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Field Notes

Going Underground in Cairo

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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 18, 2008; 12:00 AM

CAIRO, Egypt -- Facebook activist Ahmed Maher set one condition for our request to follow him as he went underground to plan a national protest against Egypt's government.

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If he came to meet us anywhere for interviews, Maher stipulated, he'd need us to help push-start his car afterward.

I considered whether pushing an activist's car could be seen as reporter bias. Then I reasoned that if Gamal Mubarak, the influential son of President Hosni Mubarak, ever asked me for a push-start, I would certainly help him too. I agreed to Maher's condition.

For my Egyptian colleague Nora Younis and me, Maher's request marked the beginning of six days that encapsulated the sad and often lonely struggles of activists in Egypt, where security forces routinely use torture and have arrested thousands of people over the years to crush dissent.

We set up rendezvous by text message, out of the suspicion that one or all of our phones were tapped. We met at out-of-the way cafés to hear Maher's plans for the protests, and his hopes that Facebook would prove to be a new way to rally Egyptians.

A text message at midnight brought Nora and me to an all-night Internet café. Nora and I nodded in our chairs for hours in the early hours of May 4 while strangers surfed porn and Maher tried to raise the spirits of his Facebook troops for the protests planned for that day.

Hours later we drove with Maher as he took in the failure of his organizing effort. Cairo's streets were as crowded as ever. In the car, we heard him take a call from his young wife. Distraught over the dangers of his political activity, she had taken their 3-month-old daughter and moved back to her parents.

"This is the lamest strike," one of my reporting colleagues text-messaged, as journalists drove around Cairo looking for signs of protests.

Three days later, Nora grew worried about Maher -- no one had seen him, or heard from him that day. She feared he'd been arrested.

Maher called after his release on May 8. He told us what had happened to him: The first time he'd tried to go back to his house, still empty of his wife and child, police had arrested him, handcuffed him and blindfolded him. Police and security forces had beaten him for 14 hours. Between each round of beating, they'd rubbed his back with cream, trying to minimize the marks, he said. Despite their efforts, the livid, bruising imprints of fingers splattered his back and neck.

Security forces made clear they had been listening in on Maher's calls, he said. One of their questions, he said, was about a 3 a.m. call he'd made to Nora -- one of those times when he had called looking for a push-start.

Nora and I took photos of his injuries at his hospital. We made jokes and teased him like you would on any hospital visit, trying to give the patient a break from dark thoughts.

Lots of foreigners marvel at how resigned Egyptians seem about having a small ruling elite control all the country's power and wealth. My six days with Maher were a reminder why that is: They've had it beaten into them.


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