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Fear Descends on Cairo

A firsthand look at how violence and paranoia are muzzling the press.

Cairo, Egypt—It is getting harder and harder to report from Egypt. I’ve lived here for more than two years, and although Egypt has a reputation for oppressing the country’s domestic media, it doesn’t usually crack down on foreigners. Now, that has changed. The government is rendering it increasingly dangerous to collect information—both by encouraging direct assaults on foreign journalists, and by nurturing an atmosphere thick with paranoia and fear.

On Thursday, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that “Mubarak unleashed an unprecedented and systematic attack on international media today as his supporters assaulted reporters in the streets while security forces began obstructing and detaining journalists.” At that point, it had collected nearly 50 accounts of reporters being held or beaten, either by members of the security forces or plainclothes thugs. The offices of media outlets operating with a view of Tahrir Square have been shut down, and even during non-curfew hours it has become unsafe to report from outside the square.

I’ve encountered some attacks myself. Earlier this week, a photographer, an Arab reporter, and I were assaulted by a mob in a working-class neighborhood. They said we were “informants” and “devil agents of Al Jazeera.” Egyptian state television had been reporting that the channel, whose license had been revoked the day before, was characterizing Egypt unflatteringly. There was violence as the crowd grew angry, most of it directed at the Arab reporter. Yesterday, I was threatened again, as a hysterical woman accused me of being a foreign element and asked the men I was interviewing to detain me. Unlike the previous instance, I wasn’t attacked. 

This atmosphere has made it difficult to interview even Egyptians who are well disposed to the press. “We have received information that there are agents from external parties here. They are collecting information about us,” Magid Mohammed, an anti-Mubarak IT specialist, told me after another man in a group I was interviewing asked me for my press ID mid-conversation, in the center of Tahrir Square. “Due to the current situation, everyone is suspecting everyone, including you.”

“We’re hearing there’s a lot of propaganda on the news, foreign elements in the square manipulating the situation,” said Nazly Hussein, who set up a makeshift media center in the middle of the grass where protesters have pitched tents. Nazly says people on the square heard rumors about Hamas elements, Afghanis, and American agents. “They’re trying to get people to dislike foreigners on the square.”

The paranoia is pervasive. When I interviewed a man waiting in line for bread yesterday, I was accused of being a foreign agent once more. As we walked briskly back to the parked car, a man followed us asking for my ID. “Israeli?” “Israeli?” he kept asking. My translator and I got in the car.

Because of state television and what I’d been hearing on the streets, after a time, I decided it was too dangerous to tell people I was a foreign reporter—and I’ve been forced to watch the violence and sloganeering without asking people about their motivations. Some anti-Mubarak protesters continue to approach me and ask me to tell the world that they want Mubarak out, and that they’re not leaving until he goes. But it’s becoming ever more difficult to paint a clear and complete picture of what’s going on.

Sarah A. Topol is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.

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