Did Prison Breakout Reveal a Plan to Sow Chaos in Egypt?

  • Share
  • Read Later
AFP / Getty Images

A looter walks away with window frames following a mass breakout at the Abu Zaabal prison north of Cairo on Jan. 30, 2011

The police officer was sure he was going to die, overwhelmed by his own tear gas and besieged by angry relatives on the other side of the locked door who were intent on burning down the prison wing with the eight officers still inside. That was on Jan. 28, Egypt's "Day of Rage," when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets, breaking through cordons of heavily armed riot police and through the psychological barriers of their own fear of challenging the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Other barriers were also breached that Friday and in the days that followed as thousands of inmates escaped from at least four jails across the country — in circumstances that remain murky. At the time, many Egyptians claimed the jailbreaks had been orchestrated by Mubarak to remind his long-suffering citizenry that he was all that stood between them and chaos.

Even now, Egyptians from new Prime Minister Essam Sharaf on down warn of a counterrevolution by remnants of Mubarak's regime intent on sowing discord and violence. Sharaf insisted last week that the rise in criminality and violence was planned, not spontaneous, and described it as an attempt to "destroy the state." Claims of a secret hand fomenting chaos began with the prison breaks at the height of the rebellion.

According to Soha Abdelaty, deputy director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a nongovernmental organization that has been monitoring the situation inside prisons since the revolution began, "It looks like there were clear instructions from the Interior Ministry, specifically its central Prisons Department, to instigate some sort of chaos to destabilize the country."

"Very similar story lines were repeated by prisoners in a number of different prisons," she says. "There were clear instructions for prison authorities to retreat, they kept the main gates open, and some prisoners who attempted to escape were shot." The jailbreaks, Abdelaty adds, "were not random."

Although the Interior Ministry is clearly the focus of Abdelaty and the public prosecutor's office, which is investigating Mubarak's widely hated former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly for his alleged role in fomenting violence during the rebellion, the three-star police officer who spoke to TIME — on condition that neither he nor the detention facility at which he was stationed be identified — alleges that Presidential Guard officers were also involved, demanding that he and his colleagues open the jail cells. "They didn't identify themselves, but they were wearing military uniforms," he says. "I saw their number plates as they drove up — they had an eight — that means they were presidential guards."

The eight officers stationed in the 80-prisoner wing, whose inmates included several convicted murderers serving life terms, refused to open the cells lest they be attacked by the prisoners, the officer explains, but they reluctantly handed over the keys.

His claims could not be independently verified. But video from a mobile phone confiscated by security personnel from a resident who lives across the narrow street from the detention center, viewed exclusively by TIME, clearly shows dozens of uniformed armed soldiers standing by idly as hundreds of men enter and exit the building with desks, couches and files of paperwork, many of which they toss into a bonfire near the entrance. It's impossible to tell if they are Presidential Guard officers, but they are clearly men in military uniforms. Flames leap from the shattered windows of the multistory facility, but there is no attempt by the soldiers to quell the looting, put out the fire or capture released prisoners. In fact, as soon as two red fire engines arrive, the soldiers clamber into sand-colored trucks and drive away, leaving the building to burn with the police officers inside.

From the video footage, it's clear that the mob is in control. Some wear items of police uniforms presumably taken from the facility. A teenage boy proudly holds up an epaulet with a gold star, and a man wearing a stiff white police dress hat throws a thick pile of papers into the bonfire. The officer, who is in his late 20s, says a crowd of prisoners' families and onlookers demanded that two of the eight police officers be handed over. "The two men they asked for were —" he says, pausing. "They were tough with prisoners, if you know what I mean."

That's when the police fired tear gas inside the jail and called for backup that never arrived. "I called the head of our region," the officer says. "He said, Act according to your conscience."

To the officer and his colleagues, that basically meant do as you please. They repeatedly fired into the crowd. Amnesty International says that prison guards shot dead scores of prisoners from several penitentiaries across Cairo in the days that followed the Day of Rage. Events differed from prison to prison: In some facilities, security forces appeared to have abandoned their posts or released inmates. At others they used live fire to put down riots. At Al-Qatta al-Gadeed Prison, at least 43 inmates were killed, Amnesty says.

When asked if he killed anyone, the young officer, with thick gel in his short hair, drops his head back and lets out a long sigh. "Don't ask," he says. He reaches for another cigarette (he has been chain-smoking throughout the interview). After three hours, he says, the officers decided to make a run for it and leave the jail. Two of them were shot and wounded.

"There were still a lot of people standing outside. I had a gun and 10 bullets left. I just shot into the crowd around me. It was either them or me," he says. "I'd never shot anyone before. I remember them falling." He pauses for several minutes before continuing. "I went home and cried."

Only a fraction of the prisoners who escaped have been rounded up. The officer says the police know where many are but are too afraid to go get them. The force was once much feared, but not anymore. Many of those who abandoned their posts on Jan. 28 have not returned. As a consequence, it's operating at about 60% capacity, Assistant Interior Minister Marwan Mostafa told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm. The young officer says he's returned to work physically but not in spirit. "When I saw those people standing there, just looking at us, leaving us in that burning building, why should I protect them?" he says. The main thrust of Egypt's revolution may be over, but a counterrevolution in the form of lackadaisical security amid attempts to sow discord may be just getting started.