Singer Ramy Essam gives an account of his experiences with the Egyptian Security Police obsessed by discovering links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ramy Essam is used to being harassed by police. When he returns from the studio or a club after midnight in Cairo, he – like many others – is frequently stopped by police.
“I am used to this. Police officers normally let me go after 15 minutes, having asked stupid questions like, ‘Where have you been?’ ‘Where are you going?’ I always avoid confrontations. I am always nice to them. If I start saying they have no right to do this, they will take me in. All the officers – especially the young ones – know me. They use Internet, Facebook, Youtube. They know my videos. Senior officers don’t know me. They just disturb me like they disturb others,” Ramy Essam told.
When the Freemuse Award winner in May 2014 returned from a couple of days’ rest in Sinai in a car with some friends and was stopped at a police checkpoint, he assumed this would be “business as usual”. Not so. What started as young police officers’ routine check ended up as a five hour interrogation by the much feared National Security Police.
“At the checkpoint the police officer asked me to come out from the car, and the first thing he did was singing my song ‘Taty Taty’ (‘Bow down’) and the verse which goes, “bow down your head, you are in a democratic country.”
Then he asked his colleagues to search our car. He told my friends they could move on, but kept me behind. Then he asked all the police soldiers to join him. He had picked up his iPad and started playing one of my videos and asked me in a very bad way to start singing. I told him that he would not like my song, but he asked me to sing ‘Taty Taty’, and so I did. I sang the lyrics:
When the protector is being the thief
going everywhere in the country
taking away our rights
under protection of the police
bow down your head
this is a democratic country”
According to Ramy Essam, the police officer was a “bit shocked” and then asked his colleagues to leave. He asked Essam: “Why are you doing this? Do you really believe in what you are doing?”
This went on for some time. The police officer couldn’t understand why anyone would protest against the police and the military. After an hour, Essam asked if he could continue his journey to Cairo. He was told that he would be taken to another location. After a long drive, he realised that he was being taken to the Suez headquarters of the National Security Police, notorious for its brutal interrogation methods and political investigations.
Tracing Muslim Brotherhood supporters
On the way to the National Security Police, Ramy Essam was informed that he would be questioned about his political beliefs. After keeping him in a room for one hour, he was questioned by a senior police investigator.
“I could divide my stay there in three phases,” Ramy Essam rationalised: “The first hour, they leave you alone so that you can imagine all kinds of horrible things they might do to you. In the second part, they interrogated me about any connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, and in the third part, they tried to find out if I had any connection to other oppositional groups in the country. They seemed obsessed with trying to trace any collaboration between protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood. Of one hundred questions they asked me, 80 of these were such as ‘Are you a MB member?’ ‘Do you work for them?’, and I replied things like: ‘Are you crazy? I am Ramy Essam, I am against the Muslim Brotherhood and I have been protesting against them.’
Then they would say: ‘Tell me about your friends in the Muslim Brotherhood.’
I would tell them that the military and police are killing members of the Muslim Brotherhood and that I found authorities being very tough against them – ‘Sure, I am against this. But this does not make me a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood,’ I told them.”
Ramy Essam played an central role as ‘revolutionary singer’ at Tahrir Square during the uprisings against Mubarek in 2011. He later protested against Morsi, and when the military took over, he continued protesting against general Abdul Fattah al-Sisi – the new President of Egypt. This attitude is seemingly difficult for the National Security Police to accept.
In the last part of the interrogation they continued to ask Ramy Essam for possible links with any kind of oppositional groups in Egypt.
“We are protestors”
“I told them that we are protestors. We are independent. We do not believe in any of the leaders. The chief investigating officer got angry and said: ‘Don’t think you will be able to go from here without admitting that you are being ‘part’ of something!’, and I replied:
‘You have to understand that people like me are people you cannot attack. We have no leaders, and we do not want anything from what we do. You have to know that our numbers are increasing, and you will need to find another way of dealing with us. We are the people. We want a better country. If I were you, I would be afraid of us’.”
After several hours of interrogation, a write-up of Ramy Essam’s answers was sent to the central office of the national security in Cairo, and finally at 1:30am in the morning, Ramy Essam was released.
Outside the Suez headquarters, a small group of protesters had gathered, as rumours of the arrest had spread through social media.
Observers and political activists, who have previously been questioned by the National Security Police, believe that this interrogation was a first “warning” to the artist to “lie low”.
Ramy Essam observed that many Egyptian artists are now afraid to protest publicly:
“Artists are afraid of criticising the government even indirectly,” said Ramy. “After the killing of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, general al-Sisi has reached a status like an untouchable God, and people are afraid. They have gone back to their ‘caves’.”
Ole Reitov is Director of Freemuse. He visited Cairo in May 2014.