Caught up in Sisi’s September crackdown, this young tourist was beaten, starved and humiliated at the hands of Egyptian authorities.
When Muhammed Mustafa* touched down in Cairo last September, he eagerly looked forward to the holiday he was set to enjoy.
Instead, the young tourist found himself imprisoned, tortured and denied food and water, as he was swept up in a crackdown on anti-government protests, simply because he was Turkish.
Rare demonstrations against the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi broke out across Egypt on 20 and 27 September, sparked by corruption allegations levelled by a Spain-based whistleblower.
The ensuing crackdown saw more than 4,000 people arrested, according to rights groups, and not only Egyptians. Sudanese and Jordanians were also swept up by security forces. With Turkey a regional rival of Egypt’s, three Turkish citizens, too, suddenly found themselves caught up in events.
‘They beat me with a stick, slapped and punched my face for two days sporadically’
– Muhammed Mustafa, detainee
Mustafa was rounded up in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square. Found in the middle of the capital’s downtown, it is the location of Egypt’s National Museum.
The square is also famous for the mass rallies it held during the 2011 revolution that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Turkish officials confirmed to Middle East Eye that Mustafa was among the Turkish detainees and for a time held by Egypt’s notorious National Security Agency.
Mustafa was taken to a police station by a police officer. On arrival, he was handcuffed and forced to sit on cement floor for two days.
“They never registered my name. They were calling me by Turkish President Erdogan’s name or simply ‘Turkey’,” Mustafa said.
“They beat me with a stick, slapped and punched my face for two days sporadically. I was the only one in the room kept with handcuffs. I was denied food and water. They even harshly treated a cleaner who wanted to give me some water.”
Apolitical, Mustafa was in shock. Not only did he have no overt political leanings or feelings about the Egyptian government, the young Turkish citizen had never heard of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group outlawed in Egypt that Sisi’s deposed predecessor Mohamed Morsi hailed from.
From there, Mustafa was taken to a two-storey compound, some 30 minutes’ drive from downtown Cairo. During the journey he was forced to wrap his T-shirt around his face as a blindfold.
His name wasn’t officially registered there either. For at least three days, the youth was sporadically beaten by sticks.
“They were hitting everyone, putting them through falanga,” he said, referring to the beating of the feet with a blunt object. “You could hear constant screams coming all over the building. In some cases, I heard noises that indicated they used electric shocks for torture,” Mustafa said.
“I was allowed to use a toilet after the second day there, and provided some simple food like cheese and bread. But I had severe wounds on my back, legs and face.”
Attempts for release
As Mustafa languished in detention, Turkish authorities were trying to reach out to their counterparts to facilitate his and two other Turkish citizens’ release.
This proved difficult, however, in no small part thanks to the poor state of relations between the two countries.
“Since the toppling of the former President Mohamed Morsi, we simply don’t have much of a relationship with Cairo,” a Turkish official told MEE.
Nothing was heard from the detained Turks until 24 September, when Egyptian pro-government TV broadcast footage of two of them and accused the pair of being spies.
Mustafa said his condition improved when he talked to a senior security official who spoke good English.
‘Since the toppling of the former President Mohamed Morsi, we simply don’t have much of a relationship with Cairo’
– Turkish official
“They stopped the torture. Later on I was interrogated by another officer. They asked about my political leanings, whether I like Erdogan, or voted for his Justice and Development Party [AKP],” he said.
In a separate meeting, a high-ranking Egyptian security official apologised to Mustafa for the torture and mistreatment he had received.
“He was friendly. He told me he is apologising to me on behalf of all Egyptian security forces for what was done to me. He said it all happened because of Erdogan and Turkey,” Mustafa added.
Later, Mustafa was taken to the National Security Agency building and held there, with his hands cuffed behind his back and chained to the ground for four days.
The conditions were still rough. He slept, unwashed, on the floor with an unsanitary blanket.
“Finally they moved me to another building, which after my release I learned was a deportation centre. They gave me clean clothes and put me in a room where I had a proper bed and toilet,” Mustafa said.
In the meantime, Turkish officials were making progress. Twice, they were told that all Turkish citizens would be released, only for the Egyptian government to postpone the handover for days without specifying any reason.
One explanation for the delay might be the torture marks. Egyptian officials were taking pictures of Mustafa’s body every day, and his father believes it is likely that they were waiting until his wounds recovered.
Mustafa was kept in Egyptian detention for 23 days until his deportation, and his phone and passport were never returned to him.
Mustafa’s account is consistent with what international human rights groups have reported on the prison conditions of Egypt.
Human Rights Watch said last month that Egypt was continuing to use systematic torture on a widespread scale.
“Interior Ministry police and National Security Forces have disappeared hundreds of people in the past years and subjected scores to severe torture including by electric shocks, rape and threat of rape,” the report said.
Agnes Callamard, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, together with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, reported last month that brutal prison conditions in Egypt prompted Morsi’s death in custody earlier this year.
MEE has reached out to the Egyptian embassy in Ankara for a comment.
*MEE changed the name of the individual to protect his personal information on security grounds.