Egypt's Campaign Against Foreign Media: One Reporter's Story

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Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images

Egyptian antigovernment protesters gather at Cairo's Tahrir Square on Feb. 4, 2011, during Day of Departure demonstrations to force President Hosni Mubarak to quit; he said he would like to step down but fears chaos would result

It was just a little side street, a few minutes' walk away from a major hotel, in the quiet well-to-do Zamalek neighborhood of Cairo, where a few kilometers away, an enormous antigovernment crowd gathered again in Tahrir Square midday Friday. This was not even next to that epicenter of the protest movement. It was supposed to be safe. But that term is relative these days. Your safety depends on who you are, what sort of passport you carry and what you do for a living.

I have been stopped many times before at these makeshift checkpoints manned by teenagers and older men with machetes and chains — and, in one instance today, by three young men recklessly waving handguns. Often there are uniformed police officers either directing the motley crew of wannabe state defenders or, off to the side, monitoring events. On Thursday, Feb. 3, I was told by a uniformed cop that he hoped I would be further harmed by an Egyptian beyond the chemical burns I sustained from tear gas. Today was no different. I was stopped, asked to produce ID and then quizzed about where I was going. This time, however, several young men excitedly ran up to my taxi, shouting, "Foreigner? Is she a foreigner?" and salivating at the notion of capturing one of "them."

"Please don't say a word," the taxi driver pleaded. I complied. Several other men opened the back door of the car so that I could get a better look at one of the rusty machetes being wielded. "If you are lying to us and you are going to the square, we will kill you like this," one said, snapping his fingers. I assured the gang that I was not headed there. "We don't like your type. Other Arabs have been causing trouble for us," one of the men said. "We're supposed to turn you in." They talked among themselves; they were a ragtag group of about 10, some barely teenagers while others were clearly retirement age. They didn't believe that I wasn't heading to the square, and I was released on the condition that one of them follow me.

The Egyptian regime has been pressing the antiforeigner propaganda hard, blaming outside media for stirring up sentiments against the regime. Take this example. During coverage of Friday's protest at Tahrir Square, a female anchor on state TV incredulously asked the network's correspondent on scene, "Do the youth down there still believe what these foreign media stations are saying?" The correspondent replied, "Unfortunately, unfortunately there are some young people here who don't believe their own government."

Journalists in general, and Arabic-speaking journalists in particular, have been set upon by regime supporters. Several have recounted being forced to speak Arabic for several minutes while thugs tried to ascertain from their dialects and accents whether they were Egyptian (and therefore O.K.) or foreign (and not).

There are other dangers as well. After the episode at the checkpoint, I was simply standing by the side of the road, waiting for a friend who was speaking with an old man holding a pro-Mubarak leaflet he'd just been given. "Yes to Mubarak," it read before listing, with bullet points, what it was against. "No to the continued demonstrations, no to the American plot [this was underlined], no to the manipulation of our youth." It was an innocuous discussion, but that, once again, is relative these days.

Several leather-clad middle-aged men bounded up the side street. "Ali, what are you doing? What are you saying? What's happening here?" one said as he approached our group of three, demanding identification, any cameras that we had and our cell phones. My friend and I immediately realized, from past reporting experience, that these men were the plainclothes police, prevalent in many Arab capitals. We obliged their requests. At this stage the lead "officer" — a chain-smoking, clean-shaven 30-something with short, gelled hair, long eyelashes and a self-important demeanor — did not know we were journalists. I'll call him Mr. Viceroy, because that's what he was smoking.

"You have to come with me," he said as he started to walk in front of us.

"Where? What did we do? Why?"

"You come with me, and I'll decide if I hand you over to the military or not."

"So, who are you? Police? Military?"

"I am everything," Mr. Viceroy said.

We followed him to a few streets away, to a tiny, dingy store with an old-fashioned black sewing machine in front, next to a well-worn wooden table. He quizzed us about when we arrived in Egypt and why we were there as he flipped through our electronic equipment, deleting files at will. I was grateful that I had left my professional digital SLR camera in the hotel.

"You understand, we don't want to do this," said one of the half-dozen middle-aged men who had crowded into the small space. "But you know, these are difficult days." He flashed a half-smile, his crooked yellow teeth protruding above a small chin with graying stubble.

"Where did you get this video?" Mr. Viceroy said, pointing to my friend's cell phone. It was footage from a demonstration, downloaded from YouTube. "Somebody Bluetoothed it to me," she said.

"Who? Who gave you this?"

"I don't remember. Anyway, it's all over YouTube."

He started to open her phone to remove its SIM card. After several minutes of pleading, plus the intercession of one of his leather-clad colleagues, he stopped. "I'm supposed to burn these items, you know, but you're being very polite," he said.

"You're lucky that you came across us," he continued. "We are the good version. You should see what the others would have done to you." He was chuckling, clearly amused by his own wit.

He explained that there were new rules for journalists, issued by "military intelligence," that journalists were not to leave their hotels. "It's not your fault," he finally conceded. "It's the hotel's fault. I will escort you back and see why they didn't abide by the rule."

He walked us back to the hotel, just a few streets away. "I am responsible for this hotel," he said. "We have all been assigned to the different hotels to monitor the journalists."

He warmly greeted several of the men guarding the gates of the five-star facility that has become home to many members of the press. He clearly knew many of the men in hotel uniforms. "They were shooting footage from the rooftops," he told a senior member of the hotel's security team — a blatant lie.

"I'm sorry, sir, we just received the new directives about the journalists," the hotel's security man told the plainclothes officer. "It won't happen again."

"It's for your own good," the hotel security officer told us as we walked toward the front entrance. "It's only because they are worried about you."

I turned back to look at Mr. Viceroy, who watched intently to make sure we got out of harm's way. Another relative term.