Tahrir Square, Jan 24 2016
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Downtown: Site of revolts to city of ghosts

Raiding private apartments, closing public space: Egypt’s security forces commemorate January 25

Egypt’s security forces are making moves to thwart any attempts to collectively commemorate January 25 in downtown Cairo, where it all began five years ago.

Government officials warned people against participating in protests on January 25 this year, as did the Endowments Ministry. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi also warned against demonstrations, suggesting a new revolution would destroy the country. Even meteorological authorities warned against taking to the streets on January 25 due to bad weather.

On the ground, police conducted arbitrary searches in 5,000 apartments in the downtown Cairo area in the weeks preceding January 25, according to Interior Ministry sources. They entered homes, looking through laptops, tablets, phones and personal belongings for anything suspicious.

Hassan Abdel Aziz, whose name has been changed for security purposes, describes how his whole building was visited by the police. He wasn’t home at the time, but a friend of one of their flatmates was at the residence and told him that when the police came in they didn't show a permit, but searched the whole apartment, turning it upside down and going through phones, computers and personal items in bedrooms.

“They stayed in the apartment for a couple of hours. In my room they found a lot of books. They started asking questions like, ‘What is your friend doing? Is he a socialist? Is he a political activist? What is he doing? Was he part of the revolution?’” Aziz recalls.

The police confiscated his passport after finding the books in his room. “I feel like this is private space and it's been violated. You don't know if it will happen again or not,” he explains.

Aziz hasn’t been back to his apartment during the evening since the raid, staying with friends outside of downtown. He says that as soon as the month is over, he will move to somewhere he feels safer.

Another eyewitness, who also requested to remain anonymous, says several members of the police were waiting for him when he arrived at his flat. They went through all of his belongings and those of his friend, who is a doctor and has nothing to do with politics.

“One of them took my tablet and opened it. They looked through everything in it, including Facebook, pictures, videos, everything in it.”

Magda Aly, a citizen who lives in downtown, posted on Facebook that she was too afraid for her children to stay in downtown after dark. “People who live in downtown had a terrifying night. Security forces were entering and searching whole buildings in downtown. I don’t ask for a lot, I don’t ask that they don’t arrest me as long as there is an official order. Call me on the phone, tell me to go and I’ll go, without having to escape with my children in the street during cold winter nights, because I don’t want them to enter my flat and frighten my children,” she says.  

A security source told the Reuters-affiliated Aswat Masreya news website that 47 foreigners from Europe and Asia with expired visas were arrested, as were 65 Syrians and Libyans who entered the country illegally.

One of the raids led to the arrest and detention of prominent doctor and activist Taher Mokhtar, along with his housemates.

Mokhtar’s housemate Amir Nader, a freelance journalist who was out of the country at the time, says, “They raided our apartment and arrested Taher, Ahmed (Istakoza), and Hossam Eddin. Even though the police initially said the arrests were based on intelligence, I believe it was part of a sweep of the downtown area in the run-up to January 25. It’s a method we have seen the Ministry of Interior employ before to control the neighborhood, but never with such ferocity.”

Nader says police searched their apartment for two hours and found leaflets calling for better medical treatment of detainees, which made them assume anti-state sentiments. Mokhtar and his housemates were taken to Abdeen Police Station, and were charged the next day with possessing materials calling for the downfall of the state. Mohktar, Ahmed and Hossam Eddin remain in custody.

“I am afraid to return to Egypt from Europe,” Nader says, adding, “I’ve done nothing wrong, nothing more wrong than my flatmates, but I was told the police were asking about me and I have enough belongings in my room related to my work that I worry my name is on a list somewhere. I will not return to Egypt until after the anniversary of the revolution and when we have an idea of how my friends' case develops.”

Home raids are not the only fear tactics security forces are using to secure downtown ahead of the January 25 anniversary. Several downtown art and cultural spaces have also been raided or closed in recent weeks.

Among those inspected by state officials were performance art center Studio Emad Eddin and the independent Merit Publishing House. The privately owned Masr al-Arabia news website was also raided by the Office of Artistic Products Police Department and managing editor Ahmed Abdel Gawad was temporarily detained.

Security also shut nonprofit art space Townhouse Gallery and its adjacent performing space, the Rawabet Theater, on December 28, both of which remain closed. A Townhouse employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, says authorities haven’t given them a reason for the closure, asserting that every administrative issue Townhouse has been asked to resolve has been taken care of.

“One can only assume it has something to do with the paranoia surrounding downtown, with all the raids that have been going on in private apartments and the searches in cafes," the employee says. "There’s a general attitude of closing down any spaces that might intentionally or unintentionally get crowds rallied up.”

The crackdown on these spaces in downtown didn’t just begin a week ago, however. Each anniversary of the 2011 revolution has been marked by security crackdowns.

According to the Health Ministry, at least 29 people were killed and 176 others were injured on January 25, 2014, with 450 arrested. In 2015, commemorations of the anniversary were banned in the wake of the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdallah Bin Abdel Aziz on January 23. According to the Health Ministry, security forces killed 18 protesters, injured 52, and arrested several others in 2015. 68 people were fined for illegally protesting.

Security forces also started closing downtown cafes in 2014. Borsa, a collection of outdoor cafes in passageways linking downtown’s traffic heavy thoroughfares, was one of the spaces closed. Activists, artists and many others frequented the area. Now, at each end of the Borsa passageways lurks a large police van with barred windows.

These trucks are present throughout downtown now. Every street that leads to Tahrir has heavily armed guards and trucks at the entrance, blocking the way to the square. Qasr al-Ainy street, on the edge of downtown, which also leads to Tahrir, is overflowing with security trucks and riot police.

“The raids in downtown Cairo are part of a wider campaign that not only targets people who are actively political, but also those who have the potential to be, and are therefore a threat. Closing cultural centers, arresting Facebook page administrators, telling imams to preach that it is religiously forbidden to protest – in every sphere Egyptians are being intimidated into silence and acceptance,” says Nader.

Abdul Aziz says his displacement makes him think about the words of French philosopher Jaques Ranciere, who asserted that police control over space signifies a control over politics in general. In Ten Theses on PoliticsRanciere wrote that forcing people to be constantly moving and not to linger in one place for too long is a method of control. Politics, he says, is about the transformation of this movement onto a space in which the people, citizens, re-appear.