JEFFERSON CITY – His fluency in Arabic allowed him to break the ice with Egyptian police, but it also made them think he was a spy.
Derrik Sweeney, 19, who was arrested with fellow American students Luke Gates and Gregory Porter on Nov. 22 during protests near Tahrir Square in Cairo, returned to his parents' home in Jefferson City on Sunday, ending a week of detention and interrogation in the hands of Egyptian authorities. During his detention, he was beaten, his life was threatened and he was told he might spend the next 20 years in an Egyptian prison.
Sweeney is a Georgetown University student who had been studying at the American University of Cairo since August. He learned Arabic to a level of near fluency in college and during his time studying abroad in Cairo, he said.
He chose to go to Egypt to study abroad because it seemed like it was the safest Arabic-speaking country at the time, his mom, Joy Sweeney, said. He said he also wanted to go because of the Egyptian revolution that began in January and his interest in the ongoing political transition.
Sweeney said he was arrested on the third day that the protests had turned violent. He didn't feel compelled to participate in the first two days, but by the third he wanted to lend his support to the movement.
"It felt like, hopefully, my being there would be at least one more blip on the picture when they show the picture of Tahrir Square and they see how packed it is," he said. "And hopefully maybe one more little packed area might kinda help the government think, 'OK, we have to change.'"
By about 1 a.m. on Nov. 22, Sweeney and his friends had moved from Tahrir Square to an area where the crowds were more volatile and the police presence stronger. A crowd had gathered in front of a police barricade near the Ministry of the Interior building, he said.
The three students were watching from a distance when the police fired something into the crowd — rubber bullets or tear gas — and the crowd stampeded in the direction of Sweeney and his friends. They "ran for their lives," trying to keep their footing.
Then, as they were regrouping, they were approached by four or five middle-aged men in civilian clothing, who offered to take them to safety.
"We didn’t question their ulterior motives at that point," Sweeney said. "Safety just sounded nice."
When they saw the men were trying to lead them behind the police barricade, the students realized they weren't in good hands and tried to get away. Sweeney was punched and grabbed while Gregory Porter, who had managed to free himself from the men’s grip for a moment, was on the ground being kicked in the face.
The official account of events that night was different. An Egyptian official said the students had been arrested on the roof of a university building for throwing firebombs at security forces, according to the Associated Press.
During the first seven hours they were in custody — in what Sweeney thinks was the Ministry of Interior building — the three students were forced to lie handcuffed on the floor in a fetal position, and they were told they would be shot if they moved or made a sound, Sweeney said.
He went through the "spiritual-philosophical process" of coming to grips with death as he lay handcuffed in the dark and was beaten, he said. When a guard pushed him against a wall and hit him, Sweeney shouted, "Allahu akbar," which means "God is great" in Arabic.
He wasn't just trying to gain the man's sympathy, he said. He was also trying to convey that "there is one reality, and you and your pain that you try to inflict are trivial, really."
The three students were taken twice each to a separate room to be questioned individually, and Sweeney was beaten again.
"If we said something they didn’t like, they would hit us," he said. "Basically everything we were saying they didn’t like, so they’d hit us because we'd say, 'No, I’m not connected to the military or intelligence,'" not an Israeli citizen and not working for the U.S. government, among other things.
Because Sweeney spoke the best Arabic of the three students, he often served as translator, he said. But his fluency also raised the police officers’ suspicions, and they repeatedly accused him of being a spy, Sweeney said.
The next day, the students were transferred to a police station. There, the beatings stopped, and the interrogation process became more formal, Sweeney said.
The police still tried to pressure him into confessing to wrongdoing, telling him that in America he had already been sentenced to 30 years in prison and that he was facing 20 in Egypt. His only way to avoid jail time in Egypt, they told him, was to say that he had been ordered by someone to throw Molotov cocktails at security forces. But he wouldn't comply and denies the allegation.
"I don’t know where that even came from," he said.
During their detention after the first night, Sweeney saw and talked to many Egyptians who were taken in and out of the jail. Sweeney said he saw people covered in blood, two bruised and wounded males around ages 14 and 15 and a man with a broken arm. All the people he talked to said they had been beaten by the police.
"I think that they were treating (the Egyptian prisoners) a lot worse than they were treating us," Sweeney said. "I think they kind of wanted to put on a show of civil rights, because they knew, 'Oh, that's what you white people like,' I guess."
Sweeney said he and the others only began to hope they might be freed when, on Thursday, a judge ordered their release. Still, they still had to wait to learn if the prosecutor would appeal.
On Friday, the Egyptian prosecutor wrote that he would not file an appeal and the students were free to leave the country. They weren't ordered to leave, but it was recommended that they do so. Their faces had been seen across the country, and the police might still think Sweeney was a spy, Joy Sweeney said.
On Friday and Saturday, the three students were transferred many times to various groups of police officers, all of them hostile to the Americans, Derrik Sweeney said. He used his knowledge of Arabic to try to make them laugh, he said.
"With Arabic, I would always kind of win them over a little bit by the time we left every group of police officers," Sweeney said.
He would sing "lower-class" songs to them and say things like, "The Nile flows in my veins" or "The spirit of the pharaohs is in the depths of my heart," he said.
At home in Jefferson City, Sweeney is eating his mom's specialty — pancakes — and hoping to come to Columbia soon to spend time with friends.
Sweeney said he will definitely go back to Egypt in the future. He also said his experience of seeing Egyptians in jail who were more heavily injured than him made him realize how important the current revolution is.
Beyond that, Sweeney said the experience reinforced his convictions that the universe is good, that those who believe in love are good, and that positive thinking and emotional support are powerful.