It was 35 degrees outside on May 26 but inside the prosecutor’s office the air-conditioning buzzed overhead, sending a cold chill down our spines. Al Fagr newspaper’s Deputy Editor Mohamed El Baz sat before the prosecutor as an investigation witness, describing how he believed journalist Reda Hilal had been killed and how secret police forces “dissolved” his body in liquid limestone, which was in turn poured into a construction site to hide it forever. Lore and gore, I thought.
Present in the prosecutor’s office were Hilal’s lawyer and the Journalists’ Syndicate legal consultant Sayyid Abu Zeid, journalist Emad Fawaz, called in as a witness, Hilal’s brother El Sayed, and myself, sitting in as an observer. The prosecutor’s assistant documented the accounts silently.
Hilal is missing and has been for eight long years. Whether he is dead, alive, imprisoned or incapacitated is what Senior Prosecutor Hisham Gaafar is currently trying to find out.
In August 2003, the high-profile Al-Ahram journalist, columnist and deputy editor disappeared mysteriously. Hilal simply vanished from public view, leaving behind few clues and big questions as to why he was whisked away into the unknown. The surprisingly temporary turbulence that this incident caused at the time is perhaps indicative of a conspiracy — in addition, of course, to the way that he disappeared. The case was quickly forgotten, the worry and anger of his coworkers and his employer quickly bottled up. Even his Al-Ahram colleagues and closest friends Gehad Ouda, a political analyst, and Khaled Zaghloul, a fellow journalist, did very little publicly at the time to uncover the truth of his disappearance.
But what a difference eight years can make.
In the decades under the previous regime, the independent media and human rights watchdogs noted cases of hundreds who disappeared, were tortured or died from police brutality or for voicing dissent. But as is the case in many of the region’s regimes, the general public chose to ignore this information and simply go on with their lives. That is until last year. In June 2010, the nation was shocked by the very public death of Khaled Said, a young man who was allegedly beaten to death by two police officers on a sidewalk in Alexandria. Said’s death became the spark for and his face the icon of the January 25 Revolution.
Despite initial police reports that attempted to portray Said as a drug addict, his family and friends testified later that he might have had documents that exposed those two officers’ alleged corruption. Said had intended to publish those documents, and so the officers murdered him to silence him, they said.
In a way, Said and Hilal are two sides of the same coin. Both were thought to have had “sensitive documents” that could embarrass authorities and compromise the positions of corrupt regime loyalists. If Said is the face of all the nameless Egyptians killed needlessly or in vengeance for standing up for what’s right, Hilal is perhaps the face of the journalists and writers who stood up to a seemingly untouchable authoritarian regime and paid dearly simply for trying to speak up.
After almost a decade of complete silence, the changes ushered in by the fall of the Mubarak regime gave Hilal’s family hope that they might find out what happened to him. In 2011, Hilal’s family pushed for his case to be re-opened.
Back in the prosecutor’s office, El Baz refused to divulge the names of the sources who he said provided him with a thorough account of Hilal’s alleged murder, but he promised to check with them and get back to Gaafar.
The Prosecutor General’s office is a stone’s throw away from Gaafar’s, but Gaafar’s boss has bigger cases to worry about, among which is the case against former Interior Minister Habib El Adly for the murder of protesters during the revolution and additional charges of embezzlement.
El Adly is the first and foremost suspect, according to Hilal’s lawyer, behind the forced disappearance of Hilal. But unless solid evidence surfaces, it is unlikely the case will ever see the inside of a courtroom.
The accounts of the events of Sunday, August 11, 2003 — the day Hilal vanished — are as uncertain as his fate. Memories fail, “leaked” documents keep popping up and the journalist’s family continue to receive anonymous phone calls from people who claim to have seen Hilal or know his whereabouts. The plot thickens when names of former government bigwigs get thrown around without any solid leads as to how they may be connected to the case.
On that ill-fated day, Hilal left his office on El Galaa Street at 2pm for his home off Qasr Al-Aini Street. According to police reports filed by investigators after the disappearance, the journey took exactly 25 minutes. Hilal’s street is rowdy, with vendors hawking goods constantly walking along it, especially in the afternoon. The journalist was not alone, as his driver Sayyid dropped him off by his building.
Sayyid has refused to talk to journalists since the disappearance. But he told police investigators that there was nothing suspicious about Hilal’s behavior on that day. They barely talked on the way home.
Before he left his office, Hilal ordered food and asked the restaurant to deliver it after 3pm. But according to police reports, some eyewitnesses — who remain nameless to the public — said that Hilal left his apartment — apparently in a hurry — around 3:30pm, before the food arrived. The building janitor Ashraf was out running errands and couldn’t confirm what time Hilal returned or left that afternoon.
The following morning, Hilal did not show up to work. He didn’t appear when his driver came to pick him up. As per tradition, the janitor brought Hilal his morning juice and a pack of cigarettes but had to leave them in a plastic bag dangling off the door knob when the journalist didn’t answer the door. The bag was still there Tuesday morning when the driver came knocking at the door to see if Hilal would report to work.
In Arabic, there’s an expression “la hayat liman tonady” that means, “There’s no life to whom you call.” It probably describes the moment perfectly — when Hilal had seemingly ceased to exist.
Hilal’s family lives in Mansoura, but his brothers Osama and El Sayed visited frequently and had spare keys to Hilal’s apartment. When they were informed that Hilal did not turn up to work for two consecutive days, missing the important assignment of overseeing the main news desk on Tuesday, El Sayed hurried to Cairo to check on his brother.
But his key did not fit in the door, and he tells Egypt
Today that the locks had been mysteriously changed.
The brother talked to an Al-Ahram editor and friend of Hilal’s, who suggested that perhaps Hilal had left town on a whim. But according to El Sayed, there was no indication that Hilal had travel plans.
“He would have told us,” he said. Later, Hilal’s unpacked suitcase was found at home, confirming his brother’s hunch.
Hilal’s passport, however, was nowhere to be found, and it’s unclear if he’d been walking around with it. But it’s possible.
“The last phone call he made to us was cheerful,” says Hilal’s other brother Osama, noting that call was made two days before Hilal disappeared. “There was nothing to hint that he was scared or that he had intended to leave.”
On August 13, El Sayed filed a missing person’s report at the Sayyeda Zeinab police station, and the search began shortly after.
In their report, crime scene investigators dispatched to Hilal’s apartment confirmed that the door locks had been recently changed — it wasn’t immediately clear by whom. With Hilal’s family present, investigators searched his desks and his personal computer, but found nothing out of place. Or at least, this is what it seemed.
Two odd things: The land line telephone cord was unplugged, as was the answering machine, which held only two messages from a unnamed caller.
The Mysterious Woman
Hilal was single and lived alone. But rumor has it that he was involved in a romantic relationship with a fellow journalist, who had (following their breakup) married a cabinet minister — one who held one of the most powerful positions in the Mubarak regime.
On the day of Hilal’s disappearance, a mysterious woman left two messages on Hilal’s answering machine, which Egypt Today heard. The exact timing of these messages has not been determined, and it’s not clear whether or not he heard them.
Hilal has a sister, but this was not her voice on the machine, El Sayed says. Some family members and journalists such as El Baz believe it is the voice of this supposed ex-girlfriend, now the ex-minister’s wife.
In the first message, the woman asked Hilal to switch his mobile phone back on since she wanted to talk to him. It was brief, and not much could be read into it.
The second voice message sounded like it was from the same woman. She sounded slightly disappointed. “Why all this? Mubarak, his family and myself as well,” she said. “There was no need for all this. This is not the [right] method or the way.” She sighed then ended the call cryptically, stressing every word: “Eid mubarak [Wishing you a blessed Eid]. Kol sana wenta tayeb [a form of a season’s greeting]. Alright. Bye.”
“Eid mubarak” is usually used during Muslim holidays, mainly the feasts of Al-Fitr and Al-Adha. That year, the feasts fell in November and February, respectively. Hilal’s birthday is on 19 June. It’s not clear why the woman used the expression in August. In addition, Egyptians usually say “Eid saeed” (happy Eid) on holidays, not Eid mubarak.
Could it be a coincidence that mubarak is also the last name of the former president and his youngest son Gamal? Could it have been a veiled threat?
Hilal’s lawyer Abu Zeid tells Egypt Today that it’s very likely that the woman in the recording is indeed the wife of the former minister. In an official memo to the Prosecutor General following the revolution, Hilal’s brothers accused this woman of conspiring with others, including former Interior Ministry officials and El Adly, to kill Reda Hilal.
At press time she has yet to be called for questioning. Then again, in the second week of June, Gaafar, the senior prosecutor, told Hilal’s lawyer, his brothers and Egypt Today he had summoned an important “witness” for the case. However, he refused to divulge the name of the witness, but wrote it on a piece of paper and showed it to Hilal’s brother El Sayed. El Sayed declined to reveal the identity of that person to either the lawyer or this reporter.
Abu Zeid considers the mysterious woman in the recording, whom he’s certain is the ex-minister’s wife, a chief suspect and speculates that she could be the “important witness.”
Mubarak: The Missing Link?
The speculation that the woman’s message is related to the former first family may be a stretch, but not a far one — since she mentions the Mubarak family by name. Hilal had at least one face-off with Gamal Mubarak before his disappearance.
In 2003, rumors started to surface that Gamal was being groomed to succeed his father as Egypt’s president. In public, the president’s son refused to address the rumors, not denying them but not expressing interest in running for the top job just yet. In September 2003, however, the young Mubarak took center stage during the former ruling National Democratic Party annual conference. The international media started theorizing that the ‘Egyptian Pharaoh’ was setting up an orderly transition of power that ensured his son replaced him as head of state.
Slowly, the young Mubarak’s pictures started cropping up on the upper fold of front pages of state-controlled newspapers, signaling perhaps a new era where Gamal Mubarak was the de-facto ruler of the party and perhaps the country.
“The waters were being tested at the time,” says Abu Zeid, “but dissent was not tolerated.”
How does this tie to Reda Hilal? A few days before Hilal’s disappearance, the journalist had a closed meeting in Alexandria with the heir apparent himself. It was not clear what was discussed between Gamal and Hilal, but it seems that the latter had shown resistance to the idea of Mubarak succeeding his father in power.
During his May 26 session with the prosecutor, El Baz said that colleagues at Al-Ahram had been saying that Hilal was heard in the newspaper’s cafeteria openly criticizing Mubarak’s son. Hilal reportedly said Gamal couldn’t run the country, allegedly following the comment with a vulgar slur regarding the son’s sexual orientation.
“There were [media] reports and rumors already that Hilal had evidence to prove that Gamal [Mubarak] was in London not to train as a banker but to receive psychological treatment, and that his parents [had allegedly] sent him for therapy in the hope that it would ‘cure’ his homosexuality,” says the lawyer Abu Zeid.
El Baz told the prosecutor he had heard of similar reports. But neither Abu Zeid nor El Baz nor the sensationalist media reports had any evidence for that claim.
Abu Zeid speculates that Hilal’s colleagues Ouda and Zaghloul might have been present during the Alexandria meeting with Gamal, but admits that both had previously refused to comment on the record to the media or the Journalists’ Syndicate. It remains unclear whether they know much, or if Hilal even actually debriefed them following the meeting.
Egypt Today attempted to contact both Ouda and Zaghloul, but neither could be reached for comment by press time.
If Ouda or Zaghloul do know something, they have kept quiet. As the case has been for much of the past 30 years, it’s always safer to remain silent.
Dead or Alive?
Despite all the information that is seemingly available, there are really no clear facts at all. The only real and concrete fact is that Reda Hilal was not there anymore.
In the years following Hilal’s disappearance, the family chased any rumor that might give them answers. Hospitals and morgues were searched, but no dead body surfaced to indicate that he died in an accident or otherwise, according to his brother Osama.
One newspaper initially reported that the militant group Islamic Jihad had liquidated Hilal. “I went over to the newspaper and demanded evidence,” recalls Osama. “They had none, and they said they took the story from an unconfirmed source. They apologized and published a retraction.”
Phone calls from whistle-blowers claiming that Hilal was in a prison in Alexandria and others who said he was in a detention facility in El-Wahat [The Oasis] led nowhere. Prosecutor Gaafar tells Egypt Today that following reports that Hilal had been sent to Burg Al Arab prison, his office sent a search party there, but the journalist was not found.
Osama recalls, “Some raised the idea that Hilal might have fled to South Sinai following a death threat, since he had friends among the Bedouins there. But we and the police inquired, and ... nothing. He was not there. He disappeared into thin air, it seemed.”
The trail seemed to heat up in 2003 and 2005, when two documents were leaked to Al-Karama newspaper journalist Emad Fawaz, who was also questioned as an investigation witness on May 26 of this year. A scan of one of these documents was published by the newspaper and is thus public record. Fawaz told the prosecutor that his source inside the state security apparatus, which was dissolved and renamed after the revolution, had given him two memos addressed to former Interior Minister El Adly. Both were signed by state security senior officer Hussein Salah, a member of what Fawaz alleges was El Adly’s own secret death squad. Salah’s signature is clear on the published document as is the official logo of the Ministry of Interior.
During questioning, Gaafar asked Fawaz to repeat that piece of information: “A secret squad within state security that the state security doesn’t know about, you say?”
“Yes,” answered Fawaz confidently. “The two documents fell into the hands of my source during archiving. El Adly’s secret squad had only four men, his most trusted. They worked to protect the heavyweights of the regime.” According to Fawaz, the squad handled special assignments and watched over the rest of the state security apparatus — El Adly didn’t trust his own men.
Based on these documents, Fawaz alleges that the journalist is still alive.
The document leaked in 2003 said that Reda Hilal had received a phony call alleging that his friend was hit by a car. He left his apartment in a hurry, and “then he was confronted by the squad’s men, knocked out and moved to their quarters in Gaber Ibn Hayan [an area in Cairo],” according to the document, a copy of which was shown to Egypt Today. Salah wrote to his boss El Adly that Hilal was tied up and being held there “until further instruction.”
However, the security officer also wrote in the memo that Hilal had a message for the former interior minister “that there are dangerous documents, that your excellency knows too well, with someone else. That person is instructed to hand them over to the Prosecutor General in case he disappeared.”
The prosecution has no evidence that these “dangerous documents” are real or whom they might incriminate. If they are, they’re either still with this nameless “someone else” or with the Prosecutor General himself, who has held the post since before the first memo was written. In any case, no incriminating documents related to the Hilal disappearance have ever surfaced.
Asked who Hilal might have trusted with these documents, his brother El Sayed speculates that it could have been “Abdel-Monein Saeed. He was a good friend of his at Al-Ahram. Reda also spent most of his time with Gehad [Ouda] and Khaled [Zaghloul]. But to trust someone with something like this is different. He had many connections in Al-Ahram, in the syndicate and in the Businessmen Club [of which he was a member] as well as the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. It could be anyone, really.”
El Sayed adds that Hilal didn’t speak of any such documents. “The scenario is plausible, but we don’t know what to believe anymore.”
Fawaz received the second document in 2005 alleging that Hilal, following intense beatings and torture, was moved to a psychiatric hospital in Abbassiya under the fake name “Ahmed Mohamed Mahmoud.”
“The state security police has a special ward there where they lock regime enemies,” Fawaz asserts. The hospital in question has refused to release records prior to 2005, and have told Fawaz that older records have been archived in another facility and are inaccessible.
“Perhaps the prosecution can look at these records,” suggested Hilal’s lawyer during the questioning of Fawaz.
Fawaz tried to publish both documents before the revolution, but failed because of media restrictions imposed by the ousted regime. However, he recently managed to publish one of them in a Kuwaiti newspaper. Local newspapers are still cautious regarding the details of this story, though news reports about the continuing investigation have emerged here and there.
While Fawaz seems to believe that Hilal is still alive, El Baz is firmly convinced he is dead, but has no documents to prove his hunch — nothing except the word of his sources, whom he describes as former officers in the now-disbanded state security apparatus. Without revealing names, El Baz told the prosecutor his sources are to be trusted. They reportedly told El Baz that ridding the regime of Hilal followed “the standard procedure.” State security men beat Hilal to death in a graveyard, he alleges, and hid the body in active lime, which “dissolved the flesh completely except for the bones,” converted it to limestone and later sent that limestone to a construction site. El Baz even claims to have checked out that site after a tip-off, and that eyewitnesses at the time (among the builders) have sworn they had seen “human bones in the material.”
Of course, it’s not clear if it’s scientifically possible to completely dissolve human flesh in active lime in the way that El Baz described. Gaafar says it’s highly improbable.
In addition, El Baz seemed to waver between accounts during his testimony, stating first that his sources spoke in general about what usually happened in cases of forced disappearance, then slightly altering his statement to attest it was none other than Reda Hilal that his sources spoke of.
In many instances, it came across as though he was drawing his own conclusions and passing them on as facts.
As part of Gaafar’s investigation, both Fawaz and El Baz, in addition to Hilal’s brothers, formally accused the mysterious ex-minister’s wife and former Interior Minister El Adly of collaborating to kidnap and murder Hilal — at least according to El Baz’s version of events.
Asked if El Adly would ever face these accusations, Gaafar said that the prosecution lacks the evidence needed to formally charge him. “If I ask him, he’ll say no, and it ends there,” Gaafar told Abu Zeid.
The case is not dead, however. Several days after the May 26 questioning, Gaafar told Egypt Today that the prosecution has contacted the psychiatric hospital in an attempt to confirm the information in the memo obtained by Fawaz. Gaafar has yet to hear back.
Eight years of silence in an authoritarian state mean nothing. And this is what we know: Leaked documents could be forged or released to distract and confuse rather than point the way. Witness accounts are contradictory, and key details of when and why Hilal left his residence so suddenly and without warning remain blurry.
Small remembrances often spark larger suspicions, and those closest to Hilal add a little more to his story every day. For instance, Hilal’s brother El Sayed recalls that on August 13, 2003, two days after Hilal’s disappearance, he saw Khaled Zaghloul standing outside Hilal’s building, making a phone call. When El Sayed asked him why he was there, Zaghloul said “to check on Hilal” since he hadn’t reported to work the day before. The brother feels that Zaghloul’s presence was curious.
El Sayed says the building’s janitor also told him in confidence that a high-ranking officer came to the building on August 12 to ask about Hilal — a day before an official missing person’s report was filed. Why was this officer there prematurely? Why did the janitor not mention this officer to investigators in 2003?
When the crime scene investigators broke into Hilal’s fifth floor apartment, the windows of the house were all open wide.
Small details. Perhaps big clues. As to what, no one knows.
It seems that more and more questions can now be asked about mysterious disappearances and murders that took place over the past years — questions that were once forbidden to discuss in public circles — but only questions. Answers, on the other hand, are a very different matter.
This past June, activists came out en masse to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Khaled Said’s death and celebrate a revolution that many hope has ended an era of corruption, torture and government-sanctioned murder. Yet the scars of that era remain.
Many of Hilal’s friends and colleagues remain tight-lipped, perhaps out of fear or guilt. Hilal’s family vows not to forsake him, continuing to press for the truth about the reporter’s fate.
The investigation continues. et