A Larger Pattern of Abuse

The Victorious Sect arrests appear to be part of a larger pattern of SSI abuse, often involving the arbitrary detention of Salafists and other young religious men. Indeed, human rights activists, attorneys, and other observers told Human Rights Watch that SSI routinely summons Salafists and other religiously devout young men for questioning, and sometime arrests, interrogates, and tortures them based on little or no real evidence.  On occasion, as in this case, SSI detains such people indefinitely under Emergency Law decrees.89

Hossam Bahgat, a human rights activist and the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told Human Rights Watch that he often deals with cases in which Salafists are rounded up:

There are many people who are regularly detained by State Security; or, they were detained [in the past] and now have to report in regularly, or they are summoned regularly.

For instance, one detainee we’ve dealt with, in Alexandria, he gets regularly arrested by State Security. He is picked up, questioned, released. It’s their methodology [SSI’s]. A person gets stopped by police, maybe they get angry and arrest him, or they arrest him for no reason. And then, in the police station, they check his name, for political charges and criminal charges. If he’s been arrested before by State Security, he will be transferred to State Security and taken to a State Security facility for questioning.90

Gamal Eid, an attorney who represents numerous SSI detainees, described the circumstances in which arrests take place:

First, State Security regularly conducts arrests of youth randomly; religious or not. I’ve seen this myself: you’re in a square or on a street and you’ll see the police, with State Security, randomly arresting young men. Not Islamists precisely, but general sweeps of men. Or you see the police carry out the arrests, and then they transfer some people to State Security: they take them all to the police station and conduct ID checks on them. Some are kept in the police station. Others, their record shows they’ve been detained by State Security, they are transferred to State Security . . . if it turns out one or two of them has a record of being arrested by State Security, or if he has a long beard and looks religious, they will transfer them to State Security. These criminal sweeps occur regularly, all the time.

Second, [SSI conducts] sweeps targeting people who are perceived to be religious, for instance, outside a mosque or a place where religious kids hang out. . . .

Families come to us because their relatives have disappeared. They don’t know what happens; just one day their son or husband has disappeared and they don’t know where he is, or what happened to him. In some cases, the guy turns up a few days later; he’s been interrogated, because some other guy he knows was arrested and named him—it’s very common.91

The attorney Ahmad Saif al-Islam, quoted earlier, elaborated on these types of arrest:

They arrest any person they think might take part in some plot, no matter how vague. Also, anytime they try to arrest a person and they can’t find them, they arrest someone else. For instance, let’s say they want to arrest a guy named Zain and they don’t find him.  Then they arrest his brother, his father, even a wife. Here in Cairo, the arrests lately have focused on the Muslim Brotherhood, but also the Salafists, and there are also many other arrests.

There are a lot of reasons why they pick people up. Sometimes, it’s because they just want to arrest people, because they’re angry and want to round people up. Or, it’s because they get into an argument with someone.  Or, sometimes, you just have no idea why they’ve arrested some people. With the Salafists, sometimes I just have no idea why they’ve arrested them.92

Saif al-Islam, like Gamal Eid and other lawyers, said that some detainees were transferred into SSI custody from police custody, while in other cases the arrests would be conducted by SSI officers, appearing to target specific men:

A lot of the round-ups are with criminals: the police round up some random people, then refer people to State Security. On the other hand, sometimes they [SSI] target the Salafists. . . . One case I worked on, a guy was stopped and questioned on the street, because he was conservative, he had a beard. The police were asking him to be an informer, I found out later. . . . Another case, there was a guy who was suspected of being involved in sending people to Iraq. He gets arrested and he starts naming people, anyone and everybody he knows, and so they go out and arrest those people, and then they interrogate and torture those people, and they name anyone and everyone they know, and then those people are arrested, and so on and so on.93

S.G.E., a human rights researcher who works with Gamal Eid, said that arrests were so typical that he regularly saw arrests himself:

It’s an ordinary thing. I saw people getting rounded up just yesterday: the police, with State Security among them, were arresting many young men.  I remember, there was an old man there, very religious, and he was standing in the street trying to bring down God’s wrath on the police.

Also, my friend was picked up by State Security recently—he was leaving mosque—he says it happens all the time. State Security regularly calls in men with beards, but not just bearded guys, but others perceived to be religious.94

L.M.E., another human rights worker, agreed with the descriptions above but added:

But sometimes it is just arbitrary, or personal. You get into a fight with some State Security official, they’ll put you on a list of Islamists, get you detained. In this country, you’re always at the mercy of the conscript, the corporal, the officer; these men take out all their psychological problems on you, the citizen. If they’re angry about something, they arrest you.95

A.K.M., another human rights researcher, told Human Rights Watch that part of the purpose of the arrests was to recruit Salafists as informers and keep tabs on them:

Actually I think that in part State Security managed to co-opt these bearded guys and made a lot of them into informants. A lot of people, Salafists, religious groups, have informers among them, and if State Security wants to get information, these guys are used. . . . State Security is on full alert with this crowd. Roughly, we could say that if four of these conservative guys are in a room together, one is an informant for State Security.96

The attorney Mohamed Zare’i, quoted earlier in this report, said that in numerous cases, detainees would not even be arrested, but simply be summoned for questioning and then interrogated. He described the process as quite frightening:

This is not just questioning; it’s very intimidating. In many cases, they tell you to come at night, to be there at 8 p.m. You show up, you wait until 11 p.m. It’s a very intimidating situation, to be questioned at a State Security facility at midnight.

You have to understand, at a State Security facility it is torture or the threat of torture—this is clear, this is the context. Some are not tortured, but there is a threat of torture, and everyone knows that you could be tortured. Some people are just ill-treated, but not tortured physically. It is very late at night. You have to stand the entire time. It is a psychological game. They threaten you. They make threats about your family. . . .

If you’re sent to a facility, that’s more serious. If you’re sent to Lazoghli, for instance, it means something serious is happening: you’re in trouble. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you will be tortured in every case. But it means you can expect to be tortured. Maybe not every single person is tortured, but many are, so you can expect it. You’re in a place that is outside the law.97

Gamal Eid, the other attorney quoted above, explained to Human Rights Watch that it was often difficult to challenge the SSI detentions, because legal processes were so rarely offered:

How can we challenge these arrests? Many of the arrests don’t even occur with a detention decree. And if there’s no decree, there is no way I can get a detainee released. I may not even know where he is detained.

If I do know where he is detained, a particular State Security facility, I can ask around, unofficially, and see what I find out. Or maybe a prisoner will pass a note or bribe a guard to make a telephone call and we can find out what’s going on. And maybe I can do something, through unofficial channels. If he’s in a police jail, I might be able to walk in, in my suit and tie, as a lawyer, and possibly I might get some information or even get someone released.

But with a State Security facility—forget it. You’d never make it past the gates. The only way into a State Security facility—well, is to get detained.98

Past Allegations of Fabricated Cases

Human Rights Watch has received numerous other credible allegations in recent years about SSI fabricating charges against detainees—cases in which Interior Ministry officials announced “confessions” by detainees and evidence later showed that the detainees had been tortured and their confessions either did not occur or were not voluntary and truthful.

For instance, in 2004, Human Rights Watch documented how SSI officers used torture to coerce false confessions from dozens of detainees in the “Queen Boat cases” in Cairo in 2003.99 Another example is the “Satanist-Heavy Metal Rock” cases in 1997, in which dozens of teenagers in Cairo and Alexandria were arrested, many taken from their homes by SSI officers, and later accused of worshipping Satan in dance clubs and other venues playing heavy-metal music.100 More recently, Human Rights Watch expressed concern that false confessions were obtained by torture from detainees on trial for the 2005 bombings in Taba.101

In addition to these cases, there are also indications that confessions were obtained under torture in a recent 2006 case in which several foreign and Egyptian students were arrested for “allegedly plotting terrorist attacks in Middle Eastern countries including Iraq,” according to an Interior Ministry statement.102 Many of the arrested detainees were later deported to Europe and released, strongly suggesting they were not guilty of the crimes to which the Interior Ministry said they had confessed.

Estimates of the Scale of SSI Detention

It is difficult to estimate how many detainees are in SSI detention at any given time. The Egyptian government does not divulge the numbers of people whom SSI calls in for questioning, nor the numbers of people arrested by SSI and held in prison for long periods of time.

In June and July 2007, Human Rights Watch asked numerous observers, journalists, and attorneys we interviewed to estimate how many people were detained by SSI over various periods of time and at any given time.  The responses varied. Nationally, observers estimated that SSI held “hundreds,” “several hundred,” or “thousands” of detainees at any given time. Observers said it was difficult to provide a more exact number because of the lack of transparency about the process.

Diaa Rashwan, the commentator at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said: “I suspect that there are hundreds of people in custody at any given time, plus others who are summoned in for questioning for a short time.” Rashwan said he expected that, over the course of a year, thousands of Salafists were interrogated by SSI around the country.103

The attorney Gamal Eid made the same assessment:

On any given day, there are hundreds of people in State Security custody, even just in Cairo. There are dozens of people held in Maadi on any given night, and in Cairo generally, including police stations with State Security offices, there are hundreds. There are thousands of people in State Security custody across Egypt at any given time.104

The attorney Ahmad Saif al-Islam gave a slightly higher estimate:

Roughly, we can estimate that at any given time, there might be up to 50 people in Lazoghli facility, in the cells and including in the corridors, plus a few dozen in Gaber Ibn Hayan [Giza]; and the Nasr City facility in Nasr city. Or on some nights it might be less.

And in addition to these places, there are State Security offices within numerous police stations around Cairo. For instance, in Shoubra, in north Cairo, the police station has a State Security office in which they might hold a few prisoners. Across Cairo, on any given night, there might be a dozen or a few dozen detainees in State Security custody, or more sometimes—it fluctuates. . . .

I’m only talking about State Security, not police stations, and I’m not including political arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members, who for the most part are taken to police stations and then to prisons.105

Attorney Mohamed Zare’i said that estimates were somewhat difficult because it was difficult to differentiate between cases of short-term interrogations and longer-term detention:

I’d say thousands of people are likely summoned into State Security facilities, every month, for at least a few hours. . . . They question you and let you go at about 3 a.m.  Or they don’t. They might hold you for a few days.

Across the country, per month, I’d estimate that 1,000 to 2,000 people are held for longer periods, more than a day. Dozens per month, and sometimes hundreds, will be detained longer and given detention decrees, which means they’ll be held for a month or more.106

Abuse So Routine, It No Longer Shocks

Gamal Eid, the lawyer and human rights activist quoted above, said he was disgusted that SSI abuses did not cause more of a political scandal in Egypt:

People get picked up randomly, interrogated, tortured: I’m an activist, I should be shocked about this sort of thing.

Yet sometimes I don’t even notice anymore. . . . It’s just become so normal. We see the police stopping the taxi micro-buses and taking the kids with beards out, arresting them, just because of the beards. And we know they got threatened, and then if they’re detained they are tortured. We aren’t even shocked anymore.  Everyone is scared, they live in terror, but it’s become so normal.107

A.K.M., another human rights activist, agreed:

It’s true. We’re not shocked about this stuff, though we should be. Even the word “torture” isn’t used anymore in a lot of cases. People only say they were tortured if they were shocked with electricity. So a lot of people get tortured, but then they come out and say, “I wasn’t tortured.” What they mean is that they weren’t given electrical shocks. Maybe they were beaten, hit, threatened, blindfolded, but since they weren’t shocked with electricity, they say “I wasn’t tortured.” All of this abuse is so normal that people discuss it without getting excited.108

The Weaknesses of Egypt’s Approach to Fighting Terrorism

Many Egyptian commentators and observers interviewed for this report suggested to Human Rights Watch that the Egyptian government’s approach to counterterrorism, with SSI arbitrarily detaining young men, abusively interrogating them, and in some cases fabricating charges against them, was not only illegal, but likely counterproductive.  Rather than reducing the threat of violence, observers suggested, it could radicalize detainees and give them a reason to engage in violence.

Reflecting on Egypt’s history, Diaa Rashwan said:

In the 1990s, many individuals without any affiliation with any groups [for instance Gamaa Islamiyah or Muslim Brotherhood] were arrested, and pushed into detention, along with others. And many were detained, tortured, and they became more extremist than they were. A vendetta culture is bred by this abuse, and some people with jihadist tendencies, angry about the political situation, might get further radicalized.109

The attorney A.K.M. made a similar point:

Random sweeps will not resolve terrorist threats. We’ve had random crackdowns for longer than I can remember, yet we still have some attacks; the situation isn’t any better.

The crackdowns just create a new generation of angry youth, who want to take revenge for what happened to them—we have a vendetta culture in this respect. These random sweeps and interrogations only create a new generation of angry people who think that their life is worthless and that they are not appreciated, and so they might get involved in some operation or planning, in order to do something and get revenge.110

89 For an explanation of the definition of Salafism, see footnote 7 above. Diaa Rashwan, commentator on terrorism issues for al-Ahram further explained: “Salafists are basically just conservative people, fundamentalists. They’re against new schools of thought.  But they’re not political.  Just very religious.” Human Rights Watch interview with Diaa Rashwan, commentator on terrorism issues for al-Ahram, Cairo June 10, 2007.

90 Human Rights Watch interview with Hossam Bahgat, human rights activist, Cairo, June 11, 2007.

91 Interview with Gamal Eid, attorney who has represented numerous SSI detainees, Cairo, June 11, 2007.

92 Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad Saif al-Islam, Cairo, June 9, 2007.

93 Ibid.

94 Human Rights Watch interview with S.G.E., human rights researcher, Cairo, June 11, 2007.

95 Human Rights Watch interview with L.M.E., human rights researcher, Cairo, June 11, 2007.

96 Human Rights Watch interview with A.K.M., human rights researcher, Cairo, June 11, 2007.

97 Human Rights Watch interview with Mohamed Zare’i, Cairo, June 12, 2007.

98 Human Rights Watch interview with Gamal Eid, attorney represented numerous SSI detainees, Cairo, June 11, 2007.

99 Human Rights Watch, In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2004).

100 See James J. Napoli, “Cairo Communique: A Satanic Khamsin Blows Through Egypt,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,” April/May 1997; “Search for a Scapegoat in the Satanism Affair,” Cairo Times, March 6, 1997; “Two weeks in the life of . . . an alleged devil-worshipper,” Cairo Times, April 17, 1997; Sophia al-Maria and Ethan Heitner, “Out of hiding,” Cairo Magazine (2005).

101 “Egypt: Terrorism Trial Shows Serious Flaws: Torture Allegedly Used to Coerce Confessions,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 12, 2006,

102 See Nadia Abou El-Magd, “Egyptian police arrest foreigners for allegedly plotting attacks,” Associated Press, December 5, 2006.

103 Human Rights Watch interview with Diaa Rashwan, commentator on terrorism issues for al-Ahram, Cairo June 10, 2007.

104 Human Rights Watch interview with Gamal Eid, attorney who has represented numerous SSI detainees, Cairo, June 11, 2007.

105 Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad Saif al-Islam, Cairo, June 9, 2007.

106 Human Rights Watch interview with Mohamed Zare’i, Cairo, June 12, 2007. Adel Mekki, an attorney who works with Zare’i, agreed with him and added: “Over the years, thousands and thousands of people have been arrested and interrogated by State Security. Hundreds have been arrested in 2007, not counting the hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood who have also been arrested.” Human Rights Watch interview with Adel Mekki, Cairo, June 13, 2007.

107 Interview with Gamal Eid, attorney who has represented numerous SSI detainees, Cairo, June 11, 2007.

108 Human Rights Watch interview with A.K.M., human rights researcher, Cairo, June 11, 2007.

109 Human Rights Watch interview with Diaa Rashwan, commentator on terrorism issues for al-Ahram, Cairo June 10, 2007.

110 Human Rights Watch interview with A.K.M., human rights researcher, Cairo, June 11, 2007.