Prominent French journalist Alain Gresh was detained by Egyptian police on November 11 after leaving a cafe in an upscale Cairo neighbourhood. Here, he gives us an account of what actually happened.
First, let’s take a look at the facts. On November 9-10, I attended an EU-sponsored conference held in Cairo on “problems of translation”. I decided to stay on a few more days to meet some people in order to take stock of any changes and iron out some problems related to the Arabic edition of Le Monde Diplomatique.
On November 11, at 11am, in an upscale cafe located in front of the British Embassy – whose impressive size serves as a reminder that Britain once ruled over an occupied Egypt – I met two Egyptian friends: One is a columnist, the other a student. The place was small and the tables are very near to each other, but I did not pay attention to our neighbours.
The conversation went on; we were speaking in both Arabic and English about what was happening in the country, the situation in the universities and the state of the media. After half an hour, a well-dressed lady sitting next to us – and of whom I had taken no notice – stood-up visibly furious and addressed us, before leaving the place, saying: “You want to destroy the country!”
We did not respond and continued our conversation. Shortly afterwards, a man entered the cafe, presumably an agent of the “mukhabarat” (state intelligence) and sat down – but we did not pay attention to him either.
The moment we stepped out of the cafe, we were apprehended by that same man, who had left the place just before we did, and some other officers in uniform. It is worth mentioning that we were well treated throughout. The police even brought a chair to one of the two women who was pregnant. Then they took our identity papers and started questioning each one of us, there in the street. In my case, they asked where I was staying in Cairo, why I changed hotels during my stay and when I arrived in Egypt.
After half an hour, they gave me back my passport and told me to leave. I refused, as the other two people were not free to leave too. Five minutes later, they took my passport again, and one of the officers asked me if I had an authorisation from the Ministry of Information; I did not.
Following my answer, that same officer, thinking he had me cornered, replied: “And if I had to interview people in France, wouldn’t I need authorisation?”
He was surprised by my negative response.
An hour later, I informed the French Embassy as well as the head of the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate. Following this episode, many figures were informed including, apparently, the Egyptian prime minister and most certainly the interior ministry. I was then set “free”. But again, the two women were still not free to leave. For this reason, I refused to leave without them and again called the head of the Journalists’ Syndicate. Finally they let us all go. The incident lasted an hour and a half.
Back at the hotel, at 6 pm, I received a call from the interior ministry. I was told that a car would pick me up and take me to the ministry. A meeting was held with the deputy minister of human rights (a military general) in the presence of other generals. Apologies were expressed, saying it was a “mistake” to have arrested me.
I cannot help but think that these reactions, partly exaggerated, were related to my status as a ‘white journalist’.
This incident raises three important questions. The most serious issue at stake is obviously not the arrest itself, but the fact that we have been denounced by a “good citizen”. This move reflects the dominating atmosphere in the country and to which most of the media, including the privately-owned ones, are contributing.
Harming the state
Recently, newspapers and TV channels’ directors have argued that because of the war on terrorism, they refrain from publishing any information that could harm the state – albeit, hundreds of journalists have signed a petition against that.
Moreover, TV channels denounce anyone who makes the slightest criticism. Journalists with different views have been practically excluded from daily newspapers’ columns. A segment of the public is very vigilant, convinced that Egypt is subject to an insidious European-US-Israeli plot – which is quite ironic, given the strong relationship between Cairo and Tel Aviv now. The atmosphere is reminiscent of the United States in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, which was summed up by President George W Bush’s slogan: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
The second issue is about the power of social media that spread the news of my experience with a speed and force that surprised me. Within hours, the word spread across the world. I have received many messages of support. I have been interviewed by numerous TV channels. The Commissioner of the European Union responsible for human rights issues has even issued a condemnation
Thirdly, I cannot help but think that these reactions, partly exaggerated, were related to my status as a “white journalist”. In other words, there are thousands of political prisoners in Egypt, some of whom are on hunger strike and may die, as well as arbitrary arrests and proven cases of torture that should be raising more indignation and condemnation.
That being said, all the better if this incident draws attention to those cases. My thoughts go primarily to the political prisoners on hunger strike , including Alaa Abdel Fattah and Mohamed Sultan. The deteriorating human rights situation, the decline of democratic liberties in Egypt should not let anyone remain indifferent, certainly not those who consider themselves friends of Egypt and its people.
Alain Gresh is deputy director of Le Monde Diplomatique and a specialist on the Middle East.
This article was written in French by Alain Gresh and translated into English by Ali Saad.