He was almost too shaken by sobs to speak, this thin-shouldered man with missing teeth. Finally he was able to choke out the words: “I am afraid my son is dead.”
At 16, the boy, Rabiyeh, was his father’s life and pride. Now he is missing, one of hundreds of people unaccounted for since the start of the 11-day-old rebellion against President Hosni Mubarak. Their loved ones fear they have been ensnared by Egypt’s vast security apparatus, a shadowy world from which many never emerge.
Egypt’s disappeared haunt the collective consciousness; they are an emblem of life in a modern police state. The uprising convulsing the country is in part a reaction to sweeping police powers of three decades running, a key enforcement mechanism of Mubarak’s authoritarian rule.
Even in normal times, secret detentions are commonplace, but the maelstrom of protests has heightened that peril. Few expect this government to account for those picked up for challenging it. That is why people like Mohammed Said Ali — the weeping father who came to Tahrir Square on Friday, seeking some word of his son — are paralyzed by terror over the fate of those who have vanished.
Protest leaders, many of whom have been the victims of such detentions themselves, are sympathetic. A young organizer, Mohammed Mustafa, promised to see what he could find out about Ali’s son. He already had a dog-eared list of 88 names of other missing people.
Looking lost on the edges of the raucous crowd at the square was Shadiya Abu Zeidi, slight and slender in a black robe and hijab. She, too, was weeping as she proffered a photograph of her 14-year-old son, Saber Hussein Godeh, who disappeared on the first day of the protests. The picture showed him laughing-eyed, leaning against a heap of watermelons.
Human rights activists say the earliest days of the unrest saw a surge in detentions, some 1,300 people, by a rough reckoning based on families’ accounts. Many were freed when police, for reasons still unknown, abandoned their posts Jan. 28. But at least 500 people are thought to remain in custody, rights groups said.
To make matters worse, rights activists — often the only lifeline for those being held without trial or notification of relatives — are under siege themselves. More than two dozen were picked up in a raid this week at the offices of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, headquarters for a number of rights groups.
Police often disavow knowledge of the detained, even when witnesses have seen them being picked up and know where they are being held. Sally Sami of the Institute for Human Rights in Cairo told of a lawyer who went to a police station to inquire about seven detained activists and was promptly taken into custody himself.
In Tahrir Square, the reach of the security apparatus weighed on the minds of protesters Friday, many of whom have freely given on-camera interviews, appeared in YouTube videos, or used Twitter and Facebook to air their opposition to the government.
In a country where chanting a single anti-Mubarak slogan would normally be grounds for arrest, they know the police could easily track them down.
“That’s one reason that we must succeed in this endeavor,” said Said Khirallah, a school administrator who has been in the square every day for a week. “Because if we falter now, we will each pay the price.”
Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo Bureau and special correspondent Doha Al Zohairy contributed to this report.