Woes of an ordinary journalist

Through a small window, inside a metal box just over two meters wide, I gazed at the road outside. My husband and children appeared to me on the faces of passersby in the streets. I saw my parents crying. I watched boats glide on the Nile as I recalled the grand dreams I once had for journalism and for my future — dreams, now cast adrift, that would never come to shore.

I wished the journey in the police truck would last for ages, that the time when we reached our final destination, some detention center, would never come. I wished I knew what the charges against me and my colleagues, Lina Attalah and Mohamed Hamama, were. Charges that led 10 large men to escort us outside, shackle us and lock us firmly inside a police truck. I wished I didn’t already know what would lay in store for us in prison and the corridors of courthouses.

Like a film reel rolling before my eyes, I visualized everything I had ever heard or read about the conditions of detention. I remembered how my bones ache every winter. My thoughts jumped to my children and who would take care of them. I thought of everything except what I could have done to avoid this fate.

Two days before the raid on Mada Masr, security forces at the Cairo airport prevented me from traveling to Jordan to attend a conference on investigative journalism. The national security officer at the airport told me I was registered on their watchlist and that I would not be able to travel unless I consulted with the relevant officer in charge of my file at the Interior Ministry. 

I asked him if this meant there was an order banning me from travel. He answered calmly, “Not from the Public Prosecution, but from the responsible officer at the National Security Agency.” I asked him the reason. He responded that he didn’t have my file in front of him but added, “You’re a journalist. You must have done something.” He recommended I go to the National Security Agency headquarters to settle the matter with the officer responsible. I failed to get any answers to the questions that popped into my head. 

As I walked out of the airport, my legs felt heavy. I had no plan, but I knew I had no intention of returning to the airport again. My friends advised me to completely ignore the issue until fate ran its course. Others recommended I file a case to challenge the travel ban.

About a year ago, I was also stopped at the airport. I was on my way to Jordan, also to attend a journalism conference. They informed me that I was on an inspection list. I was made to wait in an office for several hours until I eventually missed my flight. The conference organizers bought me another ticket, and I was able to travel later that day. But on my return, my passport was confiscated. I was told to go to one of the National Security Agency bureaus in eastern Cairo to find out what the issue was. I informed the Journalists Syndicate, and they advised me to go. “It will only be a little chat,” one of the syndicate board members told me.

I went and ended up sitting with a national security officer for more than five hours straight. He asked me unremarkable questions about journalism and politics. I explained to him that I am an ordinary journalist who does her job properly and gets both sides of the story. I said that I publish everything under my name and have nothing to hide. The officer spoke to me gently at first, then sharply, then gently again. He eventually told me that I would not be getting my passport back that day and said I would be contacted in two or three days to come back and pick it up. “I don’t see any problems with you,” he added.

With this last remark in mind, I went to the airport again last month, not knowing what would happen. Yet this time, I was not just stopped but banned from travel altogether. I left the airport, my head swirling with 50 questions about why I was put on these lists and what that meant for my future. Who added my name to these lists? And why? What law was all this based on? Is every journalist put on these lists? Does this make any sense? My mind couldn’t handle all these questions, and I slept for a full 18 hours that night.

But, as soon as I woke up, the same questions came flooding back. Did my name being added to these lists have anything to do with what I wrote in Al-Maqal newspaper in 2016 when covering the issue of the Tiran and Sanafir islands? The Court of Administrative Justice had issued a verdict nullifying the agreement to redraw the maritime borders between Egypt and Saudi Arabia that included ceding control of the two islands to Saudi Arabia. My article raised questions about why Major Mamdouh Shaheen, then the Defense Ministry’s deputy director for legal affairs, met with the then-head of the Supreme Administrative Court immediately after the ruling. Lawyers in the case used the news of this meeting to successfully argue against putting the head of the Supreme Administrative Court in charge of considering the government’s appeal against the verdict.

Or is my travel ban perhaps linked to the speaker of Parliament’s decision to ban me from entering Parliament in my capacity as an editor at Al-Maqal because of how I would scrutinize the speaker’s comments about the Constitution and the law on the floor of the legislature? I specifically questioned him about concealing amendments to the State Council law after it had been approved by two-thirds of Parliament in August 2016.

Or does it have it have anything to do with what I have written at Mada Masr? Is it because I followed the advice of the presidential campaign spokesperson, who told me to review the president’s financial disclosure report? Is it because I attempted to clarify what powers the latest constitutional amendments granted to the military judiciary at the expense of other judicial bodies? Is it because I documented the new process by which judicial heads are selected? 

Perhaps it is all of the above. Or perhaps it is something else that I do not know about that has compelled authorities to name me among criminals and dangerous individuals who are included in these lists because they pose a threat to national security.

All of these questions vanished as soon as I heard that my colleague Shady Zalat was arrested from his home at dawn. I went through a very difficult moment. The danger had become imminent. I entered into a state of panic and fear. What should I do? Was there anything I could do? I dressed in warm, comfortable clothes and began wandering the streets hoping to shed the fear that was crushing my chest, but it was to no avail.

I waited for my children to return from school. I looked closely at their little faces, and I told them over and over how much I love them. In the evening, I spoke with my husband about what to do in case I was unable to come home. He promised he would handle the children’s homework in my absence, and he addressed my fears and concerns about the children’s psychological wellbeing and their performance in school if I was no longer around. 

The night passed heavily. The next morning, I made sure my children were in a safe place, and I headed to Mada Masr’s office. The atmosphere outside the office was suspicious. Sullen, serious faces filled the streets. I took the elevator, asking myself whether a team meeting at the office was such a good idea. The answer came 10 minutes after I walked in.

Lina greeted me warmly and began telling the others about my experience at the airport two nights earlier. Our conversation was cut off by a phone call from one of our colleagues screaming that police in plainclothes were raiding the building and had prevented her from coming up. Lina quickly got up and opened the front door to find 10 huge security officers in front of her. They snatched her phone and everyone else’s in the office. 

After over three hours, the security agents asked Lina and Hamama to leave the newsroom and accompany them. The officers were carrying their confiscated phones and laptops. Just before they were escorted out of the office, the leading officer called out my name and ordered me to join them.

Luckily, our journey inside the confines of the police truck only lasted an hour and 20 minutes, which was the time it took to go from Dokki Police Station to Mourad Street, then to Bahr al-Aazam Street and onto the Ring Road, before we turned off at the Maadi Corniche road and came back to the police station. There, the officer that led the office raid told us that a very senior government figure had intervened to have us pardoned and released.

Now that we are out of the police station, does our fear and anxiety remain? Or will we continue to be journalists who “must have done something?”

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