It is almost impossible to convince yourself that a band of young men holding machetes, pipes and two-by-fours have only your safety in mind when they stop your car. Even after the 20th checkpoint, your heart still beats faster, and that tingle ripples over you until one of the men pops up your windshield wipers, signaling for the next group down the road that your car has been checked.
This is what driving is like in Alexandria when the police have fled. We want to visit Sobhi Saleh, the former secretary general of the Muslim Brother¬hood’s parliamentary group. When we tell the final cluster of youths that we are going to see him, there are murmurs of respect. We leave the car at a makeshift barricade and enter a canyon of high-rise apartment buildings on foot. The elevator fits only two at a time, so we split up for our ride to the 13th floor. On Saleh’s door is a small brass plate with Arabic script that reads, “Sobhi Saleh, attorney before the highest court.”
What do you expect when you visit a leader of a political Islamic group? Not bin Laden’s cave, perhaps; but neither do you expect a tasteful apartment with landscape paintings and three chandeliers in the living room and flower petals in a dish on the coffee table. Saleh’s apartment could be a tidy grandmother’s home, were it not for the incense burning in a holder on the dining-room table and the fact that the common room could seat 30 people.
We wait. Saleh has just got out of prison and wanted to take a shower. We do not wait long. “I haven’t taken a shower in five days,” he says on entering the room. “I needed water on my body after five days in the same clothes.” He is a distinguished 57, clean-shaven, with white hair, wearing an orange sweater and black flip-flops. He has a leopard tissue cozy: not a leopard-print container, but what looks like a toy stuffed animal around his tissue box. He is immediately engaging, the kind of person you shake hands with at a conference then find yourself telling people, “He’s such a nice guy,” without really knowing why. It has to do with the way he laughs at the absurdity, even the pain, of life as he tells his harrowing story of the past few days.
Not very many people in Egypt missed the events of Friday, Jan. 28, but Sobhi Saleh did. He spent Thursday evening working on a speech that he planned to give the next day. He went to bed at midnight, then woke at 1:30 a.m. to insistent knocking. When he opened the door, he was face to face with a plainclothes police officer. Two more in uniform, and then four more plainclothes men, followed the leader into the apartment. They insisted on looking through his library, in his bedroom; Saleh woke his wife and asked her to leave the room. The officers seized his laptop, searched briefcases, took some of his papers and then took him. “I closed the door to my daughter’s room,” he told me. “I didn’t want them to wake her.” He had been to jail before.
He had the impression the officers were in a hurry. There were two cars waiting downstairs. After questioning at a police station in Alexandria, he and two colleagues from the Brotherhood were taken on a desert road leading to Cairo.
As a lawyer, Saleh knew that they were not technically under arrest, knew that they had not been charged and that when they arrived they were not in a prison but on some security base. “Then we understood that we were kidnapped,” he explained. “We were not protected by anyone. This is a place where you are just kept.” There were 34 members of the Muslim Brotherhood from all over the country there. They slept on the floor. “They just locked the door and left,” he says. “We thought maybe someone would come and shoot us and leave us in the desert. No one knew about us. No one knew where we were.” It is striking how nonchalantly he says this. Sometimes people are taken from their homes, detained and killed, and no one ever knows. It is part of a pattern; the founder of the Brotherhood, Sheikh Hassan al-Banna, was assassinated more than 60 years ago.
The Muslim Brotherhood sounds like a fictional name a scriptwriter would give to a radical terrorist group. Its actual members don’t really fit that cartoonish characterization. They come across as civic-minded people of faith. There is none of the proselytizing or the menacing tones of hard-core Salafists — the Al Qaeda types. The Brotherhood might well have a more radical agenda than their public face suggested after the demonstrations began, but on that occasion you saw them out with neighborhood groups sweeping the streets and directing traffic.
On that now-famous Friday on which Sobhi Saleh planned to give his speech, the police moved in so quickly that some worshipers didn’t have time to put on the shoes they are required to leave outside. From our vantage point on the roof of an apartment building in downtown Alexandria, the tear gas made our eyes stream, made us gag and burned our lungs. (How on earth did people pick up the canisters spitting gas in their faces and throw them back?)
A battle played out below, riot police versus protesters, maybe 100 versus 300, respectively, but one side with body armor, helmets, shields, clubs and guns for shooting gas, rubber bullets and pellets. A man with a tear-gas rifle took a rock square to the helmet and began shooting the burning-hot metal canisters straight at protesters’ heads and torsos. Elsewhere one officer broke chunks of concrete into smaller, easier-to-throw pieces, while another collected them in a basket so gently it seemed as if he were gathering eggs.
For all the stone-throwing and tear gas, it seemed more like a protest than a revolution until we heard the sound of muffled chanting and then strained to see, through the haze of gas, thousands of Egyptian civilians making their way to the fight. It is hard to put into context, coming from a country not governed by laws that allow the arrest of groups of more than three people, what it means to see this kind of crowd in Egypt. Two days before, we followed 80 or so protesters around a poor neighborhood, everyone scrambling at the first sign of police. But here, now, were thousands, in just one of several protests in Alexandria and dozens across Egypt.
The emergency room at the general hospital didn’t look like an emergency room. It looked like a squalid waiting area with rubber-covered mattresses. Two men had been shot through their thighs. Another man had been shot in the upper arm, and the blood was seeping through his bandage. But it was the finger I could not forget: a man’s finger had been hit by a bullet and was coated with congealed blood. It jutted at a crazy angle. Hands are said to be the most expressive part of the human body after the face, a notion I never really understood until I stared at this man’s finger, untreated and unbandaged because so many more serious wounds required treatment first.
The morgue was worse, not so much because of the dead but because of the living come to claim them. The relatives of a young man who had been shot dragged us in, saying: “You have to see. You have to tell people.” A man slumped against the wall — a tall man with a mustache who seemed as if he was probably a skittish joker under normal circumstances. He said: “They went out. They had no guns. They were peaceful protesters, and they killed them.” Then he began to shake and to sob. He cried more intensely than I have ever seen a grown man cry. Our interpreter, Alia Mossallam, 29, was normally a buoyant person — at the clashes Friday she cheerfully brought out vinegar to help with the tear gas the way someone surprises the group with a bottle of Prosecco at a picnic, but she came undone when a mother asked her opinion about her dead son, “Isn’t he beautiful, just like I said?” Then the woman began making requests of her son, as if he were still alive: “Speak to me in your beautiful voice again. Tell me you are happy to see me.”
This was a result of the protests. There were 13 dead demonstrators in that one room. There were at least two more such morgues in Alexandria. There were dead in Cairo and in Suez. Where else? Were there dead people we would never learn about in the desert? Was Sobhi Saleh — a grandfather and lawyer who spent five years in Parliament until the winds shifted and he was once again the kind of person who could simply be kidnapped — among them?
At the security base, Saleh and the other brothers overheard two of the guards talking about the violent turn the demonstrations had taken. It made them all the more concerned that they might be killed. One of their number had already suffered what he thought was a heart attack. They banged and kicked and raised a great clamor until a doctor was brought. He survived.
They pooled the money left in their pockets to pay a guard to bring them food. Saleh wrote a letter. He demanded that they be charged. “So they said, ‘In two hours, we’ll tell you,’ ” he says when we meet. On Saturday night, they were taken to a proper prison, Wadi Natrun, on the road between Cairo and Alexandria.
They were each given a blanket and divided three to a cell. Later they heard a tremendous racket inside the prison, then gunshots. Tear gas began to seep into their cells. “We thought we were going to die,” he says. “We were locked in, and the gas came in, and there was no way to escape.”
The guards ran away, followed by the prisoners: the murderers and thieves, the hard-core Islamists. Saleh says that this last group felt just enough solidarity with him and his comrades to cry out: “Brothers! Brothers! The prison is on fire.” But they didn’t stop to try to free them.
Saleh pauses at this point in his tale: “We were all laughing. We said, ‘This is crazy!’ ” In his apartment on the 13th floor we all laugh, the driver, the guide, my colleague Souad Mekhennet and I, and the man himself. “ ‘Brothers! Brothers! The prison is burning,’ ” he repeats, imitating them.
The Brotherhood men lifted the smallest of their group up to the window to scream for help. The prison did not burn down, but it was only on Sunday morning that people from nearby towns came by and realized that people were still inside and brought hammers. It took three more hours before they were free.
They borrowed money and bought phones. They called Al Jazeera and told the station: “We are here in front of the prison. Does anybody want us?” Nobody came. Finally the men gave up on waiting for Al Jazeera, called friends and family to ask for rides and were driven home.
He interrupts his story to get the clothes he had been wearing, warning with pinched nose and waving hand that they smelled. In the silence that follows, we listen to the crackling of gunfire below in the street. While Saleh was detained, his country changed. The army is in the streets.
When Saleh returns, we ask when precisely he made it back to Alexandria. “An hour ago,” he answers. He holds up the tan sweater, the brown corduroys, the purple button-front shirt. It’s just what he grabbed when the police came. Between his return to Alexandria and his shower, he gave a speech standing on a yellow car, through a loudspeaker, to thousands of people in Saad Zaghloul Square: “I stood on the car and told the people we just got out of prison. I came to you from prison before I even entered my house. We did not run away. We will not run away.” He says they chanted “Long live Egypt” in response.
We realize that we have stayed long after dark, which we had planned not to do. We also have not asked our main question, which is why the Brotherhood seemed to be allowing Mohamed ElBaradei to speak on their behalf. “This is not a Brotherhood movement,” he answers. “This is a movement of the Egyptian people, without color, without any ideology.” Soon, Saleh will either be called upon to help guide a corrupt, unruly, poverty-filled country of over 80 million people, or he will hear the knocking on his door again in the middle of the night.
The drive back is slow going, with checkpoints on every corner. Each block has a different group of young residents defending their street. Rain begins to fall, and there is the sporadic sound of gunfire, but thousands are still marching, in defiance of the curfew. They have been marching for three straight days.
It is jarring to come back to the marble and gold lobby of the Sofitel Cecil, right on the grand coastal boulevard, to return to comfort and a vast buffet. Souad calls me from her room. She has been watching state television, and they are warning about hundreds of escaped convicts, including 34 members of the Muslim Brotherhood. If they want Sobhi Saleh, they can find him exactly where they did before, in his cozy home, redolent of incense, among his books and his family.
Nicholas Kulish is writing a book with Souad Mekhennet about a Nazi doctor who hid from justice in Egypt.