Foreign Journos Aren't The Real Target In Egypt

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As many New Matilda readers will know, a little over a month ago, I — along with Aliya Alwi, an Egyptian translator and news producer and Derek Ludovici, an American masters student — was arrested in a city called Mahalla El Kubra about two hours drive north of Cairo, where we had travelled to interview trade union leader Kamal el-Fayoumi. The three of us were held for around 56 hours, during which time we were charged with inciting people to commit vandalism. Specifically, it is alleged we promised to give children money if they threw rocks at a police station.

A network quickly sprang up to support us. So far this support has included an open letter — which you can sign here if you haven’t already — calling on the Australian government to act on my behalf, and a rally held last Sunday outside the offices of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Having these supporters is a great comfort and they will be an important factor in determining how the charges against me are resolved. However, I’ve noticed two common misconceptions in coverage of my situation. My hope is that by addressing these I can also present a clearer picture of the rapidly evolving situation here in Egypt.

Misconception 1: I along with other journalists am the target
When a journalist is locked up on false charges, the obvious conclusion is that they have provoked the ire of the authorities by reporting on sensitive topics. Given that I was an early critic of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) — the military junta that assumed the executive role following the ouster of Mubarak in February of last year — as well as one of only a few journalists who focused on the roles of economic inequality and organised labour in the revolution, many, particularly outside Egypt, have concluded that what is happening is an attempt to shut me up and scare other journalists away.

This isn’t the case. The real motive behind our arrest was not to stop a story, but to create one. Indeed within hours of our arrest, a photo taken by an officer inside the police station had been forwarded to state news outlets and was running alongside stories of two foreigners having been arrested in Mahalla stirring dissent. This is nothing new.

Since the onset of the revolution here, and indeed even before those in power have sought to delegitimise dissent by painting it as part of a foreign plot. There were, state TV and other outlets repeatedly claimed during the 18 days of protest leading to Mubarak’s downfall, foreign enemies of Egypt giving out money, drugs, and even Kentucky Fried Chicken to the protesters in Tahrir Square. This rhetoric has not stopped, and through its constant repetition, the idea has been lodged in the minds of many Egyptians that continued unrest — in particular the unending waves of strikes that have rocked the country — is the result of a plot by foreign powers attempting to sabotage the glorious future the people and the army are building together.

A vicious cycle has been created. Foreigners are often placed under "citizen arrest" by suspicious mobs (a practice encouraged by state media) then handed over to police or army officers. These cases are then reported in state media as evidence of the foreign plot, and the paranoia is further fuelled — and the revolutionaries further undermined.

As much as those threatened by the revolution might dislike foreign journalists like me, they fear activists like el-Fayoumi much more. Arresting us is simply a means of discrediting them.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the danger is any less real. Should the prosecution proceed and be successful — a question which has more to do with politics than legalities or the facts of the case — being a nice soft white-boy in an overcrowded Egyptian prison will suck no matter what the motives of those who put me there.

Misconception 2: The SCAF are definitely behind the charges.
It is possible that, having ranted about foreign agents so loud and so long, the SCAF felt compelled to produce evidence that they were taking a firm stand against them. There is another — and perhaps far more dangerous — possibility.

In December 2011, a number of NGO offices in Cairo, including those of the National Democratic Institute, affiliated with the Democratic Party in America, and the International Republican Institute, which has links to the Republicans, were raided. Soon after, charges were laid against 44 of their employees, 16 of them Americans. The created a full blown international incident.

The issue was raised by America’s ambassador to the UN Susan Rice and a number of senators, including John McCain and chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey travelled to Egypt in an attempt to resolve the issue. Many activists — fully aware of the close relationship between the military and the United States — saw this as theatre designed to strengthen the image of the ruling generals in the eyes of the population.

I am not so sure.

The woman behind the NGO case, and all likelihood, behind the charges against us, is the Minister for International Cooperation, Fayza Abul Naga. Abul Naga is one of the most prominent holdovers from the civilian clique the Mubarak family had built up around themselves to establish a powerbase separate to the military. She is also considered to be one of the smartest operators in Egyptian politics.

While many see her as having now switched her allegiance to SCAF, and therefore see her actions regarding our case and the NGOs as part of their plan, it seems more likely that in an effort to build popular support, secure her position, and to protect the interests of what’s left of her camp, she is putting pressure on the SCAF. Along with allies in the interior ministry, which was also expanded by Mubarak, she is effectively threatening to bring the whole temple down on all their heads  — starting with the US-Egypt alliance.

This explains why things have been allowed to get so serious, with the United States Congress coming to the verge of cutting of the cash to the Egyptian military.

It would also make sense of Abul Naga’s moves in June of last year, when she was the sole senior Egyptian official to oppose fresh IMF loans that would have helped lock in the economic privileges of the elite. During the Mubarak era, she had been nvolved in securing exactly these kinds of deals. Suddenly she was saying they were not in the national interest.

Further evidence for this theory can be found in perhaps the strangest development yet in the NGO case, the lifting of the travel ban on the Americans without the charges being dropped. It’s an outcome which implies different hands on different levers, with different and possibly competing agendas.

If this is Abul Naga’s game, she has plenty of domestic allies, with the Islamist majority parliament and talk show host Tawfik Okasha (the Egyptian equivalent of Rush Limbaugh or Andrew Bolt) having come out to condemn the lifting of the travel ban. The former is now moving to question whether Egypt should continue to accept US aid. With this backlash adding to the substantial pressures on the SCAF to look tough on foreigners and their local associates, the situation for me and my colleagues could be very dire.

If this is the case, it is a sign that the position of the SCAF is much weaker than many had thought. This makes sense. Indeed I had been wondering whether it was time to write an article arguing — in a breach with my previous position — that SCAF were no longer the biggest threat to the revolution.

Over the year since the revolution began, it has become increasingly common for activists and commentators to describe SCAF leader Hussein Tantawi as the new Mubarak. But while the perception of SCAF’s power has grown, their actual power has been moving the other way.

That does not mean the military will not remain the single largest and most powerful body in the country, or that it will end its role as a guarantor of America’s interests in the region. It does mean that the SCAF’s control over this sprawling institution has been weakened with a series of public defections and informed sources speaking of more widespread unrest at all levels. It also means that the revolution’s other enemies, both new (like the Islamist bloc in parliament) and old (like the remaining Mubarak-era politicians, business men and security bosses) should now receive increased attention from the revolutionaries and those who sympathise with them.

It also shows, however, that these counter-revolutionary forces are internally divided. This may bode poorly in my specific case, with the generals unable to call off the attack dogs even if they want to, but it does bode well for the revolution’s long term prospects.

None of this changes my call to the Australian government to take whatever action it can on behalf of me and my colleagues. Indeed it means that action is even more urgent. It means there are more moving parts for the new Foreign Minister to consider, and more numbers for him to call. If he doesn’t want an Australian citizen locked away for years on bogus charges as he starts his new job, he needs to act now.

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