Detained in Egypt

On 27 Mar 2013 I was detained by the Egyptian military in Port Said for 3 hours and taken to 3 different locations on suspicion of being a spy for Israel.

In those days Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were in power in Egypt. Port Said, however, was under military rule. Back in Feb 2012,  79 people had been killed during the riot at the stadium after the game between the local team Al-Masry and Cairo-based Al-Ahly. (Al-Ahly supporters were not liked by the police since the Tahrir Square revolution in Jan-Feb 2011 and it is believed the police allowed the Al-Masry supporters to attack them.) The trial for the accused had just been completed and 21 people had been sentenced to death. People in Port Said were not happy with the ruling and had recently set government buildings on fire.

Hence, to maintain order, the city had been placed under military rule. And that was why I decided to visit it.

When I arrived in Port Said, I was cautious about taking pictures. At the hotel I asked for a room facing the road, and sneaked out onto the balcony to photograph the tank I had seen earlier. Later when I went out, I managed to get another quick shot when the soldiers were not looking. I saw a few other tanks and soldiers here and there, and each time I was careful not to be conspicuous.

Tank from Hotel Balcony in Port Said

Tank as seen from hotel balcony in Port Said

I also photographed the wonderful colonial architecture — the British and French both colonized Port Said, and at its height there were Greeks, Italians, Swiss, Jews living in the city. Walking on the elevated promenade by the Suez Canal, I saw girls with headscarves wearing tight clothes.

But all in all, there was not a whole lot going on.

The second day I decided to visit the stadium, where the killings had happened. The stadium was locked up but there were bullet holes, broken windows, and lots of graffiti.

On my way to the stadium in the taxi I passed a burnt-out building, in front of which were 4-5 tanks. I decided I would check this out on my way back, though I thought it might be difficult to do so. Therefore I walked back from the stadium along the beach, so I could approach the building complex from behind. And when I was in a side street with no soldiers in sight, I pulled out my camera and took this picture.

Burnt-out government building in Port Said

The picture that got me into trouble: burnt-out government building in Port Said

The moment I took this picture, I was confronted by two clean-shaven men in civilian clothes in their 40s, asking for my passport. When I refused – since they were in plain clothes – they called over the soldiers, and, before I could say or do anything meaningful, I was taken into the building in front of this one, accused of being a spy for Israel.

The building was being used as a temporary military base (formerly was government offices) and there were probably up to a hundred soldiers. My passport, camera, memory cards, memory stick were taken away, and backpack searched. I was quite annoyed at being parted with my memory cards as I hadn’t backed up majority of the pictures.

These men and the soldiers spoke very little English. And after browsing the stamps in my passport (including Armenia, Uzbekistan, Kosovo etc. but not Israel — since when I was there I had asked them not to stamp my passport), looking at my pictures including the Tahrir Square in Cairo, revolutionary graffiti in Alexandria, tanks in Port Said, and coming over and asking basic questions, managed to convince each other that I was indeed suspicious.

Port Said, Egypt

Port Said, Egypt

So I was transported in a military jeep to another military facility for further investigation. I was surprised that one of the civilian guys climbed into the jeep as well. And we were followed by a civilian car containing the other man and a driver.

In a way I thought it wasn’t bad that I was being taken to another place because I would probably now deal with a higher ranking officer who would have better education and English, and would take one look at my pictures and let me go.

From documentaries I know such situations can rapidly and needlessly escalate, so I greeted this new military officer, explained the situation and apologised, pointing out that I had only taken a single picture of this building. But the man said, ‘If I come to your country and take pictures of your wife and children, would that be acceptable?’

What relation this had to the pictures I had been taking I have no clue.

The men in civilian clothes were very pleased with this logic. I didn’t quite understand these men’s position, whether they were plainclothes detectives or not, but especially one of them was clearly more religious and vicious than the others, and so I thought perhaps he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and now they were starting to influence or infiltrate the army, which broadly speaking is secular.

(Though, when I explained the incident to a Cairo-based journalist friend later, he didn’t think they would be from the Muslim Brotherhood.)

Mubarak vs Morsi

Mubarak vs Morsi, graffiti in Port Said

Next they plugged my memory stick into a laptop and saw that there was a folder called Israel & Palestine containing pictures and notes from my visit to those places in Dec 2012. Then the officer asked whether I had a map. I told him I had a guidebook and handed it over to him. The Lonely Planet guidebook was for the whole of the Middle East. And, as luck would have it, the book opened on the page of the map of Israel! The map had some annotations I had made, like Hamas, Fatah, refugee camps.

And so this time I was transported to what I believe were the military headquarters (possibly temporary), which were in the old town centre. I was now thinking I was in deep trouble, that I might be detained for days, would have to call the embassy, would most likely lose my pictures, and who knows, in the worst case, this could go on for a long time.

In the jeep, the civilian guy with his rudimentary English was trying to scare me, wagging his finger, shaking his head, refusing to listen to what I was saying. He told me Turkey, Germany, England, didn’t matter, were all friends of Israel (I don’t know where he got the Germany link from). He persistently wanted to know what my religion was, and was dissatisfied with my mixed background.

Colonial architecture in old town centre, Port Said

Colonial architecture in old town centre, Port Said

At this third location something surprising happened. The civilian guys were asked to wait outside and then a little later, curtly, with a wave of a hand, told to leave. I never understood the role of these two men and how they were initially able to exert so much power over the soldiers.

Dusk fell, hours passed, a man in a business suit arrived in a chauffeur-driven car, the soldiers who brought me there left, and I waited in the courtyard guarded by an armed soldier, chatting to other curious soldiers who came by in what limited English they had.

Every now and then the soldiers told me there would be no problem, but I could not be sure whether to believe them. At least though the soldiers were respectful and I felt even if this went on for days I would not be physically harassed.

Beach I had been walking on shortly before I was detained

Beach I had been walking on shortly before I was detained

Eventually, after 3 hours from the time I was detained, I was taken in and offered a drink. Shortly after, the man in the business suit appeared, went into my arm and apologised for what happened.

‘They got worried because you’ve been taking pictures of the tanks and soldiers,’ he said. He asked me what I would think about Egypt after this.

This sudden change in reaction was astonishing. After all that happened I was at least expecting to be reprimanded. This was the sensible person I was hoping would have appeared sooner. He personally returned all my possessions. I was amazed to find that none of my pictures had been deleted.

Back in my hotel room, I realised the only things missing were my pens. So I went out and bought new ones, and then rushed to the Internet cafe and started typing.

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