A man, evidently older than his fellow demonstrators, stepped off the curb onto the road, and started yelling and cursing. "Mubarak is a son of a bitch," he screamed. "I hope he dies." It was easy to see that unlike the slogans chanted by the others, the man's coarse words came from a painful place. Police caught sight of his tirade and rushed to quell it.
One of the rally's organizers turned to officers, asking them to remove the man from the scene. "He's not one of us," he said. "He came to make a mess." The cops took the screamer aside, urging him to calm down, but he grew even more agitated.
"I'm Egyptian," he yelled. "They ruined my life. My brother is in the hospital in Egypt. Leave me alone."
'I could have died in jail'A short while later, I see him on the street corner. He seems calmer, but two police officers keep watch nearby, just in case. One of them asks the man not to rejoin the protest. I come up to him, ask for his name. "Amir," he tells me. "I'm Egyptian, not like these demonstrators here."
We get a cup of coffee at a little shop on a street corner. There, in the somewhat more relaxed atmosphere, he tells me his fascinating life story.
"I arrived in Israel 14 years ago," he says. "I had to run away from Egypt. They put me in jail for nothing. I ran away from prison, and entered Israel through the broken border in Sinai. If I wouldn't have escaped, I am sure I would have died in jail."
Despite his physical distance from the upheaval, Amir has been having trouble sleeping over the past week. The Images of a burning Cairo incessantly broadcast on television and the feeling that Egypt is on the verge of collapse have been stopping him from shutting an eye. Day and night he watches the media reports on the events upturning his homeland, worrying about the safety of the family he left behind in Alexandria. His concern escalated when he heard that his brother was among those hurt in the riots.
"Yesterday I spoke to my father, and he told me that my younger brother was injured at the clock square in the city," he tells me. "His condition is critical, and he is hospitalized. At that moment the call was cut off, and I have no idea what is going on with him. I'm going crazy."
Amir at Tel Aviv protest. (Photo: Yaron Brener)
From fishing village to prison torture
The grievances Amir has with Mubarak and his regime date back 20 years, when he was a young man.
"I wasn't born to a wealthy family," he says. "I grew up in a fishing village near Alexandria. One day, two rich friends asked me to let them use an apartment that belonged to my family for a few days. I agreed and gave them the key.
"Five days later, officers from the Muhabarat (Egypt's secret police) caught me, beat me and threw me in jail," he recalls. "I was in a dungeon for days, without food, practically without water. I was tortured, but no one told me for what reason."
A week later, Amir was brought into the interrogation room. He was shocked to find the two friends that borrowed his apartment there. He was even more shocked when the police told him that they brought a girl to the residence and raped her. It turned out that he was accused of abetting the crime.
"When I got to court, I was informed that my two friends were released," he says. "Both their fathers were senior officers, one of whom served in the police while the other served in the Egyptian army. They used their connections and wealth to release their sons without a trial.
"At that moment I realized that, like many others before me, I fell into the hands of the corrupt Egyptian court, and that the whole case was going to be blamed on me," he says.
He was tried without a lawyer, and sentenced to 10 years in one of the roughest prisons in the country. "In Egypt, only money talks," he explains with frustration. "My friends came with money and were released, but I was sent to the dungeon.
"For three months out of the three years I spent in jail, I was locked in a sealed black room, a type of a basement without even a bit of light, which was flooded with sewage," he says. "The prison guards chained me to a small bar near the ceiling, and electrified me with water while my feet weren't touching the floor. There were moments when I was sure that this was where my life was going to end."
After three years there, Amir's father managed to gather a sum of 25,000 dinars for bail, and appealed his conviction in court. The judge placed Amir under house arrest while his case was being investigated.
"It was clear that it was only a matter of time before I returned to prison, simply because we didn't have anymore money to pay," he says. "All my sisters live outside of Egypt, and my father tried to obtain fake documents in order to send me to Dubai or Yemen. The problem was that it takes a long time to obtain such documents – time that I didn't have. I had to get up and run."
Amir left for Sinai, where his family owns a small piece of land, but he quickly caught the attention of local Bedouin collaborators that turned him in to the police.
"At that time, the Bedouins in Sinai smuggled women and drugs over the border," Amir says. "I realized that I have no choice, so I paid one of them and he smuggled me into Israel."
Amir spent a few months in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba before settling in Tel Aviv, where he has been living for the past 14 years. He does not have any official documents, and works as a mover.
"I've never caused any problems," he says, sounding defensive. "I live my life quietly. I work hard, without disruptions. The police stopped me a few times for routine checks, but I showed them my Egyptian passport and they released me. Once I was arrested by a Special Patrol Unit, but I said I was Palestinian. They took me to a checkpoint and threw me in the territories, so I turned around and returned to Tel Aviv."
Cairo clashes. 'Police brutality routine occurrence' (Photo: Reuters)
His family paid price
Amir's passport was his only official identification document. When it expired four years ago, he went to the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv and requested an extension. Embassy officials took his passport and asked him to return after 45 days. When he came back for it, he was informed that it was confiscated. Neither the police nor the Red Cross could help him.
"This was when I realized that I wasn't the first to whom this has happened, and that there are many Egyptian citizens in Israel whose passports were confiscated by the embassy," he says.
While Amir has made major efforts to keep in touch with his family in Alexandria, he claims that the Egyptian security forces have been doing all they can to harass his relatives in order to cause them to cut off ties.
"Life in Egypt is run by a regime that intimidates the residents," he explains. "The Emergency Law allowed Mubarak and the Egyptian police to do whatever they wanted to. They could arrest people without a trial and abuse them – the torture and the beatings were entirely routine."
He grows teary-eyed while talking about his 70-year-old father.
"When I would call home to ask how he was, the Egyptian security forces would arrest him immediately for investigations that lasted days," he recalls. "They would arrest my little brother often as well, only because he contacted me and asked me to send him clothes and basic items that they don't have in Egypt.
"Every time they would arrest a family member, it would tear me up inside," he says, and tries to illustrate the situation. "You must understand, our police are not like yours. They don't even knock on the door, they just enter homes and arrest people violently. This is how it is in Egypt, which is why the crowds are on the streets right now. Everyone is fed up."
'Authorities downplay death toll'
In recent days, Amir has spoken frequently to his friends at home, who say that the situation on the streets is even more serious than the media reports. He blames the Egyptian authorities for downplaying the death toll in the violent clashes, and says that the whole nation is in chaos.
"If (Egyptian Vice President) Omar Suleiman will rise to power instead of Mubarak, nothing will change," he notes. "We want new people. Mubarak ruled for 30 years using fear and terror, in a regime that is corrupt to the bone."
Amir finishes his coffee and lights a cigarette. He turns his eyes towards the demonstration.
"My story perhaps sounds difficult, but in Egypt there are tens of thousands of people with similar stories," he says. "I managed to run away, but there are many others that the police simply made disappear, and even their family doesn't know where they are. In Egypt, the right to exist belongs to the rich. The one who doesn't have money is nothing."
He continues to stare at the dozens of protestors, most of whom are young Israeli Arabs, having a hard time concealing his disappointment.
"I thought that more Egyptians will be here, but I was wrong," he notes. "This demonstration is not my demonstration. The Israeli Arabs have their own agenda and interests. Only those who grew up and live in Egypt can understand the sentiment of the Egyptian nation.
"This is why, when I just got here, I went wild," he explains. "Everything just came out and I couldn't stop myself. Mubarak ruined my life and lives of 70 million people. The time has come for him to descend from the throne. It's time for the Egyptian people to be set free."
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