such Life issue exists", and an exhaustive search of similar magazines failed to find any article remotely similar to the one Obama had described. The Obama media machine, too, obligingly enabled television crews this month to interview Obama's very elderly Kenyan "grandmother"; the only problem was that the woman in rural Kenya was not Obama's grandmother, but the alleged foster mother of Obama's father. "Give me a break . . . this whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen," huffed Bill Clinton, visiting Dartmouth College on the eve of the New Hampshire vote, telling his audience the US media are not being tough enough on Obama.

Politically, there is remarkably little difference between the three leading Democrats - Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. Obama was not in the Senate in 2002 and did not therefore vote for the resolution that authorised the invasion of Iraq. But he has not been the sainted man of peace his supporters portray, either. In his three years in the Senate he has kept his head safely below the parapet, leaving two congressional colleagues - Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania - to spearhead opposition to the war on Capitol Hill. In 2006 he voted against a Senate resolution calling for the withdrawal of troops and has also voted to continue funding the war.

Most recently, he said he would not hesitate to send US troops into Pakistan without Pakistan's permission to hunt down terrorists, and he insists that the US must not "cede our claim of leadership in world affairs". He wants the military to "stay on the offensive, from Djibouti to Kandahar" and to increase defence expenditure. Like most identikit US mainstream politicians, he talks of "rogue nations" and "hostile dictators", and says the US must maintain "a strong nuclear deterrent" and be ready to "seize" the "American moment". He appeared to support Israel's attack on Lebanon, but then said "nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people" - which, in turn, he denied saying.

In the meantime he let his mentor and fellow senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, swing alone in the wind after Durbin - perhaps the most liberal Democrat in the Senate - compared US interrogation techniques of prisoners in Guantanamo with those of the Soviet Union, Nazis and Khmer Rouge. He voted to reauthorise the Bush administration's repressive Patriot Act, and says that as president he would not rule out a US first-strike nuclear attack on Iran.

His equivocations and contradictions thus proliferate. He promised solemnly on coast-to-coast live television on NBC in 2006 that he would complete his six-year Senate term and definitely not run for the presidency. He voted in favour of President Bush's nomination of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. I am not the first to see Obama's self-portrayal as almost Christlike: a young black man is tormented by racism and gets into drugs, and only his own inner goodness rescues him from the ghettos to which he was surely consigned. Human foibles - that he smokes and likes playing poker, for example - are determinedly kept under wraps.


The sad point of all this is that the reality of his life is actually much more fascinating than the manufactured version. His background is strikingly dysfunctional but by no means economically underprivileged. His eccentric white American mother met his Kenyan father when both were students at the University of Hawaii, but like so many male politicians - Bill Clinton, for one - his father, an alcoholic who ended up fathering several families before being killed in a car accident in Kenya in 1982, was literally and figuratively absent from his life. He abandoned Obama and his mother to take up a scholarship at Harvard when the young Barack was a toddler. So much for his Kenyan "relatives".

His mother, who died in 1995, subsequently remarried an Indonesian student destined to become an oil company executive, and the newlyweds took the young Obama to live in Jakarta when he was six. He duly attended a local school that the Fox News channel gleefully but inaccurately labelled a madrasa. His middle name, like his father's, is Hussein - though Obama insists that his father was not, in fact, a Muslim but an atheist. The adult Obama now attends the evangelical Trinity United Church of Christ in Chi cago and says he is a devout Christian.

The young Obama acquired a half-sister when he lived in Jakarta (she is now a Buddhist), but his mother sent him to live permanently with his white grandparents in Honolulu when he was ten. He then began a new, elitist life that even he describes as "a childhood dream": surfing in Hawaii and attending the renowned private Punahou School, founded by Congregationalist missionaries in 1841 and known to local people as a school for the haole (whites). Its annual tuition today costs $15,725.

Far from being the brilliant student his image suggests, Obama was a consistently B-grade pupil. He went on to attend Occidental College, a perfectly respectable private liberal arts college in Los Angeles, but hardly an academic powerhouse; its present-day endowment is $377m. He transferred to Columbia University in New York and completed his degree there, and finally graduated with a degree from Harvard Law School at the age of 30. His upwardly mobile ascent had begun, and Obama joined the Chicago law firm of Miner, Barnhill & Galland. He began his professional political career when he stood successfully for the Illinois General Assembly (the state senate) in 1996.

Here we come to one of the major contradictions between Obama's image and reality. The media, both here and in Britain, assume that Obama has the black vote sewn up - a Daily Telegraph columnist, with stupendous racism, casually asserted on Monday that Hillary Clinton has lost an opportunity because American blacks now "have one of their own to support" - but Obama is regarded with suspicion by most African Americans. My postman, for example, screws up his face with disdain at the mere mention of Obama's name. He alienated much of the black political Establishment in 2000, when he ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primaries against the incumbent congressman for an Illinois district, Representative Bobby Rush - a former Black Panther and current leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus. His congressional district has more black people than any other in the country, and Obama lost to Rush by 31 points.

In a career that has seemed - until now, at least - to be unstoppable, he nonetheless went on to win the Democratic nomination to run for the US Senate in 2004. The seat was being vacated by a retiring Republican, Peter Fitzgerald, but Obama had a tremendous stroke of luck: the former wife of his strong Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, made sordid allegations about their sex life and Ryan was forced to drop out. He was replaced by Alan Keyes, a former black activist and diplomat who had morphed into a figure of the far right and become one of America's fully paid-up political lunatics. Obama, having won national attention for the first time by delivering the keynote address at John Kerry's Democratic coronation convention in Boston the previous July, won by a 70-27 per cent landslide.

Which brings us back to his entry to the Senate in 2005 and our cover of him less than ten months later. Part of Obama's contrived sainthood is an undertaking that he will not take funds from lobbyists or political action committees. But, like the Clintons and just about any other American politician, he has assiduously done just that. According to the Washington Post, Hillary Clinton has so far raised $78,615,215 and Obama $78,915,507; Obama's campaign has relied heavily on people such as Kenneth Griffin, a Chicago-based hedge-fund manager who reportedly earned $1.4bn last year.

The further away you get from Chicago, though, the more the saintly image takes hold. Publications like the New Yorker may coo for pages over "the conciliator", but the two Chicago newspapers are much more interested in Obama's close 17-year friendship with Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a long-time Obama donor and property developer awaiting trial on charges of attempted extortion, money laundering and fraud. A low-income housing project received more than $14m from taxpayers while Obama was a state senator, but he consistently denied that he had done any favours for Rezko.

The hope mantra

That was until the Chicago Sun-Times unearthed two letters Obama wrote to state officials in 1998 urging them to grant extra funds for Rezko's project. Democrats and Republicans alike in Chicago, too, are intrigued by the question of why Obama paid $1.65m for a mansion in the city's south side in 2005 - $300,000 less than the asking price - on the very same day Rezko's wife happened to buy the house next door for the asking price. In their tax return for the following year, Obama and his wife, Michelle, who is vice-president of a non-profit hospital organisation, reported taxable income of $983,826 for 2006, down from $1.6m the previous year.

"Hope" is the mantra word in Obama's magic elixir, but Bruce Reed - president of the Democratic Leadership Council - points out that tens of millions of Americans are supporting Obama not because of what he's done, but because of what they hope he might do. "We don't need leaders to tell us we can't do what we need to do," Obama said in a typical stump speech on 7 January. "We need them to say 'yes, we can', to say 'yes, we believe'."

Huge crowds roar their approval over lines like this, long on beautifully delivered rhetoric but short on facts and concrete undertakings. A casual observer might assume Obama is proposing a vastly more ambitious health-care plan than Clinton; in fact, the reverse is true.

Those who know Obama say privately that he has a healthy sense of entitlement that often manifests itself in an imperious, thin-skinned manner. We caught just a glimpse of this peevishness in his concession speech in New Hampshire, I thought - of a man somehow denied his rightful Schadenfreude over the second humiliating defeat of Clinton that he and the American punditocracy had confidently anticipated. Obama's latest book may be called The Audacity of Hope, but it really should be called The Audacity of Hype.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked

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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