Cairo, Egypt — Trudging through dungeon-like cells and mounds of shredded documents, hundreds of Egyptians on Saturday surged into the Cairo headquarters of the dreaded State Security apparatus for an unprecedented look inside buildings where political prisoners endured horrific torture.
Some former prisoners sobbed as they saw their old cells, recalling electric shocks and severe beatings. Families held passport photos of missing relatives and were desperate to explore the dank chambers for clues to their fates.
Dismantling State Security, the shadowy and all-powerful intelligence force, was a key demand of protesters who forced the resignation last month of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. When the military-led interim authority failed to dissolve the agency immediately, protesters in Cairo and the port city of Alexandria descended on State Security offices this weekend to seize files they hoped would cement Mubarak's legacy of prisoner abuse and disappearances.
"I thought my brother would be found there," said Leila Mahmoud, 47, who was distraught when she learned the buildings had been evacuated. "He was taken on April 2, 2005, and we've been looking for him since then. We haven't heard a word from him since. Not a word."
Some activists also were looking for evidence related to Egypt's role in the U.S. government's longtime practice of extraordinary rendition, the transfer of American-held detainees to foreign soil where harsher interrogation techniques could be used.
Protesters carted off armloads of files and turned them over to a prosecutor who arrived on the scene.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, an independent nonprofit, puts the number of political prisoners at around 17,000. Official government figures are much lower, an estimated 500.
Human Rights Watch, the international advocacy group, has said in its reports that "torture in Egypt is a widespread and persistent phenomenon. Security forces and the police routinely torture or ill-treat detainees, particularly during interrogation. In most cases, officials torture detainees to obtain information and coerce confessions, occasionally leading to death in custody."
For those who jailed at the complex, the memories are haunting.
"I saw people's nails being ripped out and people hung from the ceiling by their arms or legs," said Adel Reda, 39, trembling as he recounted his nine months inside the complex. "They would throw our food in sand before giving it to us and splash us with cold water day and night. Sometimes it was so dark you couldn't see your hands."
When asked whether he was ever allowed access to an attorney, Reda raised his hands heavenward and replied: "My lawyer was God."
Egyptian military tanks were positioned outside the security structure and the army's elite Thunder Squad pleaded with protesters not to enter the forbidding complex. Egyptians chanting "Down with State Security!" stormed past them and flooded into the building. They lingered even as military police fired warning shots into the air.
Outside, several families of detainees gazed at the scene in disbelief, mumbling prayers and shouting the names of the disappeared. They cornered army commanders, demanding to know whether the military had apprehended the agents who'd apparently escaped before the crowds arrived.
"Did you arrest them? Did they come out as prisoners?" a protester asked.
"No, they ran away," an army officer answered. "Look, I'm not the interior minister. I'm here to help you!" The interior minister ran the security forces.
Since Mubarak's ouster on Feb. 11, protesters have kept up pressure on the ruling military leadership to dissolve State Security and replace it with a scaled-down intelligence force headed by a civilian. Activists complain that the military has worked slowly and in secrecy to bring about that and other promised reforms on Egypt's rocky path to democracy.
Another chief demand is the speedy prosecution of Mubarak-era security chiefs on charges related to abuse of power and using extrajudicial means to crush dissent. Earlier Saturday, the widely detested former interior minister Habib el Adly appeared before an Egyptian court and pleaded not guilty to charges of corruption and money-laundering.
El Adly's case was postponed until April 2. He remains under investigation in a separate case related to his security forces' brutal attacks on peaceful anti-government demonstrators during the revolt that began Jan. 25.
Protesters at the State Security complex said El Adly's case was only the tip of the iceberg. They sought charges against all the officers involved in the former regime's practice of rounding up opposition figures and political rivals and holding them without charge, a tactic made possible by Egypt's notorious emergency law.
Often, Mubarak's security officials would justify the detentions as counterterrorism work, though they almost never provided evidence of extremist cells inside the country. Former detainees and their families said any outward appearance of Islamic devotion — a long beard, for example, or too much time in the mosque — was enough to land people on State Security's radar.
"My brother was detained because he was trying to send food and medicine to Gaza," said Ingy Qutb, 25. "They kept him three months and tortured him and..."
Her voice broke and tears spilled onto her black veil.
"This place must be destroyed," she said softly.