Shots rang out as the prison lobby was hit with a hail of gunfire. Tariq Qotb and his prison mate stuck to the wall of the small prison cell in fear of being hit with a stray bullet through the window. The three exchanged glances. Hassan al-Manakhly, a sixty-something year old man, withdrew into a dark corner and began dismantling the electric water heater in which the prisoners made tea. From the bottom part of the heater, he removed a mobile phone he had kept hidden from the prison guards.
After a short phone call, Manakhly shook his head in the direction of his cell mates Ayman Ibrahim and Salman Kamel. The three men then proceeded to break down the cell’s door using the fire extinguishers and bedsteads.
The other prisoners caught on to what was happening. In a matter of minutes, all of the “Tagriba Ward” inmates at Marg Prison reached the main lobby as they loudly chanted “God is great… God is great.” Prisoners in neighboring wards thought they were cheering because they would soon be let out of prison; only the inmates of “Tagriba Ward” recognized the phrase as an agreed upon code.
Meanwhile, while Manakhly and his prison mates chanted “God is Great” in the prison lobby, a prison guard named Mohamed, his finger on the trigger of his rifle, stood in one of the eight guard towers that surrounded the 100 acre prison. Mohamed had his face wrapped with a wet cloth to protect him from the black, suffocating smoke engulfing the prison. Unknown persons had set fire to large amounts of rice straw and tires outside the prison’s walls; they used the smoke to hide their positions as they fired at the guard towers. Because Mohamed could hardly see and had almost no military experience, he panicked each time he heard a bullet whiz past his ear, causing him to aimlessly fire his weapon and empty one round after another into the smoke.
Simultaneously, at a third spot, captain Sayyed Abdel Karim, one of the officers in charge of prison security, was in a rage after a communications officer at the General Authority for Prisons told him it would be difficult to send the reinforcements and ammunition needed to secure the prison. Abdel Karim rushed to an army outpost near the prison, but returned empty-handed. He was certain his guards, under the pressure from the prison cells and machine gun attacks from outside the prison, were not going to stand their ground for long.
On 30 January, 504 prisoners escaped from Marg prison, according to the head of Public Relations of the General Prisons Authority. Up to now, numerous news reports have claimed that Egypt’s authorities released prisoners from Marg and other prisoners in order to foment chaos in Egypt. The idea, according to reports, was that the Egyptian people would begin to long for a return to law and order, and they would welcome police forces back to the cities which those very same forces had abandoned on 28 January in the face of popular revolt.
However, it appears unlikely that prison authorities did, indeed, intentionally let prisoners escape, according the findings of a six week investigation conducted by Al-Masry Al-Youm. More likely, the escapes were performed by Bedouin groups working at the behest of Hezbollah, Hamas, and the families of individual prisoners.
With Egypt’s security apparatus primarily preoccupied with the revolution, prisoners’ families managed to attack the prison. Meanwhile, political prisoners – not only from this prison but from all over the country – planned their escape in concert with the political organizations to which they belonged.
In regard to the release of prisoners, this investigation clears the name of the Egyptian police, previously accused of releasing prisoners to spread fear among Egyptians and to abort the revolution. Hamas and Hezbollah were also said to have seized the opportunity to help their members break out of prison.
The investigation further reveals that the late arrival of requested reinforcements and the lack of experience on the part of security guards helped smooth prisoners’ escape.
Marg prison held some of the country’s most important political prisoners. Mohamed Youssef Mansour, known as Sami Shehab, the prime suspect in the case widely known as the Hezbollah Cell case, in addition another 25 suspects in the same case, were held in Marg prison.
The Supreme State Security Court in April 2010 sentenced them to life imprisonment. Curiously, Shehab managed to arrive in Beirut four days after his escape.
The prison also held Ayman Nofal, a leader from Ezz al-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, who gave statements to the media from Gaza only three hours after his escape. Hamas and Hezbollah were therefore prepared to employ armed men in Egypt to facilitate the breakout.
The Tagriba cell, where a number of prisoners belonging to the Hezbollah Cell are detained, is where the story begins. Since the start of Egypt’s nationwide unrest on 25 January, the radio, tuned in to BBC Arabic, was the only way that inmates could connect to the outside world.
News bulletins said the protests were turning into a popular uprising. From his small prison cell, Hassan al-Manakhly called some of his friends, who told him unknown armed men were attacking the Abu Zabal prison, close to Marg.
Manakhly, filled with hope of escape, went out to the prison’s yard for lunch and sports. At midnight, the prisoners became loud.
When asked to give statements to Al-Masry Al-Youm, al-Manakhly said he would like to come to the paper’s office for a visit.
Manakhli, whose zeal belies his old age, says he is a hero who deserves to be honored for supporting freedom fighters in Gaza
“On Sunday 30 January, gun fire was heard at 1 pm,” he says. “As the gunfire increased, so did our fear.”
Sayyed Abdel Karim continues the story. “At noon on Sunday, groups of unknown people began surrounding the prison’s outer walls. They set fire to car tires, wooden kiosks, and rice husks,” he says. “A little later, there was firing at the watch towers.” Because the security guards were hardly competent, they failed to respond appropriately, he said.
Outside the prison, “M.F.,” a retired army officer, was following the developments from his home. He tells Al-Masry Al-Youm that he and his children were scared from gunfire the night before; his home, adjacent to the prison, would be the first target for prisoners if they managed to break out. “M.F.” placed gas cylinders on the balconies of his home and equipped his children with knives.
At midday the following day, he saw groups of masked men on motorbikes patrolling the prison area and firing at the watch towers. They disappeared for a while, then returned and burned heaps of straw and tires in order to blur the guards’ line of sight.
After they hailed the prison guards with bullets, three jeeps arrived at the scene and stopped before the prison gates. All of the passengers inside had machine guns.
M.F. could not see their arms clearly. However, judging by the sound they produced, he said the weapons used were the G11 4.7 mm Rifle (German-made), the M240 (American-made) and the 47AK.
A 11-minute footage of the break-in during the first few minutes shows civilians armed with rifles and machine guns. Another 20 men appear and besiege the outer walls of the prison. These men have clubs, knives, and wooden planks. Others, including children, watch on.
In the background, one can hear the sound of shooting. The group surrounding the prison opens the prison gates, which were not secured.
They are met with heavy fire which forces them to retreat. A bald man wearing a leather jacket, who appears to be in his thirties, is seen peeping through the gates. The voices of people shouting “We want to help our children break out” are heard. Heavy fire is heard again and a number of motorbikes patrol the prison amid heavy smoke. A bearded man in his fifties is seen setting a wooden kiosk on fire.
Masked men carrying machine guns arrive. They wait for the prison guards to deplete their ammunition as the later fires aimlessly in the air.
Mankhaly adds that as the fire exchange continued outside, they were told by a group of Sinai residents – who are also suspects the Hezbollah case – that people were coming to help with their release.
They were told to use the legs of the bed to hit the cell walls near the ventilator because this was the weakest part of the wall, says Mankhaly. They were also told to shout “God is Great” in order for the rescuers to trace their location.
Everyone followed the instructions. The prisoners assembled outside.
Manakhly says that his friends arrived outside the prison at the time and told him the watch towers had stopped firing. Armed men were stealing items from the prison, he also learned.
Manakhly adds that they rushed to the gates, where they saw people in civilian clothes, some in Bedouin attire. They stole cattle and firearms, and looted the prison offices along with the cafeteria.
Ihab al-Kaliouby, a twenty-year-old man and defendant in the case who was sentenced to ten years in prison, talks about his role in facilitating the arrival of food and medical aid from Hezbollah to the besieged people of Gaza.
“After water and electricity were cut off, soldiers started firing at the cell blocks, threatening to kill anyone who tried to escape. There was unrest inside the cell block next to us where the prisoners wanted to escape,” he says.
“With the shooting continuing the next day, we were fearful and decided to escape. We broke down the walls. Security personnel were located in the towers only. We managed to flee within hours, as the cell block’s three doors were opened.”
“We saw the Bedouins with their automatic weapons freeing the detainees of the cell block next door. We knew they were Bedouins from the way they looked and from their accent.”
“Meanwhile, another group went to steal cattle that were kept inside the prison. It was clear that they were two different groups: the first came to free the prisoners, while the second came to steal.”
Kaliouby’s story matches that of Manakhly in terms of the way they escaped, the three open doors and that the prisoners were instructed to cheer “God is Great.”
They can be seen in a video clip as they came out in turns, and each individual can be distinguished clearly. Sami Shehab was with them. Nobody gave them money, clothes or transportation. The help stopped when they emerged from prison, and they did not meet the group who asked them to cheer.
They were glad to get out, and they did not notice that Shehab had disappeared at that point. They knew that the Hezbollah leader had arrived to his hometown when they saw him on Lebanese television four days later in the news.
The last sighting of Shehab is reported by a third member of the Hezbollah cell who preferred not to disclose his identity. He says Shehab was on his phone telling someone what he was doing step by step. He was spontaneously describing what was happening, and seemed absent minded at times.
The source adds that nothing was planned, and that things just happened from which they all benefited. He says he saw Shehab on television when he went home to Lebanon, and that was the first time he saw him since they departed each other in front of the prison.
He goes on to say that some of them went to mosques or sought help from strangers, but Shehab was helped by one of his friends in Egypt, who took him straight to Khartoum, from where weapons are sent to Rafah. Transporting him from there to Lebanon was easier than from Egypt.
“K. L.,” a Bedouin leader wanted by the police, speaks in a self-assured tone. “Sami Shehab, or Hezbollah’s man, did not come out of Egypt through Sinai,” he says. “Sources in Halayeb and Shalatin confirmed to me the next day after the jailbreak that he spent several hours there before going to Sudan. Although his friends here offered to help him, he preferred to go to Sudan, as going out of Gaza was impossible and escaping by sea would make him an easy target for Israel.”
Al-Masry Al-Youm failed to obtain Shehab’s version about the jailbreak, whether from the Hezbollah Information Office or from people close to him. They only said he was no longer in Lebanon.
The second puzzle in the case was how leading Hamas member Ayman Nofal fled. He was arrested after thousands stormed the Gaza border with Egypt in January 2008. The Egyptian government considered the event an assault on state sovereignty.
Police officer Sayyed Abdel Karim says he saw the incident, and strongly denies allegations that the police facilitated prisoner escapes.
In the presence of the prison warden and a number of officers, he took Al-Masry Al-Youm on a prison tour after obtaining a permit from the Ministry of Interior. We wanted an explanation for the three doors that were left open.
“The cell block has five doors,” he says. “The first closes the cells and leads to the lobby, the second leads to a room with no windows, the third leads to a corridor, the fourth to the administrative offices where the files of prisoners are kept, and the fifth is the exit door.”
Abdel Karim adds that the two outside doors were useless, as the windows nearby could easily be broken even if the doors were closed. As for the third door, he said it could have been opened inadvertently when the prison break surprised the guards.
“The prisoners managed to break out of their cells, and they had access to the ammunition,” he went on to say. “I felt we were framed and we all got scared. The soldiers started to run when they ran out of ammunition. There were 150, most of whom fled. We were attacked from inside and outside, and we could not hold on for more than 40 minutes before we had to run, because we ran out of ammunition.”
“When I climbed the tower to the left of the prison gate to urge the soldiers to resist, I saw another group hovering over the barbed wire covering the east wall of the prison. They covered the barbed wire with blankets – some blankets are still there – and headed directly to the cell block where Nofal was detained and managed to free him.”
Major General Refaat Abdel Hamid, a former director of the Criminal Research Department in Alexandria and an expert in crime scenes, says Abdel Karim’s words made sense for two reasons: First, the guards are uneducated and untrained to deal with such a situation. Second, there was no strategic stockpile of weapons or ammunition inside the prison, as each guard had only 60 bullets that could be unloaded within three minutes at the most.
Tarek Qotb, a prisoner who refused to escape, says: “Most of them were under thirty and had a Bedouin accent. They were bearded and wore a Palestinian scarf on their shoulders. Some of them were masked. They broke into the cell block and took Nofal and his colleague Mohamed Hisham to an ambulance that was waiting in front of a football field. The others proceeded to break into the remaining cell blocks. They forced us to get out and threatened to shoot us if we didn’t.”
Evidence indicates that the jailbreak was planned. Another prisoner, Ibrahim Hamouda, tells us his version: “Around 3:30 pm on Sunday, I heard prisoners in the adjacent cells saying Hamas men will come to take us out in half an hour. Exactly a half hour later they broke in and took Nofal and Hisham out. They picked up the weapons that the guards left behind when they ran away. One rifle fell in front of me. A Hamas member thought that I would pick it up and so he shot me in the leg.”
But how was Nofal able to reach Rafah in just three hours?
Sheikh Abu Mohamed, an owner of a Rafah tunnel, says that he had information confirming that the attack was carried out by Bedouins who smuggle weapons to Gaza and who have good relations with Hamas. He also said prisoners’ families provided large sums of money for that purpose.
However, the Mohamed denies that Shehab had set foot in Sinai. He says he went to Sudan via Halayeb and Shalateen, and from there to Beirut with a false passport.
Sheikh Gamal is a close friend of Nofal’s and was in constant contact with him until his arrival in Gaza. He smuggles cement and paints through the tunnels.
He says the escape was planned on 29 January when the police withdrew from the streets. “Nofal was taken in a car across the Salam Bridge to Bedouin collaborators with Hamas, who took him straight to a tunnel that is managed by an Egyptian national of Palestinian origin named Abu Mansour,” he says.
Abu Mansour refused to talk to us. The tunnel is approximately 1600 meters long, has a tin wall and starts from a Bedouin house 500 meters to the left of the crossing. The entrance gradually descends to a depth of seven meters. It is lit in most parts, the length of each section being 150 meters, where telephones are placed to tell those on the other side if the goods are ready to be pulled through.
After 600 meters, the depth of the tunnel reaches 25 meters, and the ceiling height drops to 70 cm for quite a distance. Nofal and Hisham probably had to crawl in order to pass, and it most likely took 15 minutes until they reached the opposite side, where they were greeted as victors.
Contacting Nofal after his arrival in Gaza was impossible, as mediators told us he does not want to talk about the operation for security reasons.