Friday, October 07, 2011
Meet the New Boss: A tale of military extortion
On the way back from Ain Sokhna close to 11 pm on Friday night, 23 September 2011, I was stopped by a group of army personnel. I was in the company of a male Egyptian friend and a female Australian friend (the significance of gender soon to be elucidated). They searched thoroughly through every piece of trash in my mess of a car and came up with an unopened bottle of alcohol kept in a back pack in the trunk of the car.
“We found this,” the soldier promptly reported as he held up the cheap bottle. I carelessly remarked, “This is a closed container of alcohol.”
They continued to rummage through the car, over and over again with much redundancy.
When they were done, one of the army personnel said they had to confiscate and break the bottle. I could not tell if he was an officer or a conscript, since he was wearing army pants and a designer shirt but in all likelihood, he was an officer since he had the freedom to do so. I once again emphasized that it was a closed container which meant they had no right to do so.
The officer responded, “If there’s a closed one here, it means that another was consumed there.”
It may be pertinent to point that neither I nor my company had consumed any alcohol earlier.
I responded, “the law says that …” and before I had completed the sentence, the officer said, “Don’t talk to me about the law, I’ve been up since 6 am in the morning doing this.”
I did not care for the bottle in any way, but my concern was for being a victim of illegitimate abuse. I insisted that he had no legal ground for confiscating the bottle, and he insisted he didn’t care much for legitimacy.
“Where did you buy this?” he asked.
“Duty free,” I said.
“Do you have your passport to prove it?”
“Then I’m sorry.”
“I could have bought it from Egypt and paid 3000 LE in customs for all you care,” I said.
My friend spoke to the officer, aggressively opposed to his actions. The officer in retaliation said that he could just through it up in the air and smash it if he wanted to. My friend said he couldn’t do that, but I on the other hand agreed with the officer.
“You can do whatever you want because you’re carrying a gun, but not because you have a right to,” I said.
He said that nothing can be done by force and that he had his orders. He went on to say, “I have orders to confiscate any drugs, electric shock, alcohol and condoms.”
“Condoms?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, “just earlier today we stopped 73 cars and the women were all complaining when we confiscated their electric shocks.”
“I understand about electric shocks and drugs, but the rest of your instructions are illegal. How do I know you really have orders to confiscate these items?” I asked.
He said, “It’s simple we wait for a military truck that transfers you to C28, the prosecution for military intelligence and then you get to find out.”
“You want me to go to military prosecution infamous for locking up 12,000 people unjustly where trials are done in an officer’s mess for this?” I responded.
“What trials?” he said, “Don’t believe all that you hear.”
“You and I both know this is what happens,” I responded. “I’m not going to waste my time waiting for that truck when we both know that you do not have the right to confiscate alcohol if it’s in a closed container. Besides, if I knew I was doing something wrong, I wouldn’t have argued with you for so long, and more importantly if you knew you had a right to do what you’re doing, you wouldn’t have been so patient and civil in this conversation.”
We talked for around 30 minutes. It was the same old technique used by Egyptian police to blackmail passersby on the road. The idea as I learned from earlier encounters was that the security personnel would use threats of time wasting and hassles in order for you to bribe them.
The officer held on to the alcohol bottle, and said that he had to destroy it. He said he’d pour it all out to show us that he was actually getting rid of it. What did he think we were suspicious of? Whatever suspicions we may have not have of him trying to take this bottle for him and his buddies were asserted.
I explained to my Australian friend what was going on and translated some of the conversation.
Me and my Egyptian friend quarreled and were intent on not allowing this abuse of power. Many words were exchanged. Despite the absurdity of the situation, I noticed that the army officers were still new at this. They exerted too much effort searching the car, something the police would have been more efficient at. They also couldn’t maintain that balance between power and abuse. They were too civil at times and too threatening at times.
In a few months, they would perfect these attacks. After enough abuses they would find out that they need to exert less effort searching the cars, they need to be less tense when issuing threats and they would get what they wanted easily from those who cared more for their time than they cared for the rule of law.
I knew that the price for my time was the bottle, and it’s a price I would be willing to pay in different circumstances. But with that price, I would have given up my rights and the rule of law which I wasn’t willing to give away. I was ready to wait it out and perhaps even risk the chance of facing military prosecution with falsified charges because I didn’t want to willingly give up my right and succumb to military extortion.
My Australian friend had stood at a distance and hadn’t engaged the officers in any conversation.
“This is ridiculous,” she finally said addressing the officer in English.
“No this is not ridiculous,” responded the officer looking surprised. I was surprised too, for other reasons. I had not expected the officer to understand the word ‘ridiculous’ and hadn’t expected him to respond in English.
He then stood there for five seconds trying to find the words to convince her of his position, but found none. He then handed her the cheap bottle saying, “A gift for you.”