Thursday, 3 February 2011
Foreign journalists targeted in Egypt rage: An inside look
The Egyptian government launched on all-out attack on foreign and domestic journalists Thursday, detaining, beating, and harassing those trying to cover the violence unleashed on peaceful democracy protesters.
But the threatening atmosphere has been building for several days leading up to the assault. The friendly Cairo that I know and am accustomed to working in was transformed into a newly hostile environment beginning Tuesday.
That day, protesters at a massive rally in Tahrir Square against President Hosni Mubarak warned me of reports on Egyptian state television that foreign agents were infiltrating Egypt, posing as journalists.
As I returned home from the protests late that evening, a soldier at an Army checkpoint demanded and peered lengthily at the passports of myself and Monitor photographer Ann Hermes. When our driver asked if that was really necessary for two “respectable foreigners,” as he described us, the soldier raised his eyebrows.
“Yes, it is,” he warned as he leaned closer to the driver and lowered his voice. “They have stopped some foreigners who were taking pictures. They checked their IDs, and they weren’t journalists. It’s very bad.”
The implication was clear: that they were spies. The soldier looked long at our passports, flipping to my visa page, before he allowed us to go.
But it wasn’t only the authorities we had to fear. In the security vacuum left when police disappeared from the streets Saturday, residents of Cairo’s neighborhoods armed themselves with clubs, knives, and guns, and set up checkpoints on the roads.
At the next checkpoint, manned by one such neighborhood watch group, a civilian asked again for our passports. When I asked him what authority he had to take my passport, he shifted so that I could see the handgun he held. I handed over the passport.
At another civilian checkpoint, the man who stopped the car by gesturing with his club glanced at us and said to the driver in Arabic, “don’t trust the foreigners.” Clearly the news circulated by state television had begun to trickle down, though we didn’t realize to what extent until Wednesday.
That day, we went in the morning to a market in the Saad Zaghloul neighborhood to report a story. I began by asking a guava seller about price fluctuations. All was normal – he was friendly, as most Egyptians are, and answered my questions with no problem. But then a woman saw my notebook, looked at my face, and demanded, “Where are from? Why are you here? What are you doing?”
Instantly, a hostile crowd gathered around me, demanding to see proof that I was a journalist and accusing me of being a foreign agent or portraying Egypt in a bad light.
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