The view from the ground.

The Day of Hunting Journalists

It's sword versus pen on the bloody streets of Cairo.

Supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak take part in a pro-regime demonstration in Cairo on February 2, 2011. Partisans of Mubarak stormed a crowded anti-regime rally in central Cairo, sparking pandemonium in which at least 500 people were hurt and one killed, witnesses said. AFP PHOTO/MARCO LONGARI (Photo credit should read MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO — For journalists posted in revolutionary Cairo, Thursday, Feb. 3, presented itself at first as an opportunity to recover from and reflect on the violence of the previous day’s protest. It did not stay that way for long.

Around 12:30 p.m., a few fellow journalists and I decided to chat with ordinary Egyptians in the middle-class neighborhood of Dokki. We approached a street-side cart serving fuul — the cooked fava beans that are the national dish — and asked a few innocuous questions about food supplies and daily life. Were the stores reopening? Were people returning to work?

The situation turned south almost immediately. A crowd of local hotheads soon began assembling around us, demanding to see our identification and expressing suspicion of our intentions. I’m still not sure whether they thought we were spies or whether just being journalists was bad enough. One man asked aggressively whether we were “from that Jazeera channel that we’re all so disgusted by.” I responded perhaps a little too sarcastically, asking whether he saw any television cameras with us.

Suddenly one man started swinging at me, and the entire crowd suddenly became a mob. I was struck in the face at least four times. My colleague Lourdes Garcia-Navarro from NPR cleverly faked a fit of weeping hysteria, which seemed to get the guys to back off a bit.

After about a minute of scuffling, cooler heads in the crowd managed to pull me to relative safety and told me to get out and make for our waiting taxi down the block. I arrived at the taxi to find an entirely new standoff in progress. My colleagues — who included Garcia-Navarro and James Hider from the Times of London — were inside the taxi but penned in by another angry mob. They were banging on the windows and trying to get inside. One man parked his motorcycle directly in front of the car to block any escape.

As the only Egyptian in the group, I became the focal point for their anger. My accented Arabic (I was raised in the United States) only heightened their suspicions. One man kept yelling in my face, “You’re not really Egyptian. Who exactly are you?” In response to their demands for identification, I managed to produce my Egyptian passport. My driver, Gamal, also pleaded with the crowd, telling them that he had known me for 10 years and knew most of my family.

But the Egyptian passport did more harm than good because it states clearly that I was born in America: For the paranoid and xenophobic mob, this was the smoking gun that proved my guilt. The crowd started shouting, demanding that we be turned over to the police or the Army. I responded, “Yes, please! Find me a soldier. I’ll turn myself over.”

As I was beginning to genuinely fear for our safety, an officer from the military police appeared on the scene and immediately helped bring some calm to the situation. Against the protests of the crowd, the officer managed to get me into the taxi and, to keep us safe, escorted us to a walled-in courtyard. There we found another group of terrified journalists — this time all native Egyptians working for a local English-language paper. They too had been rescued from an angry mob by the Army. Clearly, similar scenes were playing out all across Cairo.

I don’t think that the mob that harassed me was part of a coordinated campaign against journalists. Our attackers were just ordinary Egyptian citizens whose nerves had been frayed by 10 days of uncertainty and unrest. State television fueled their anxiety with a steady diet of conspiracy theories claiming that shadowy foreign influences were behind the waves of civil unrest and that foreign journalists were hopelessly biased toward the anti-Mubarak protesters — thus actively helping to bring the regime down.

Elsewhere in Cairo, however, it genuinely seemed like journalists had indeed been explicitly targeted, starting during the day on Wednesday and peaking in a cascade of incidents on Thursday. Those who weren’t attacked by mobs were arrested by police officers or detained — allegedly for their own safety — by the military.

The Washington Post‘s Cairo bureau chief Leila Fadel was “among two dozen journalists arrested this morning by the Egyptian Interior Ministry. We understand that they are safe but in custody,” the Post announced. She was released late Thursday night.

At least three reporters from Al Jazeera’s English channel were apparently arrested by the Army while driving from the airport, according to the network’s staffers. A Greek journalist was stabbed in the leg.

The prominent local blogger who worked under the name “Sandmonkey” was arrested while trying to bring medical supplies to wounded protesters in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests. He later tweeted: “I am ok. I got out. I was ambushed & beaten by the police, my phone confiscated , my car ripped apar& supplies taken.”

CNN’s Anderson Cooper, along with a producer and cameraman, were attacked by crowds on Wednesday who punched them and attempted to break their camera. On Thursday, Cooper and crew were attacked again.

Andrew Lee Butters, a reporter working with Time magazine, was detained and roughed up by civilians, who he said were taking orders from uniformed police officers on the scene.

The sheer scope and number of incidents in one day should immediately discredit any government argument that these were isolated or spontaneous events. The U.S. State Department has already dismissed that possibility. “I don’t think these are random events,” said spokesman P.J. Crowley. “It appears to be an effort to disrupt the ability of journalists to cover today’s events.”

There’s really only one reason to attack journalists — if you don’t want them to report their observations to the outside world. Although the protesters occupying Tahrir Square on Thursday had a relatively peaceful day, the sudden wave of attacks against journalists has fueled concerns that there’s a tsunami coming — something the government and its supporters don’t want the world to see.

But Mubarak and his supporters should also be concerned. The forces they’re unleashing will not be so easy to contain again. The paranoia and xenophobia I witnessed on Thursday were unlike anything I’ve seen from the Egyptian people in 13 years of covering this country. For a country that depends heavily on a steady flow of foreign tourists, turning the Egyptian people against the outside world could have catastrophic long-term consequences.

Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist. This article is an edited excerpt of his book, Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.

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