A foreign journalist in Cairo, whose work appears in several prestigious publications was cornered near her house by a man in plain clothes who held her against the wall and snaked a knife across her body.
She recounts the assailant asking her if she preferred him to stab her or cut her breasts or uterus. The man’s perfect English suggested to her that this was more than a random thug assault. She said the man did not attempt to harm her or steal anything and let her get away easily, leaving intimidation as his only possible motivation.
And while this is the most frightening incident she went through, it’s not the only one.
The journalist, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says that she has experienced a number of intimidation attempts in the past few weeks, surmounting anything she’s ever faced while working in Egypt.
She says she first received threatening e-mails that mentioned her and other colleagues by name, accusing her of siding with the Muslim Brotherhood against the people and warning her that she will be shot in the back.
The journalist then started spotting the same person following her in different locations. She says that the person was not being subtle, and that his task seemed to be letting her know that she was being followed rather than actually monitoring her. The journalist also recounts being grabbed in Qasr al-Nil by a thug who cut through her dress.
Her explanation: It’s an attempt to create a general climate of intimidation to send a message to the media, whose coverage of events is at odds with the state’s perspective, to watch their backs.
And she is not the only target.
“Police just came by my apartment asking for passport and press card. New Egypt [is] starting to feel like the old one,” Matt Ford, another foreign journalist, wrote on his Twitter account, late last month. He was also not the only one to be visited by security officers and asked the reason for his stay in Egypt.
The old Egypt, Ford and others refer, to had a robust security apparatus that is re-emerging, under the tutelage of the so-called war on terror. This is the war the military says it is fighting against the Muslim Brotherhood after it ousted President Mohamed Morsi on July 3 and established an interim government.
The return of the old robust security state manifests itself most obviously at the level of the media.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) issued a report in September expressing shock and concern at the increased targeting and mistreatment of journalists critical of the government in Egypt.
The IFJ condemned the closure of four television channels sympathetic to the Brotherhood and the frequent arrests of journalists.
Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera, criticized for broadcasting pro-Brotherhood programming, is suffering the most state harassment. In the past few weeks, journalists with Al-Jazeera English were detained and deported, the channel’s offices were raided, and its signal jammed. Meanwhile, an administrative decision and a court ruling were issued banning its sister channel Mubasher Misr.
The same security apparatus has shown it face recently with the rounding up of dozens of Brotherhood leaders in hiding following the dispersal of the sit-ins demanding Morsi's reinstatement last month. These leaders face several charges among them inciting violence and cooperating with foreign forces to destabilize the country.
It is not a subtle return.
In a press conference in July, Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim announced that he would reverse the restructuring of State Security that occurred following the removal of Mubarak.
“Following the January 25 revolution, the State Security apparatus was restructured in a technically flawed manner which led to the situation we’re in now,” he said.
Ibrahim announced that he would restore departments of religious and political activities, which used to monitor the work of different opposition groups and which were dismantled during the restructuring that followed Mubarak’s fall. He also said he would return officers with experience in these areas to their posts after the apparatus let them go as part of the reform process.
This return is arguably facilitated by a public mood that sanctions it.
As the security apparatus regains some credibility and popularity, a former State Security officer tells Mada Masr that social acceptance will enable state security to return to its previous strength.
The officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that State Security is currently regaining the most valuable asset that it lost after January 25: its sources. He says that after a period of being scared while the regime was under attack, those that the apparatus relies upon are now starting to cooperate again.
For the wider public, the experience of deteriorating conditions under Morsi's rule has persuaded them the return of the old regime, alongside its security, may not be a negative thing after all.
For one, the release of Mubarak earlier this month, after months of imprisonment on several charges — an event that would have once triggered large protests —was received with no reaction.
A recent Gallup poll reveals that 80 percent of Egyptians think that Egypt under the rule of Morsi was worse off than it was under Mubarak.
And hence the return of the security apparatus is accompanied with the return of Mubarak-era figures, previously shunned as feloul — or remnants of the old regime — over the last two years of revolution.
Ahmed Sarhan, is a member of the upper board of the National Movement Party led by Mubarak minister and former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq. He says that what the people witnessed over the past year, has added to the credibility of Shafiq who warned them of the shortcomings of Morsi and his group when he was running in the presidential elections run-offs in 2012.
Sarhan expects the elections alliance that his party is already forging to win no less than 50 percent of the coming parliament.
“We got 50 percent in the last elections in the face of attacks and attempts to eliminate us — and we will not be facing the same fierce campaign that we faced during the presidential elections,” he says.
Sarhan is satisfied with the initial amendments of the Constitution, which state that the parliamentary elections expected in a few months will take place under the individual candidates system.
There are fears that eliminating the party lists and holding elections with the individual candidates system advantages the old powers who have the money and the networks to win as individuals. It is a system, critics say, that encourages patronism and clientelism.
Abdel Rehim al-Ghoul, a veteran parliamentarian who represented Mubarak’s National Democratic Party for decades in Qena, spoke to Mada Masr, confident that the hardships of the last two years have put the pre-revolution representatives in a brighter light.
“We are coming back to our people, if they want us then it’s a blessing and if they reject us they will relieve us of the responsibility. My colleagues are present in their constituencies, strongly tied to their people. We have already offered what we have in the past — if it is good the people will hang on to us and if not we will adhere to the will of the people,” he says.
Figures of the Mubarak regime now frequently appear on television while some activists have told Mada Masr that they are blacklisted and no longer allowed to appear on television.
The popular acceptance of the security apparatus, and to some extent of the return of Mubarak’s figures, is accentuated by a perceived threat that the state seems to be capitalizing on to justify the need for a rigorous security apparatus.
Militant attacks in Sinai over the last two months are often brought up as evidence of a dangerous threat and severe crisis that requires harsh security measures. Also, a failed attempt on the life of the Minister of Interior earlier this month is likely to give the ministry more ground to take drastic measures.
Mohamed Omar, a police officer who was among the founders of a reformist group within the Ministry of Interior in 2011, says that while he has reservations about some of the recent practices of the police, it is not the right moment to discuss them.
Omar says that it is important to focus now on the war against terrorism, while violations can be addressed later. He suspects that many people currently share the same forgiving stance towards the security apparatus.
“The people didn’t used to believe the police and thought they were being unfair to [the Muslim Brotherhood]. Now that the truth has been revealed, people are starting to think that the security apparatus was right,” he says.
Omar says that the return of officers who were let go from the State Security apparatus is now a necessity even if they were guilty of violations.
“This is a time when we need the officers who have experience and contacts even if they are bad. Then we can assess later whether they have learned the lesson from their time outside the apparatus,” he says.
Even the civil society constituency of human rights advocates and independent media which stood as a counter force to the security apparatus during the Mubarak era is now mostly acquiescing to its return, deeming the Muslim Brotherhood too dangerous a group.
Meanwhile, some are alert to the return of the deep state, contending that no democratic project can be born in this way.
In an article titled “A margin for democracy,” published in privately-owned daily Al-Shorouk, politician and academic Amr Hamzawy warned of the danger of the tendency of both society and the political elite to accept the return of Mubarak’s men and their practices.
“The post June 30 arrangements gave the elites of the pre-revolution state the chance to return to the forefront of the political, media and social scenes. They were able to renew their blood and re-enter the state and its institutions amid the fascist hysteria and the constant use of traditional scapegoats,” he writes.
For him, the rebuilding of the police state under the pretext of terrorism can only have catastrophic political ramifications.