Austin Mackell's Egypt Ordeal Ends


I didn’t actually feel anything at first. I just registered the fact, like a statistic for an article I was writing about someone else. It was when I started telling other people that I felt it, the relief, pouring in slow and steady like the tide.

The news came from the Consul Simon Harrison who was fresh from attending a meeting between the Australian ambassador and the newly appointed justice minister. After more than six months in which the legal process had proceeded at a snail’s pace, the ridiculous allegation that post-grad student and translator Derek Ludovici, news producer Aliya Alwi and myself had promised to give money to children if they threw rocks at a police station, were dropped.

After getting off the phone I remembered in the initial hearing at general prosecutors office in Mahalla, having the charges translated to me by an aging Egyptian man whose English was not as good as he had led his colleagues to believe. I was charged, I was told, (and I quote from memory) "with breaking the law of Egypt, with devastation against public and private, even though this did not take place."

You’re telling me, I had thought. What he meant was that I was charged with inciting people to commit illegal acts, in particular destruction of property, even though said destruction of property did not occur. Having already spent two days being shuttled between two local police stations, the interior ministry office in the neighbouring city of Tanta and the headquarters of Military Intelligence in Cairo, I wasn’t in the mood for humour.

The 11-year-old boy who was the star witness against us didn’t go as far as fabricating any actual acts of vandalism, just the claim that we had encouraged it, and promised a reward. The boy was accompanied, and at points (not at the prosecutor’s office, but earlier at the interior ministry) clearly encouraged, by two grown men.

These men claimed not to have seen or heard us make these promises, but to have been told about it by the children, and then to later have seen us acting suspiciously in ways they struggled to describe. It had also been a child who spotted us, attempting to sneak back through the main square after having once escaped the angry mob that swarmed our car as soon as we arrived. Spotting us through the traffic, he had twisted his whole body into the gesture of pointing at us, and shouted "FOREIGNERS! SPIES!". It was all bullshit. Top to bottom.

Except during the very earliest stages of our captivity, when we were repeatedly told we were being held only for our own protection and other lies, there was not even the pretence of objectivity by the investigators we spoke to. They were out to get us, and made it clear, joking and smiling with the "witnesses" against us. They were allowed to film us with their mobile phones and make bragging calls in front of us about what great patriots they were.

As we were about to be taken from Tanta to Cairo (we had no idea of the destination at the time), the witnesses looked on, taking one last chance to make menacing and mocking gestures, mostly at Aliya, whose presence as an unveiled Egyptian girl with two white guys provoked an extra layer of hostility throughout the entire ordeal.

Thankfully, by this stage we had already gotten word out both on social media and to professional journalists about what was happening. As a result activists from the No To Military Trials For Civilians Campaign managed to gather a group of lawyers to represent us and observe proceedings by the time we were brought before the prosecutor the next evening. By this stage we had travelled hundreds of kilometres, and I had had the great honour of being hand-cuffed to one of Egypt’s brave independent labour organisers, Kamal El-Fayoumi (pdf) — who had been predictably arrested after coming to the police station to help us. For him the whole thing was routine. He had been through far worse.

As to whether our arrest was planned in advance, it is hard to know. Perhaps my interviews with dissident army and police officers, or of union and economic issues, or the case of Maikel Nabil, had already drawn the wrong kind of attention. I may have already been under surveillance. I have been told by activists that it is naive of me to think I wasn’t.

The story that I and my flatmate Patrick Galey were working on at the time, investigating possible disunity (and a reluctance to be seen as SCAF’s enforcers) in the armed forces, may also have been a factor. The day after our arrest, not far from the Military Intelligence HQ we had been taken to, a number of openly dissident officers, who provided the hook for our article, were being charged.

No one was there to cover it. I was still in custody, and Patrick, wisely following the advice of a high level source, decided to take a spur of the moment trip to Jordan (had he not he may well have been in our apartment when it was raided).

If the point was to put us off this story, it worked. If the point was to scare other journalists from going to Mahalla, it worked. In terms of foreigners, I know of two hardcore German leftists who attempted a visit, only to end up in police custody before getting out of the train station. (They were allowed to leave after a short period and returned to Cairo, having effectively been prevented from seeing anything of the city.) I also know of journalists who have cancelled or deferred plans to visit the town following my experiences.

As I have written before on New Matilda, the charges might have been generated simply to aid the narrative that state media had long been espousing: that strikes were sabotage aimed at stopping "the wheel of production" and probably the plots of outside forces.

It’s also possible that there was simply a confrontation already brewing between two groups of residents with divergent views and/or between the locals and the other news crew (from the Jan 25 Channel) who were already present when we arrived. This crew also included some girls from the city dolled up in a way that would have been eye-catching in Cairo, and was in the context of the tough conservative Mahalla, probably considered quite shocking.

Derek and I, as foreigners like the ones State TV is always talking about, may have simply become lightning rods for the pent up tension. Once news of foreigners involved in a ruckus in Mahalla reached high command, on this the anniversary of Mubarak’s ousting, they may have decided it was too good an opportunity to miss.

After the initial hearing in the General prosecutors office, the lawyer who turned out to be my lawyer, as well as Derek’s and Aliya’s (there was confusion about that at one stage), told us he was very confident that the charges would very likely never make it to court, and that if they did there would never be a conviction. It was just a matter of time.

The charges carried a maximum possible sentence of seven years, and the climate at the time was growing increasingly hostile to Westerners. Advertisements were appearing on state TV about the dangers of spies: "Why tell the foreigner anything?"

Around the same time as this, the defence in the Mubarak trial even referred to our case, further proof, they said, that there was a foreign plot afoot against Egypt, a plot by a mysterious "third party" who had killed the protesters, rather than police.

Thankfully the heat seems to have largely come out of the topic since then. But it in a proud country that has long been under the boot of foreign powers, and the majority of whose citizens live in conditions that are truly appalling, it is very possible these flames could once again be fanned.

This is would be of particular concern for American NGO worker, Robert Becker, who was arrested along with dozens of others in a major swoop on NGOs including the National Democratic Institute, where Becker worked. All this occurred just a little before my arrest.

Afterwards, during the first months of my long wait — while I was still jumping from couch to couch to short term rental, having been forced from my apartment after it was raided by the police and I was threatened by local youth who had seen me on TV along with accusations of spying and sabotage — the NGO case turned into a major fiasco for the Egyptian government, with all the American staff of the NGO’s being flown out to Malta on a military plane.

All that is, except for Becker, who honourably decided to stay behind. As he told me over a coffee, he couldn’t abandon those who worked under him to face prosecution without him. Another journalist present dubbed him "the Inconvenient American" as he wouldn’t just get out of the way and let the Egyptian authorities act tough on foreigners by prosecuting Egyptians. Sherif Mansour, another American citizen, has also since flown back to face court. Progress is slow, the next court date being the September 9.

Robert can usually be found in a trendy cafe, the make do office of many writers and journalists, on the exclusive island of Zamalek. He complains often about Egypt’s political class — some of whom he helped train — and their bumbling attempts at democracy. He rarely criticises the Muslim brotherhood.

As a formerly successful campaign manager in America, what frustrates him mostly is not any attempts to subvert democracy, but how astonishingly bad at it the liberal forces in Egyptian politics are, building campaigns around the separation of religion and politics, freedom of the press — playing into an identity game the Islamists will likely win, rather than addressing the issues that actually concern Egyptians: jobs and security, health and education.

He has adapted as best he can to the waiting game. You have to. Over time, living with the case in the background became the new normal, a fact of life. I hated being asked about it the way you hate being asked about a boring job. Papers moved from this office to this office we think. Embassy can’t even get the status of my case officially confirmed (but CNN can, and so can my lawyer).

Then, suddenly, it would be terrifying again. Phone calls to family back home, and even to friends here, were ruined by the thought that we might be being listened to or recorded or both. The lift in a building I lived in for most of the time since my arrest played a "travellers prayer" from the Koran every time it moved. Hearing it would often trigger anxiety. This would peak if I heard the lift came to a stop on my level. I would have to fight the urge to run to the peephole and check if it was them, you know, coming for me.

During this period I wrote a few articles for New Matilda and The Drum, and make a couple of appearances on CBC, but most of what I was reporting I could have learned in Sydney. The shiny new passport the embassy issued still had no entry stamp or permit of any kind. This was something that might actually be noticed by the police, soldiers or ordinary citizens who regularly approach foreign journalists demanding identification, even if, as is sometimes the case, they clearly cannot read or do not understand the documents they pretend to studiously examine. As such I have been minimising my travel, and generally only going to areas where foreigners are a common sight.

Soon, I am told, someone from the embassy will accompany me to the "Mogamma" — which roughly translates as "the gathering place" — a massive Soviet looking administrative complex that stands as an icon of Nasser’s concentration of power in Cairo under himself. It is even more ugly and unnavigable than you imagine it would be.

There we will get some kind of visa or permit for my passport and I can start moving round normally or leave the country if I decide. I had been strongly advised against trying to go there and get some temporary visa while the case was pending, by both the embassy and by my lawyer. One person added "you know they have holding cells in that building". Even now the case is closed I have been advised not to go alone, in case some list or database hasn’t been updated, leading to confusion and a whole new "incident". Next step after that is attempting to chase down the money and possessions — phones, laptops, cameras, books and other items — taken from us during our arrest or during the raid that followed.

It feels good to be free again, but this isn’t really a victory. Throwing a legal case at someone, even if the chances of a conviction are slim, is an excellent way to fuck with their life and scare others away from doing whatever it is the person is doing that you don’t like. For the last six months I have been in Egypt, but I haven’t been reporting on civilians who continue to rot in jails after being convicted in unfair military courts, or about the deep economic pain caused by the governments reckless programs of liberalisation and privatisation or the looming IMF loan that could lock these in place, or about the oppression of the Bedouin in Sinai, or the Nuba in the south. We had a phone number of a lawyer, working for the family of a man they say was murdered in a tribal dispute, but the phone it was in was taken.

The saddest thing about the incident however, is that Egypt stopped being interesting while the case loomed ominously. Egypt simply became simply dirty, dysfunctional and crowded.

Yesterday evening, riding in a taxi along the banks of the Nile, past the hospital Mubarak went to when he chucked a sickie from prison, and the court next door that had recently dissolved the parliament, I caught a scent in the air that I couldn’t identify. It brought back suddenly and vividly the sense of wonder and privilege I had felt when I first arrived in Egypt — the mother of history, the land of the pharaohs and of Moses — to witness the birth of a new democracy.

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