The morning after in Egypt, grim realities

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 12, 2011; 11:23 PM

CAIRO - As Abdul Rahman al-Sharkawi danced with the infectious joy gripping Cairo on Saturday, he was unable to shake one image - his father languishing in a tiny prison cell in a town in Egypt's western desert.

Fears for his 61-year-old father, who has been imprisoned for years under an emergency law that allows detention without judicial review, have haunted him since childhood.

"He's an old man and he spent half his life in prison," Sharkawi, 30, said Saturday, looking bleary-eyed but triumphant as he celebrated the ouster of Egypt's long-time authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.

Cairo's downtown streets abounded in signs of hope and renewal. Volunteers wearing rubber gloves and surgical masks picked up trash in Tahrir Square, where demonstrators had proved their mettle against well-armed policemen. Civilians used rubbing alcohol to wipe off anti-government graffiti scribbled on tanks as soldiers posed for photos with flag-waving children.

But the morning after Mubarak surrendered his powers to the military, many took stock of the scars left by his 30 years in power. They also began coming to grips with a sobering reality: Many of the root causes of the 18-day uprising will take years to address.

"Thousands of Egyptian families have been broken by Mubarak and his political apparatus," said Egyptian human rights activist Hossam Bahgat. "We can establish the truth of what happened to them and maybe ensure that they receive compensation. But we will never be able to give them their lives back."

Mohamed al-Sharkawi, an engineer who studied in the United States and the Netherlands, was first detained in 1981. An observant Muslim, he returned to an Egypt transfixed by the assassination of Mubarak's predecessor, President Anwar Sadat, by members of an extremist Islamic group.

"He was detained just because he had a long beard," which was common among devout Muslims, his son said.

Mohamed al-Sharkawi was defiant under interrogation. "My father fought back," his son said. "He stood up for his rights."

For decades, Egyptian inmates detained under the emergency law have had few tools to defend themselves. Mohamed al-Sharkawi spent three years in custody. He was released after being acquitted of criminal charges that sought to link him to the assassination plot.

In 1987, shortly after the assassination of an interior minister, he was taken into custody again. He spent a year in jail and this time received no trial.

After being released, he moved to Pakistan, determined to build a new life. But in December 1994, officials in Egypt, who were battling violent Islamist groups, sought the deportation of several Egyptians living in Pakistan. Mohamed al-Sharkawi was one of them. He was returned to Cairo the following year.

His son said he was beaten and strung up and kept in solitary confinement for years.

The family spent years and thousands of dollars in legal fees in a futile effort to free him. They obtained 18 court orders demanding his release. When each one was issued, Mohamed al-Sharkawi was procedurally released - then taken into custody again, with authorities citing new allegations.

In 2008, intelligence officers raided Abdul Rahman al-Sharkawi's house and took him into custody as well. They interrogated him for hours, chastising him for delivering letters his father had written to the state prosecutor's office alleging prison abuse.

The younger Sharkawi said he was blindfolded during his 20-day detention.

"I was tied to a bed and tortured with electric shocks for an hour," he said. "They were asking, 'Why did you send those letters and whom in the human rights organizations do you have contact with?'"

When he was released, Sharkawi said, he wanted to leave Egypt. "I felt it was useless to spend your life in a place where there is no respect for anyone," he said.

When the anti-government demonstrations began last month, he was initially apprehensive about joining in. But after the Jan. 28 clashes between protesters and anti-riot police, he felt galvanized.

"The old Egyptian people were frightened," said Sharkawi, who works for a market research company. "They were telling us not to go. After I saw everyone go out, I felt there was a change. They couldn't arrest all those people. That's what gave me the motivation to go out."

Repealing the emergency law was among the top demands of the protesters who brought down Mubarak. The military commanders who assumed control of the country have promised to do so soon.

Sharkawi said he is optimistic his father will be released once the emergency law is lifted. But it is unclear how the country's interim leaders will handle such cases.

"I don't know whom to go to," he said. "Do I go to the military? I don't know."

Since he's been in jail, Mohamed al-Sharkawi has grown increasingly embittered, his son said.

"My father was very pessimistic about Egypt. He said, 'If I come out of jail, I'm not going to spend a single day in Egypt,' " his son recalled. "Now, I'm sure his view will be changed."

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