US reporter's Cairo detention diary

View protest images from January 28 and read how pro-Mubarak security forces menaced American photojournalist in Cairo.


    On Friday, January 28, a nationwide uprising began across Egypt demanding the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the US-backed president who has autocratically ruled the country since 1981.

    Egyptian activists invited me along to the working-class Imbaba area of the city, instead of going to the known protests in central Cairo. They chose the neighborhood to show solidarity with protesters in areas of the city where they knew media and experienced activists wouldn't be, and to make sure that support was available if needed.

    There were calls around the city that people take to the streets around the country after the Friday call to prayers ended shortly after midday. We waited near one of the large mosques in Imbaba for the prayers to conclude. Once they did, we waited for people to gather and protest. They didn't. The Mubarak regime had forced all mobile phone providers to halt service that day, so we were cutoff and unable to get reports of what was happening elsewhere around the city.

    With police and plainclothes security hanging around, we decided to get in a taxi and go to a different neighborhood where protests were supposed to happen. Our driver told us that the city was on fire, and he had heard reports of numerous protests underway and said the roads were hard to travel with police trying to keep control. We tried to head to go down a main street only to have police frantically pull barriers into the middle of it diverting us down a side road.

    From the back seat I could see commotion ahead of us. When we saw a couple signs being carried, we hopped out of the taxi and ran up ahead to join the small demonstration. At first it was only abut 50 people, around half of them children. But they were a motivated group, and their chants calling for Mubarak to leave the country did not sound empty.

    The group shouted to bystanders and neighbors looking out from their windows calling for them to join. They went up and down the street, sometimes taking a turn down side streets. The march had not been planned, nor did it have any leaders - it was a completely organic uprising. Not even an hour after we joined it, the demonstration had grown to such a size that from the front of it I couldn't see its end.

    Eventually, around 100 armed riot police tried to stop the march as it neared their position at the end of a main street. Protesters remained determined and continued marching until the police immediately began firing tear gas indiscriminately at the crowd. There was a stampede as protesters sought cover from the gas running down alleyways. After a few minutes when the effects of the gas began to wear off, protesters returned some throwing stones and random debris, others only chanting against Mubarak as they advanced toward the police line. The battle continued for a number of hours. There was no stopping the demonstrators, they were unequivocally chanting for the fall of the Mubarak regime and would settle for nothing less. In the end, the police retreated while many of protesters probably went off to join the numerous demonstrations happening across Cairo.

    In the midst of all this, I was attacked.

    I was both the only foreigner and journalist at the Imbaba protests that day. I spent more than five hours alongside demonstrators documenting their battle against the police. I was often stopped by demonstrators asking where I was from and where the pictures would be published. Nearly all of them were excited by my presence, hoping that I would be able to tell their struggle to the world. At one point, a demonstrator grabbed me: "Tell the world about the Egyptian people, tell them we want freedom!"

    What I was witnessing in Imbaba I had only seen previously in occupied Palestine. It was a grassroots uprising borne out of decades of anger and frustration at the US-backed dictator. I took a break from photographing and from the gas and watched, thinking that such explosiveness could not be stopped.

    It was then they grabbed me. Five men came from my side, the biggest put his arm around my neck and began walking me into a nearby building. "Come talk with me," he said. "Who are you?" I shouted back as I tried to struggle away from his grasp. He tried to reassure me that they only wanted to talk in the bottom of a nearby building. I shouted to my friends for help; a few came running. I futilely tried to resist and was easily overpowered. From the very beginning, I made it perfectly clear to them that I am American journalist.

    The men wanted me alone in some place away from the demonstrations, since protesters could easily turn on them had they known they were state agents. Their grabbing me on the street had made a scene, and hundreds of protesters came trying to find out what was happening. Shoving and shouting ensued, and I shouted repeatedly at the men: "Ayzin eh?! Ayzin eh?!" (What do you want?). I tried again to call to my friends, who we were being held back by some of the men. Someone had ripped open my bag and taken nearly everything out of it.

    Protesters were then entering the small building's lobby by the dozens. They were shouting and screaming, trying to figure out what was happening. I continued shouting until the big man shoved his elbow in my neck, making it hard for me to call for help - let alone breathe.  While they held me against the wall they also had to fend off angry protesters. This went on for a number of minutes when an Egyptian activist came up beside the three men holding me up against the wall. He whispered to me, "give me your cards."

    I pointed to a zipper pocket in my coat and managed to sneak a hand down enough to open it up. He reached inside and grabbed the small card pouch before darting off. The chaos continued, as I remained pinned against the wall. Moments later, my friend returned. This time he asked for the camera. I shook my shoulder and managed somehow to drop it to the ground. Again, he took it and quickly darted off.

    Soon after the men realized they would not be able to properly interrogate me and search my belongings in the chaotic lobby. They forced me in the elevator, and I grabbed onto the shirt of one of the activists, a well known human rights worker, to make sure that she came up with us. The five of us got off on the fifth floor. A couple of the men had to run up the stairs, which they then blocked off and pushed anyone down who tried to come up after them.

    They wanted my ID, but I resisted still demanding to know who they were and what they wanted exactly. They refused to say. They began screaming, and the leader of the group who had grabbed me first on the street became visibly infuriated. The human rights activist, an older woman, stood in front of me and pushed me with her back into the corner. She made it clear that if they wanted to get to me, they first had to go through her.

    They tried to grab me, but she wouldn't let them. They finally began shoving and even hitting her to get at me. I eventually had to calm them by first agreeing to show them my ID. After seeing it they then moved on to the real reason why they had stopped me. They wanted the pictures I took that day.

    "Where are the SIM cards?" they asked me in Arabic. What they were actually looking for were my camera's compact flash memory cards, which at that point were long gone. I saw one of the men take from his pocket a spare battery of mine among other mostly replaceable items that they stole from my backpack. Knowing they had taken some items, I replied, "I don't know where the cards are, why don't you tell me?"

    They looked confused, but they wouldn't stop. After more than an hour they said they were leaving, and a neighbor invited me and a few activists into his flat. A little while later, the security officers were knocking on the door, again demanding the cards. I told them that I wanted the same. They left, but we all knew they would remain in the area and probably try to detain us when they had the chance. To kidnap out in the open would not be that easy with thousands of anti-government protesters still battling with police right outside. As it grew dark and the protests dwindled, we decided to make a move before the streets were completely empty. Another neighbor in the building offered to take us somewhere else, and we left the building. Two activists, both larger young men, grabbed me by both arms. I covered my head with a hooded sweatshirt and we left. We soon got in the neighbor's car and drove off; we were safe.

    That was more than a week ago. Since then, attacks on journalists have only increased, leading many to leave the country out of fear for their safety. There have been dozens of stories of both foreign and local journalists being assaulted and detained by police, plainclothes thugs and Egyptian civilians. The government has embarked on a propaganda campaign accusing "foreign elements" of being behind the country's unrest to try and create an atmosphere of xenophobia around the whole country, where it previously didn't exist. The ongoing protest against the government at Tahrir Square has been the safest place for foreign journalists.

    What I saw in Imbaba, and what I've seen at protests in Cairo every day since - a grassroots uprising of Egyptians from all different backgrounds angry at their government - puts the government's claims to rest. The role that foreign journalists are playing in Egypt is by default one of support as we try to get the word out about what's happening and break through the Mubarak regime's tight media blockade. And it's exactly for that reason that the government has tried to prevent us from doing our job.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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