Arrested development during Egypt Revolution
"Do you have a weapon?"
I looked at the man tapping the holster at his hip. The black uniform said it all. Egypt's special troops, a paramilitary outfit, accused of every kind of mayhem in Cairo.
"Of course not, I'm a journalist," I said.
Three others milled around in the lobby of Cairo's President Hotel. AK-47s pointed generally in the direction of me and Rajesh Bhardwaj (CNN-IBN cameraperson). Rajesh they'd handcuffed earlier.
The next question, "Did you go to Tahrir Square?"
"We had gone yesterday," I said, "and the army took away our camera"
That seemed to soothe them a bit. They removed Rajesh's handcuffs, ushered us out of the hotel into a blue pickup truck parked outside. It stank of cigarettes and stale bread.
"Don't worry, we are not terrorists," said the officer who had asked me about a weapon earlier. "We just want to ask you some questions."
For the next hour we were taken on what seemed like an aimless ride around Zemalek, a predominantly residential area of middle and upper middle class Cairenes -- foreigners working for NGOs, small hotels like the President, and embassies. The Indian Embassy is in the same area.
Once we got off, we walked a little distance and returned to the truck. They seemed to have no clear instructions about what to do with us.
Then it was back to the truck and at top speed we were driven to what looked like a police station. We spent the next perhaps two to three hours sitting in a big room, trying to ignore the incessant ringing of our mobile phones. We had been warned not to answer nor make any calls.
The officer came back. "Our visas did not entitle us to report from Egypt," he said, "the foreign media should leave Egypt alone. They are stoking hatred pitching Egyptians against Egyptians." And then on a more personal note, he said, "I have a brother in Tahrir Square but I have my own views. Why shouldn't one man rule Egypt? He has all the cards, he knows what to play. So what if he makes mistakes. Does that mean you throw your grandfather out of the house?"
He began to warm to his theme. Pulling up a chair, he leaned forward and asked me seriously, "Do you know about the Freemasons? Nasser had said they are the most powerful in the world. I don't like them. I don't like America. F*** America!"
His English was good even if a little hesitant. There was no name plate discernable or maybe it was hidden beneath his bullet-proof jacket. Not that it mattered. He left, came back after a while and said he was letting us go at the request of the Indian Embassy. But waving his finger, he warned, "If you report from Tahrir Square again I will arrest you. You can talk to people there, meet them but do not report!"
We were driven back to the hotel and left in no doubt we could not continue to stay at the President.
As Rajesh and I packed, we decided to head for the embassy first, inform Ambassador Swaminathan of our situation and take his help in moving to another hotel. But the Special Troops hadn't finished with us. I felt a tap on my shoulder, looked back and there was our Man in Black again!
"You come with us please, my senior investigator wants to ask you some questions."
Back to the pickup truck, this time with all our luggage. Half an hour later, we entered what looked like Amar Colony in Cairo. We were walked up to a makeshift barrier of tree branches, truck tyres and stones. Armed cops in plainclothes eyed us. An olive green vehicle of the kind we had seen on TV knocking people down on the streets was parked nearby. Our passports were taken and there began another interminable wait.
Our escort seemed to have warmed up to us. He had seen Shahrukh Khan's My Name Is Khan. "That had a message for the entire world," he said approvingly. Rather disappointingly, he hadn't heard of Katrina Kaif, Aamir or Salman Khan! Why should we see foreign movies when we have the best movie industry in the Arab world was his argument.
This time he allowed us to answer the phone. Our Assignment Desk in Noida were assured we were okay; so was Ambassador Swaminathan.
Our passports were handed back, no questions asked. And we were dropped off at the embassy.
I counted our losses: the video camera gone (taken away by the army a day earlier and probably sold off at a tidy profit), and the humiliation of being kicked out of our hotel in full view of staff and guests. More than one day's shooting wasted.
Welcome to Egypt!
More about Surya GangadharanSurya Gangadharan is International Affairs Editor at CNN IBN and was in Egypt to cover the anti-government movement. He has covered wars in Afghanistan, the UN intervention in Somalia and Rwanda, elections in Pakistan and the civil conflict in Sri Lanka where he interviewed the top leadership of that time. He has worked for the Straits Times Group in Singapore and also for PTI, the Indian Express and India Today in India.
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