CAIRO - On December 5, violent clashes raged for hours between supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsi, after the latter attacked a sit-in outside the presidential palace by protesters rejecting the constitutional declaration and a snap referendum.
A total of 49 people were captured, beaten and kept overnight in makeshift holding cells as their captors interrogated them about their affiliations and the reason for their presence in the vicinity of the fighting.
But they were not arrested by police or military forces — according to numerous eyewitnesses and personal accounts, supported by video evidence, civilians affiliated with the ruling Muslim Brotherhood were the ones who kept them captive for hours under the eye of security forces.
Their protracted ordeal ended after members of the prosecution arrested the group, then ordered their release the next day in the absence of evidence of any wrongdoing on their part.
Some of those captured say they felt like prisoners of war. Others assumed they’d fallen into the hands of a private security apparatus.
Their testimonials leave one thing certain: That night, Islamist groups ran sovereign detention centers they’d created in the area around the presidential palace, imposing their authority on captured protesters as well as the security forces on hand.
Former diplomat Yehia Negm, computer engineer Mohamed Omar and Popular Socialist Alliance Party member Ramy Sabry were among the unfortunate group of 49 detained.
Images of bloodied faces, bruised eyes and hastily bandaged wounds quickly emerged, as did videos of the brutal interrogation process of which minors were not spared.
Their injuries still fresh, the three separately recounted their ordeal, and their tales support the same narrative, even crisscrossing at times in the stronghold fortified by the Islamist group that night.
Omar was caught while delivering medical supplies to the field hospital set up at a gas station on the opposition side.
“They captured me, trashed the supplies and accused me of bringing medicine to the non-believers. They abducted me, I fell and they dragged me on the ground,” he recalls.
Omar says the mob beat him with anything their hands could reach, including a large billboard that landed on his head and cut him deeply.
When he tried to convince them to ease up, their response shocked him into silence. “I told them when the Prophet took over Mecca, he let non-believers go in peace. They told me ‘you are worse than the Prophet’s enemies in Mecca.’ I didn’t know what more to say.”
Drenched in blood, their hands and feet were tied up with a rough material that left visible marks, receiving minimal medical attention from Brotherhood-affiliated doctors, who were the only ones allowed in the area.
Even though ambulances were on the scene, the Brotherhood crowd often refused to let the injured go, and overwhelmed by the angry mob, ambulance workers had to comply, the three said.
All three witnessed one doctor objecting when two severely injured captives with stab wounds were not allowed into the ambulance.
“He lost his temper and shouted at them saying that neither religion nor ethics allows this, and that he can’t break his [Hippocratic] oath and leave these people to die,” according to Omar.
According to the three witnesses, police forces were not only unable to intervene and stop the attacks against protesters, but also took orders from the Brotherhood leaders on the scene.
A weak cordon of Central Security Forces was the only thing separating detainees from a larger, angrier pro-Morsi mob.
“I asked the police officer, ‘How can you let them beat us up while you’re standing there?’ He said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m following orders,” says Omar.
The three say the leader of the group was referred to as Dr. Alaa, and he frequently went inside the presidential palace and came back to continue assaulting them, a clear indication of coordination with the state.
After emerging from the palace, Omar says Alaa made sure to let everyone know he was in control.
“He said, ‘I know who you are and they told me to let you go, but I won’t, because you’re educated and you should know better and be on our side,’” Omar says.
The three men say their captors openly attempted to pin charges on them.
They all heard a man introduce himself as lawyer Hany al-Dardiry, who urged the rest of the group to prepare a box of weapons as fake evidence to send off with the detainees to the prosecution office.
Sabry was snatched in the middle of the standoff between the two groups. He was dragged and beaten more intensely when his ID was checked and the group realized that he is Christian.
The small number of unarmed CSF had no chance in standing up to the mob. “They couldn’t have intervened — if they had tried, they would have been tied up and beaten with us,” he says.
During his interrogation, Sabry says, the group kept trying to force him to confess that he was a paid by a member of the former regime, threatening him with violence.
Former ambassador Yehia Negm was alarmed by the authority of the organized group: “I’ve never seen an Egyptian civilian capture another, tie him up, torture him, interrogate him and deprive him of his rights. It’s like a private intelligence or state security body that belongs to this group,” he says.
With a bloody eye and badly bruised face days after the attack, Negm recalls thinking that he was going to die when the mob first began beating him. He was captured in the middle of the clashes.
Negm says he was beaten with batons, punched and kicked from all directions, then the group put his head on the floor and jumped on it, then started jumping on his chest.
When he told the group they had no right to ask for his ID, they replied: “We can do whatever we want.”
The three men also recall the inhumane treatment they received from a female doctor who arrived Thursday morning to tend to their injuries.
The doctor kicked the injured captives as they sat on the floor, called them pigs and undeserving of life. Eventually, an officer intervened and told her to leave if she can’t do her job.
That was the only time the police were able to stop an assault on those captured, they said.
The complete submission of the group’s members to their leaders was worrying, Negm says. “They haven’t just wiped out their minds — what’s worse is that we witnessed them ignoring their hearts and humanity,” Negm said.
“I saw weakness and I saw collusion. How can an officer take orders from a civilian and witness our beating? They were weak to the point of being crushed,” he says.
When the prosecution took the group to the police station the next day as suspects of assault and murder — among other accusations pinned on them — they were relieved, Negm says.
“It was the first time that we were actually happy to get arrested because it would get us away from the Nazi torture [chambers],” he said.