Last Friday, I could hardly believe my eyes when I watched a highly disturbing one-and-a-half-minute video showing a naked middle-aged man being beaten, kicked and dragged along the asphalt into a van by Egyptian CSF officers. The incident took place close to the president’s Ettihadia Palace where anti-government demonstrators were being arrested for throwing Molotov cocktails. Reminiscent of a 2011 incident involving Egyptian soldiers partially stripping and dragging a female protester, the video caused a firestorm within Egypt and around the world.
The interior minister was quick to apologise and promise a thorough investigation, which did little to quell fury. For a while, it appeared that the then unknown individual was poised to become an opposition icon. The video appeared to document state brutality, but according to the victim, our eyes were deceptive.
The first indication that everything was not as what seemed to be came on Saturday morning when the man—revealed to be Hamada Saber, a 48-year-old day labourer—was recuperating from the assault in a police hospital, accompanied by his wife Fathya, who gave a telephone interview on ONTV, a local channel. However, she sounded far from distraught and went out of her way to assure viewers that her husband was being well looked after by the police and the interior minister, who was at her side in the hospital.
Her answers were hesitant and stilted, her voice monotone and hushed. The anchor said he heard voices in the background prompting her responses. Indeed, how could a woman, who had witnessed her husband being stripped and kicked around like a piece of meat, be so devoid of outrage?
Hours later, Saber was well enough to give his own account, but instead of blaming those seen launching a vicious assault on his naked body, he said he was grateful to them for saving him from the wrath of protesters.
“I was standing at Roxy Square, drinking a soda when a large number of protesters, who mistook me for a CSF officer because of my black attire, attacked me and stripped me of my clothes,” he said. “The protesters were angered that I had tried to dissuade them from firing birdshot at the police,” he explained. He went on to accuse demonstrators of robbing him, depriving him of his clothes and trying to shoot him. So why then was he attacked by security forces?
“When I saw the CSF officers coming at the crowd, I was scared and I ran. Riot police chased me, yelling that they wanted to help me. When I fell, they caught me and said: “You gave us a hard time, man.”
If Saber was to be believed, he and his family just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; they made the innocent mistake of going to a known violent hotspot, where the air was thick with smoke and teargas, to quench their thirst. And then, between sips, Saber decided to exercise his civic duty by telling an angry crowd not to lob firebombs at the palace of his beloved leader when the mob set upon him. How lucky he was to be rescued by kindly baton-wielding CSF officers and, after all, what are a few blows to the back and the head between friends!
Later on, when he was asked by an Al Hayat reporter to clarify the discrepancy between his story and the video evidence/witness reports, Saber told the interviewer: “I know what is in my best self-interest. Do not instigate serious problems for me.” That could mean two things. He has either been advised to stay mum after being arrested for possessing 18 firebombs and buckets of gasoline (according to reports on the online media) or he has been presented with financial inducements, tempting for a poor man who lives in a hut on the roof of a building and whose work is sporadic.
Saber stuck to his narrative even though he fell out with family members for rewriting the truth. His daughter Randa, who is without her fiancé because of the incident, accused her father of betraying the people in favour of the government. She labelled Saber “a liar” during a squabble with him on the Cairo Today programme. Saber insisted his daughter was in the pay of television networks. His nephew Reda Sobhi contradicted Saber’s tale of an innocent night out, saying his uncle participated in the protest along with his wife and children.
Saber’s story was full of holes. Anti-government activists judged him harshly for letting them down. However, if he was threatened or given a chance for a better life in return for his silence, can this poor man be blamed for acquiescing? He is hardly a hero, but the real culprits here are those who dreamt up what the Arab Association for Criminal Reform describes as “a retarded scenario” for Saber to parrot and which nobody, except people with vested interests, were buying.
This story has more twists than an Agatha Christie whodunnit. On Sunday, Saber was transferred to a civilian hospital and he retracted his story. The family is now in touch with a human rights lawyer, who is preparing a case against the Interior Ministry and the police.
Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.