Page last updated at 12:38 GMT, Monday, 14 February 2011

A fearful day in the clutches of Mubarak's bully boys

Anti-government protesters in front of the presidential palace in Cairo
After 18 days, protesters succeeded in forcing President Hosni Mubarak's resignation

In the turbulent days before President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, BBC correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes had an unexpected insight into the workings of Egypt's secret police.

In the last few days, I have been receiving a steady stream of messages from friends - and even people I have never met - who had heard about my detention at the hands of Egypt's dreaded Mukhabarat, or secret police.


The soldiers, who it now became clear were from the presidential guard, ordered us out of the car

My response to them, as now, was that it was nothing, a minor brush with some rather unpleasant men.

Neither I nor my colleagues suffered any physical harm and after a few hours we were released.

It was, though, a fascinating and somewhat terrifying glimpse inside the workings of Hosni Mubarak's police state.

Lada louts

The day had started with an interview with one of President Mubarak's close advisers in the posh Cairo suburb of Heliopolis.

It was as we drove back into the city centre that events took an unexpected turn.

Rupert Wingfield-Hayes and his colleagues were handcuffed and blindfolded

As we approached the presidential palace, a red Lada appeared alongside our car.

Inside were four large, angry and thuggish-looking men. They were screaming at us, demanding we pull over.

When our driver refused, they drove us off the road, swerving wildly until we pulled up in front of a military base.

Naively I looked at the soldiers with their red shoulder patches with relief. At least they would protect us from the violent-looking men in the Lada.

I am still not sure whether the Lada men were freelance vigilantes or paid-for government bully boys.

Either way, the soldiers appeared far more convinced by what they had to say than by our protestations of innocence.

The soldiers, who it now became clear were from the presidential guard, ordered us out of the car. Our passports and mobile phones were taken.

Blindfolded and 'cuffed

Next came the men in brown leather jackets.

A white Toyota van pulled up and out they climbed. They had the quiet insouciance of secret policemen the world over.

A man suspected by protesters of belonging to Egypt's secret police is handcuffed by the crowd
Protesters show little mercy to those they think work for the secret police

We were ushered on board and driven to an unmarked compound. On the outside walls, large signs in Arabic and English proclaimed "No photo!".

It was at this point that things started to become more menacing.

As we stepped from the van, we were blindfolded, our arms forced behind our backs and the cold steel of handcuffs locked around our wrists.

Stupidly I suggested it was a bit unnecessary.

Immediately a hand reached around my back and tightened the handcuffs two more notches until the metal cut into my skin.

Now in some pain, I was frog-marched across the compound and into a small room where I was ordered to sit.

Blindfolding and handcuffing is designed to disorientate and instil fear. And it works.

Time seems to telescope. A few minutes can feel like 20. You realise that, if someone wants to hit you, you have no way of defending yourself. If you fall, you have no way to break it.

You suddenly feel incredibly vulnerable.

I knew in the back of my mind it was extremely unlikely they would use violence against me but it still took all my will to remain calm.

After a few minutes, my handcuffs and blindfold were removed.

They apologised for what they called "the necessity".

Decapitating a snake

Over the next three hours of interrogation, only one other significant thing happened.

From a little hatch-like window high up on one wall of the cell came what sounded like a scream.

One of my interrogators immediately leapt up and slammed the hatch shut.

The machinery of a police state is designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to protect the regime from its people

I cannot say for sure that it was a scream but they clearly did not want me hearing whatever else was going on in that compound.

In recent days, Egyptian human-rights groups have reported scores of anti-Mubarak protesters being rounded up and tortured.

Other foreign journalists have written of overhearing torture sessions during their own detentions.

I cannot say that I saw or heard anything like this.

What I can say is that, if I had been an Egyptian standing blindfolded and handcuffed in that padded cell, I would have been absolutely terrified.

The state of emergency that has existed in Egypt for three decades gives the Mukhabarat sweeping powers to detain people for prolonged periods without trial.

That torture goes on inside that anonymous compound in Heliopolis I have little doubt.

The machinery of a police state is designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to protect the regime from its people.

As one protester on Tahrir Square put it to me the following day: "If you cut off its head, the snake will die."

According to that theory now that Mubarak has gone his hated Mukhabarat should wither and die.

But to use another animal metaphor, it is when cornered that a wild animal is at its most dangerous.

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