Sunday’s New York Times contains a harrowing account by two NYT reporters, Souad Mekhennet and Nicholas Kulis, who were detained by Egyptian authorities for one day last week. Mekhennet is a German citizen of Arab origin and Kulis is American; also detained with them was their Egyptian driver, who is not a journalist and not involved in the demonstrations. Others have been detained as well, including Google Middle East Marketing Director Wael Ghonim, who has been held by Egyptian authorities since January 27.
Journalists Detained by Egyptian Authorities and the Secret Police
30 journalists were detained and 26 assaulted over the period that Mekhennet and Kulis were held, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Further there were eight instances of equipment–cameras, laptops—being seized.
Journalists in Egypt have, as the New York Times says, ‘a freer hand than many in the region’s police states, but the secret police [has] kept a close eye on both journalists and their sources.’ But ‘a campaign of intimidation against journalists and the Egyptians speaking to them became apparent’ as violence among the protests has escalated.
Mekhennet and Kulis were detained by the Egyptian authorities on Thursday afternoon while driving into Cairo after reporting on the demonstrations in Alexandria. They were handed over to the Mukhabarat, the secret police, and interrogated. They spent the night in ‘a cold room, on hard orange plastic stools, under fluorescent lights.’
As Mekhennet and Kulis write, what they endured for one day is the ‘brutal maze where Egyptians are lost for months or even years.’
We saw a journalist with his head bandaged and others brought in with jackets thrown over their heads as they were led by armed men.
In the morning, we could hear the strained voice of a man with a French accent calling out in English: “Where am I? What is happening to me? Answer me. Answer me.”
This prompted us into action — pressing to be released with more urgency, and indeed fear, than before. A plainclothes officer who said his name was Marwan gestured to us. “Come to the door,” he said, “and look out.”
We saw more than 20 people, Westerners and Egyptians, blindfolded and handcuffed. The room had been empty when we arrived the evening before.
“We could be treating you a lot worse,” he said in a flat tone, the facts speaking for themselves. Marwan said Egyptians were being held in the thousands. During the night we heard them being beaten, screaming after every blow.
Told they would be released the next day, Mekhennet and Kulis started asking to be freed at 6am. A member of the secret police appeared about five hours later and ‘became visibly annoyed by [their] requests, complaining that thousands of Egyptians civilians were in detention.’ Their requests were met and their driver released too. There was one more interchange with an interrogator:
An interrogator appeared and asked our driver, “What did you do in Tahrir Square?” He said we weren’t there. The interrogator said to the driver, “So you’re a traitor to your country.”
In Arabic, Ms. Mekhennet, a German citizen with Arab roots, kept telling the questioner that we are journalists for The New York Times. “You came here to make this country look bad,” the interrogator said.
The interrogator’s words ring ironically, in light of this report of Mekhennet’s and Kulis’ detention.
Google Marketing Director Detained Since January 27
Not only journalists have been detained. Google Middle East Marketing Director Wael Ghonim has been detained since Thursday, January 27. According to a February 6 post on TechCrunch, Ghonim is to be released at 4pm on Monday, February 7:
Missing since Thursday the 27th, Ghonim is thought to have hosted the first Facebook page that organized the January 25th protests. He disappeared shortly after the following disconcerting tweet, “Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die.”
After his disappearance, Ghonim was chosen as symbolic spokesperson by an Egyptian opposition group as a tactic to speed up his release. Avideo of a man who may or may not have been Ghonim getting arrested by the police has also been making the rounds.
TechCrunch cites an unspecified ‘source on the ground’ in Egypt who says that ‘the government has switched tactics as of late, instead of a complete information blackout it is using government controlled TV and press to influence popular opinion.’
Egyptians’ Wariness About Suleiman and the US’s Role
The Guardian describes Egypt’s recently appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman as a ‘former spymaster turned vice president.’ Suleiman is Egypt’s former intelligence chief and many are said to be ‘wary of the apparent deal being cooked up between Washington and Suleiman, with European backing, for the old regime to oversee the transition to democracy.’ Suleiman is still seen as part of the ‘old system.’ The Guardian interviewed Amr Mamoud who has spent twelve days in Tahrir Square with his wife, Reem:
Mahmoud was among many pro-democracy demonstrators suspicious of US backing for Suleiman’s plan to control the transition. After all, Suleiman was head of the intelligence services that played a commanding role in suppressing political dissent and free speech.
He also served the US in co-operating with its rendition of alleged terrorists, some of whom were interrogated under torture on behalf of the Americans in Egyptian jails.
“Why does America want to work with this man?” asked Mahmoud. “He has not been good for Egypt. He has not been good for us. He has served Mubarak and he has served America. We do no trust him and if they have chosen him, then we do not trust America. We will stay here until we get what we want.”
Noting that there is ‘no particular anti-US sentiment in Tahrir Square,’ the Guardian reports ‘wariness’ about the US’s role.
Meanwhile, banks in Egypt have reopened after being closed for many days, so that people can get cash to buy food. The authorities have also called on people to return to their jobs. The government wants the stock market to reopen, after being closed for the past two weeks, but this plan was cancelled. It is estimated that the protests in Egypt have cost the economy more than $3 billion over the past two week, with some one million tourists having left the country and ‘little sign of them returning soon.’
To see more about the developments in Egypt, click here.
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