After more than 300 citizens were burnt alive in the Ayyat train accident in 2002, tonight, another disaster took place tonight, leaving at least 20 dead…
“Welcome to my exile.” With those words trade union activist Mohammed al-Attar greeted me when I went to see him in Alexandria a few months ago. He had been transferred there by the management of Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla after an anti-privatization protest last October, and with almost no real work to do at the warehouse in the old cotton market he had a lot of time to think. He was remorseful, not for taking part in the protest – but for accepting a compromise deal and backing out of the declared strike on the 6th of April 2008.
I’m reminded of Mohammed al-Attar’s fate now, when it seems like I’m the one being sent into “exile”, with a lot of time to think about my experiences in Egypt and my present situation.
It could definitely be worse, and a lot worse too. Despite the darkness and cold, the prospect of spending a winter in Sweden isn’t all that bad. But over the past years I’ve come to regard Egypt as a second home – and trust me when I say that I’ve seen this as a huge privilege, especially in this region where millions of people would do anything to have just one proper country to call home.
As soon as the immigration officers at the airport pulled me aside and told me to wait “for a few minutes” I guessed what was about to happen, but I still didn’t really believe it. I spent the next few hours in a limbo, with my immediate future in the hands of some anonymous, unknown power – the higher being that we call State Security. Gradually realizing what all this meant was like watching a curtain slowly being pulled down in front of my life.
After one hour – or maybe two, I soon lost track of time – I was taken to an office where two State Security officers interrogated me halfheartedly. They seemed annoyed by this disturbance in the middle of the night and clearly had no idea why my name was in the computer. They asked me only general questions like “is this your first visit to Egypt” and “why do you come here.” When I told them I was a journalist, one of them narrowed his eyes slightly and asked: “What do you write about – politics?”
“Sometimes,” I admitted, and he slowly nodded as if this confirmed some profound theory about the universe he had been contemplating. Then the other man asked me if I ever got into any trouble in Egypt.
“What kind of trouble?” I asked – since mashaakil of various sorts is a more or less unavoidable part of daily life in Egypt.
“Did you get into any fights? Did you make enemies here?” he said.
I paused to think. Should I mention being pulled, pushed and shoved around by plainclothes thugs or having the flash card of my camera confiscated while covering demonstrations? Being shot at by central security forces during food riots in Mahalla? Being ordered to “go to hell” after taking photos of police breaking up a tiny pro-Palestinian demonstration in Tahrir Square? No, I concluded. Those people were not trying to pick a fight. It wasn’t personal, they were just doing their job: upholding law and order and combating extremists and foreign elements fermenting dissent against the Egyptian government, which is – of course – democratically elected.
After this brief “interrogation,” I was told to wait for another five minutes, which quickly turned into an hour. Then I was finally told by a low-ranking airport guard that I was going to be deported. Why? Because State Security said so. “Illi amn al-dawla ‘al yasaafir, yasaafir.”
At this point they had already taken my phone. I spent the next 48 hours isolated from the outside world, waiting for the next flight to Prague in a temporary-turned-permanent detention center. It consisted of a corridor, three small rooms with beds, and a barely functioning bathroom – all tucked in just behind the tax free shop of terminal one.
Technically, I wasn’t a prisoner. At some point an officer asked if I wanted to buy a ticket on an earlier plane to Amsterdam. But could I have a phone call to transfer money to my VISA-account? No, was the firm reply – and I suddenly felt like being a character in a novel by Joseph Heller, trapped on a small island in the Mediterranean by an inextricable web of bureaucratic red tape.
At least I wasn’t alone. To start with, my company consisted of fifteen Palestinians and one Nigerian student at al-Azhar. The former wanted to return to their homes in Gaza via Cairo after visiting other Arab countries to work or meet relatives, but had been detained at the airport for unknown “security reasons.” Some of them had been told they should pick another country to apply for a visa to – forget about the universal human right of leaving and returning to your own country and forget about homes and families again – but they were not allowed to leave the detention center. Another Catch 22.
The Nigerian student just made the terrible mistake of going to the airport to meet a friend, without bringing proper documentation of his right to reside in the country – and wearing a suspiciously long beard on top of that. He was promptly rounded up by security.
After a few hours a large group of thin and weary Africans where led in by soldiers in green uniforms. They turned out to be Ethiopians, about to be deported from Egypt after first being deported from Israel and imprisoned for four months in a Sinai jail. There, they were subject to all kinds of racist abuse and forced to survive on a 40 gram bar of halawa (some company in the 6h of October free zone must be making a fortune delivering those to the Egyptian prison system) and a couple of slices of bread every morning and night. But at least they weren’t shot dead by Egyptian border guards.
Other people kept coming and going, and by nightfall we were around 50 people. With only 24 beds to share we were forced to sleep in shifts. I started out on the floor, and when the Palestinians got up for prayer at dawn I moved to one of the empty beds. Later I learned that the detention center in the other terminal doesn’t have any beds at all, so I’m grateful for the few hours of proper sleep I got.
Despite all the time I had to think I didn’t have any ready answers for all the journalists who later wanted to know why this happened. And I still don’t. Given the number of foreign journalists in Egypt writing freely about the state of affairs in this country – something that cannot be said about our Egyptian colleagues – it’s very unlikely that my deportation has anything to do with what I wrote on my little-read blog or for Swedish papers as such. To believe anything else would be tantamount to serious delusion of grandeur.
Considering the level of paranoia the Egyptian security apparatus has shown recently when it comes to Gaza-related activism, the other theory floating around out there is a lot more compelling: that I was declared persona non grata because of my presence at a small and peaceful pro-Gaza march outside Cairo in February, when activist and filmmaker Philip Rizk was snatched and held incommunicado by state security for four days. Judging from the various statements by anonymous security sources, this is the explanation they want us to believe in – not least because it will effectively discourage other foreigners from getting involved in any kind of activism in Egypt – and for all I know it might be true.
Having said this, I also suspect that there are more than a few local security officers, company managers and officials of the state-controlled unions that are only too happy to have me out of the country. During my travels around Egypt, these people have often display outright hostility – in sharp contrast to the incessant hospitality of ordinary Egyptians in the poorest slums or remotest villages. I don’t think they are bothered by what I write (or even aware about it) as much as by the presence of foreign media on the ground, reporting on labour conflicts and independent union activism and hence “giving encouragement” to the people involved – and in certain rare circumstances maybe offering some (temporary) protection from repression.
This is the case with all journalism of course – just consider the way Western media have encouraged the 6th of April movement or dissident blogging in Egypt – and doesn’t make me an activist. I’m merely a journalist who believes that the fate of people of Mohammed al-Attar is as important as that of Ayman Nour. But don’t get me wrong: I’m not on a crusade to establish my credibility as an “objective” journalist – I rarely give “equal time” to corporate bosses or government officials when writing features on social movements – and I don’t really mind being called an activist. I just think it is unfair to real activists when that label get stuck on parasites like me who make a living in part by writing about them, without risking or sacrificing anything – except, perhaps, a future career in respectable mainstream media.
Then again, I never studied journalism properly and probably got it all wrong. Workers’ strikes and other protests around economic demands rarely make the headlines. Unless they turn into riots and people get killed, they are simply not newsworthy. But traveling around Egypt to meet ordinary people involved in day-to-day struggles for decent conditions, reacting against a perceived injustice or fighting oppression, I always felt like I was watching real history.
During the last few years, the labour movement in Egypt has reached a level of struggle that probably hasn’t been seen in the country since the 40’s, and less than a year ago state employees founded the first independent union since 1957. This had led to increased persecution of union activists in the form of arbitrary transfers and dismissals as well as persistent threats from security agents – while the head of the free union has been under investigation for “damaging the reputation” of the official trade unions abroad.
If this isn’t news, it’s bigger than news. And no matter what the reasons are, not being allowed to be in Egypt and report on this developing social movement feels like a big personal loss.