Notes from a Cairo Journalist Being Hounded by Spies and Thugs
Since last Wednesday, I have seen my closest friends and colleagues beaten and repeatedly arrested as they have struggled to cover a story that the Egyptian government would prefer the world ignored. More than 600 supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi were killed on August 14, when the security services moved in to forcibly disperse a protest camp inside Rabaa el Adaweya Square. They came with bulldozers and guns.
The standoff lasted for ten hours; by 3 PM, bodies lined the floors of makeshift field hospitals and even a mosque. Muslim Brotherhood supporters say this was a "massacre." According to Human Rights Watch, it was “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.” But most journalists could only watch from afar: police and army troops blocked off the site, firing tear gas, birdshot pellets, and live ammunition at anyone who tried to enter.
I spent hours trying to find a safe route in, but every side street was blocked. Instead of doing my job, I could only run from gunfire or crouch behind cars. By the end of the day, three journalists, including veteran Sky News cameraman Mike Dean, had been killed. Another photographer remains in the hospital, suffering internal bleeding and serious kidney damage.
The situation can only get worse. Politically, the country is now so dangerously polarized that coverage on either side of the divide invites attacks. On Sunday, I received a warning that I would be “shot in the back” as a result of my articles examining pro-Islamist protests. Most worryingly, it name-checked people close to me. I am now living out of a rucksack in a different part of town, and have repeatedly been followed by a man who appears to be from state security.
The experience has been emotionally corrosive. It's hard to shake from the back of your mind, and breeds a sense of paranoia as you walk around the city. It also feels utterly ridiculous. Yesterday, my appointed stalker had to stand twiddling his thumbs outside the Cairene cosmetic stores. My mission? To find and buy a hairbrush.
Intimidation of those who challenge the state's narrative is nothing new. But in this case, the Egyptian authorities are under such pressure to establish an immediate stranglehold over the interpretation of divisive events, that the media becomes the most obvious of targets. The Egyptian fixers and translators who support our work are not immune, either. My translator is being attacked by his family, and has had phone calls from his father, telling him to stop his work: “He told me that he loved me,” my colleague said. “He said he didn’t want me to get hurt.”
However, the threat doesn’t just come from the Egyptian authorities. Since the military takeover, an aggressive resurgent nationalism has made the streets a more dangerous place for foreigners, particularly those who work for an international media that the government has branded liars. Military-supporting vigilante groups have sprung up across the capital. During pro-Brotherhood demonstrations, they have taken to policing the surrounding areas, checking the ID cards of passers-by and, in some cases, taking justice into their own hands.
On Friday, I watched on television as Al-Jazeera captured the moment the Independent’s correspondent was dragged unconscious along the floor by an angry crowd. Entirely at their mercy, he was lucky to escape. In many cases, the mob violence is tacitly sanctioned by Egypt’s security services. I have watched army troops survey the attacks from the comfort of their APCs, and when briefly detained on Wednesday, I even listened to the officer discuss my fate with members of the armed crowd. “Are you going to deal with them, or shall we?” asked one man, brandishing a baton towards me. “We’ll let them walk in that direction,” replied the officer, pointing toward a small mob.
Failure to intervene in civilian violence is not a new phenomenon, and the Egyptian police routinely fail to act during sectarian attacks. However, the dereliction of duty rarely occurs in such plain sight. Egypt’s State Information Service has complained that the foreign media are failing to do their jobs. In an email to foreign correspondents, they said that coverage of last month’s military takeover has “steered away from objectivity and neutrality.”
"Egypt is feeling severe bitterness toward some western media coverage that is biased to the Muslim Brotherhood and ignores shedding light on violent and terror acts that are perpetrated by this group," they wrote. As journalists face increasing attacks, from both the state and the streets, shedding light on the turmoil we see around us becomes increasingly difficult.
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