Police in the Egyptian capital have arrested at least three people who were trying to get to a small symbolic demonstration outside a police station where an activist said he was tortured last week. Most of the other protesters were blocked from entering the neighborhood.

With only nine demonstrators there, it was barely a protest. There was no chanting, and nobody carried any signs. Most of the people who planned to take part never made it.

A police officer radioed his superiors to report that things were calm, and foreign journalists vastly outnumbered the protesters. Behind him, burly plainclothes security agents stood shoulder-to-shoulder, blocking the street.

A few blocks away, in the shadow of the luxurious Four Seasons hotel on the banks of the Nile, another group of those plainclothes agents threw a dragnet around the neighborhood. They stopped would-be demonstrators from getting through, and chased away journalists who tried to stand and watch.

Only a handful of protesters got through. At least three were arrested.

"Five people is too big," shouted Ahdaf Soueif. "They don't want us to be here!"

Prominent novelist Ahdaf Soueif was one of the few who made it. She was there with her sister, Leila, whose son, a well-known activist, has been in jail for nearly a month.

They and a tiny band of demonstrators were protesting the police treatment of an opposition activist who says he was tortured and sexually abused at the police station after he was arrested last week for taking part in another protest.

Ahdaf Soueif says it was a message to the opposition.

"I think that basically the government is escalating everything," she said. "They really just don't want any of this opposition. They just don't want any opposition to be clear and available. And so they're escalating it to frighten people off the street and off any oppositional stance."

Soueif says the protest outside the police station was never designed to be large, it was more of a symbolic gesture on the part of Egypt's human rights groups. The demonstrators included veteran human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who was himself jailed repeatedly several years ago.

"Well, as you can see, people are still determined to get here," he said. "They are still determined to speak out. Even if one managed to do so, it is a message to the regime that there will be always Egyptians who will defy, and who will resist."

Ibrahim is in his 60s and has health problems. He rarely comes to protests. But this time, the younger activists who normally lead the demonstrations had been told to stay home out of concern they would be arrested.

Hundreds of opposition activists have been arrested over the last two months for attending peaceful demonstrations. The man who says he was tortured by police last week, Mohamed El-Sharqawi, had been released from prison only a few days earlier. His lawyers, who saw him hours after he was re-arrested, say he was so badly beaten that he was almost unrecognizable. They say he received no medical treatment until four days later.

The interior ministry has denied the allegations of torture, and the prime minister has been quoted as saying "the protesters are the thugs."