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Actor McCallany finds harsh reality in Egypt

| Monday, April 15, 2013, 12:08 a.m.
Actor Holt McCallany, who's a movie about the wrongfully convicted in America's prisons, is visiting Egypt and meeting with citizens unhappy with the ruling regime, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Actor Holt McCallany, who's a movie about the wrongfully convicted in America's prisons, is visiting Egypt and meeting with citizens unhappy with the ruling regime, the Muslim Brotherhood.

CAIRO — In the teeming traffic of Bulaq, a working-class neighborhood that helped to spark Egypt's 2011 revolution, car horns assault the ears.

Exhaust-spewing buses bump over dirt streets; sheep and goats graze on garbage heaps near a broken sewer line. Washing hangs from clotheslines down a narrow dirt path.

As other children kick a well-worn soccer ball, a barefoot girl sits on a rock, playing with an empty green box.

This is not where you'd expect to find a Hollywood actor.

Yet Holt McCallany is here, sitting in a tiny living room on a blue chair with white doilies, listening as Mohamed Ihab talks about his 17-year-old son.

A military court sentenced the teenager, who shares the name of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, to 15 years in prison.

Ihab, 49, a mechanic, says his son was arrested two years ago: “He was coming back from work and it was late, and he found out there was a problem on the ring road, so he stood to watch. Then there was shooting, so he ran away.”

Police caught and charged the boy with breaking curfew and assaulting officers. “He didn't assault anyone,” the father insists.

Ihab's son is among 12,000 or more Egyptians tried in military trials during 16 months of military rule after dictator Hosni Mubarak's fall.

His son was tortured in one prison, he says, then moved to another two hours from Cairo. The family doesn't have enough money to visit him; they haven't heard from his lawyer for more than a year.

The distraught father recalls that the president pledged to release all political prisoners when he took office last June. “All of the people who were released were sheikhs with beards,” he says, mimicking a long beard with one hand.

“It's such a long sentence for such a small thing,” McCallany replies. “Fifteen years is like almost his whole life. It's crazy!”

At the door, McCallany hands the family some money. Outside, he says it was a small contribution.

“We spend a couple of hours, and then we leave. But they are left with the reality of a missing son who still has 13 years to serve (in prison).

“Every day, they wake and they don't have their boy. It's hard.”

The boy's mother, wearing black from head to toe, reminded him of “that same sadness I saw in my mother's eyes when she lost my brother (at an early age).”

Voice of UPMC

The American actor appeared in two recent movies — “Gangster Squad” with Sean Penn and “Bullet to the Head” with Sylvester Stallone — and he's directing a film, “Mother Justice,” about the wrongfully convicted in American prisons.

He was the voice of UPMC's television ads for seven years after an operation in one of its Pittsburgh hospitals; he says he still has “a soft spot” for the Steel City.

And his time in Cairo? “Extraordinary.”

Egyptian actor Khalid Nabawy, who starred in “Kingdom of Heaven,” invited him to come; so did Ahmed Maher, leader of Egypt's April 6 political movement, when co-star Penn introduced them on the “Gangster Squad” set.

Honorary member

McCallany met here with Bassem Youssef, a popular political satirist accused of insulting Egypt's president, defaming Islam and undermining state security.

The actor says other political and human rights activists made him an honorary member of the “Tahrir Bodyguards,” volunteers against the rising incidence of mob sexual assaults on women here.

In a downtown neighborhood, Maher escorts McCallany past the graffitied walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, scene of violent clashes with police.

The actor marvels at the spray-painted tributes to Gaber “Gika” Salah, 16, the first protester killed under Morsy. In an elaborate mural, Gika dangles a small Morsy by his suit.

Inside Gika's home, the dead boy's room is a shrine to his life — school and other awards, soccer trophies, a “V for Vendetta” mask hanging in a corner.

The boy's father says his son celebrated when Morsy won the presidency but soon was disillusioned. He hands McCallany a photo album of his son.

“He had a Facebook page titled ‘Together against the Muslim Brotherhood,' ” says the elder Gaber, 57, a retired insurance worker. The Brotherhood, which rules Egypt, considered his son “an enemy, and the cops considered him a danger, so they killed him. They asked about him in the neighborhood before they shot him.”

‘No justice'

Police wounded two other young men who helped with the Facebook page, he adds.

“Has there been an investigation?” McCallany asks.

“There is no justice in Egypt,” Gaber says. “More than 2,500 have been killed, and no one has been punished.” The Brotherhood, he says, are “terrorists.”

“Every American who pays the taxes in America for this government, pays a dollar to kill our kids here,” he says, referring to $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt. “Americans, don't help these people — they are killers.”

McCallany, looking at the photo album, calls Gaber's son “an icon of the revolution … a hero.”

After meeting with other activists, the actor speculates that the Brotherhood has “squandered in six months” the political goodwill it amassed over 80 years. “People can see that they are not doing anything.”

“Bread, freedom and social justice are not luxuries,” he says, quoting a popular Egyptian revolutionary chant. “They are essential for human survival.”

Betsy Hiel is the foreign correspondent for Trib Total Media. Email her at

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