Journalists in war-torn Egypt are still under fire and under siege
CAIRO — I looked on, astonished, as a man a few yards away told protesters that he would slaughter me.
He spoke resolutely and enthusiastically, and seemed utterly willing to carry out his promise.
The man, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, stood among thousands of stick-waving supporters, their beards long and their faces angry, as they chanted "God is great" and "Down with infidels." They watched him make the familiar and menacing gesture of tracing his finger across his throat as he said, "We will slaughter Ibrahim Essa."
This was in March. I was in a car trying to get to the Egyptian Media Production City, a compound a half-hour's drive west from downtown Cairo that houses many television studios, to record my daily TV program, which was critical of the Brotherhood and its political leader, President Mohamed Morsi. The group had surrounded the compound and locked its gates. They had set up tents at the front and communal toilets outside the walls.
I had gotten used to threats during the long rule of President Hosni Mubarak, which dragged me before its courts about 70 times and sentenced me to prison on four occasions. But the Morsi era was different. Under Mubarak, I was threatened only with prison; under Morsi, my life was in danger.
The Morsi supporters' siege of the Media City compound was airtight. They hung up my picture, alongside that of other commentators critical of Morsi, with nooses drawn around our necks so that we looked like wanted criminals from old Westerns. Meanwhile, they searched all those who came in and out of the studios, destroying cars and attacking some of the journalists and Morsi opponents who'd had the bad luck of being scheduled for a TV appearance.
Later, a reformist judge who looks somewhat like me told me that, after leaving a TV show where he had been a guest, some of the Brothers mistook him for me. The judge screamed that he wasn't Ibrahim Essa, and proved it by showing them his belt. (I've become well known for wearing suspenders, so much so that the Brothers mockingly call me Ibrahim Abu-Suspenders.) As the judge told the story, he blinked back tears, still reeling from the fear and tension.
The night of the siege, we journalists drove down abandoned back roads in the desert to reach the studio, driving past walls of barbed wire that brought to mind images of the United States-Mexico border. My co-workers at the TV show were already heroic for coming to work despite the pressures of the siege, the threats and the constant fear, and on top of it all they had to ensure my security and daily survival.
Even today, nearly two months after a popular revolution removed Morsi in July, Media City remains under threat by the Brothers, who accuse the media of being the prime instigators of the revolt against Morsi and the Brotherhood. The power of reporters and commentators to lead a revolution would come as a surprise to my colleagues, whose open secret is a constant despair at being unable to change much of anything.
Threats, sieges and targeting of journalists are among the Brothers' favorite tactics, and they continue to bide their time with such activities, despite the ouster of Morsi and the violent crackdown on the Brotherhood.
Just last week, the sound of bullets was so loud and close that we all rushed into the lobby of the hotel near the Media Production City. Since the imposition of an emergency curfew following the Brotherhood's attacks on churches, journalists, government bureaucrats and ordinary citizens, the hotel has become a twin of Baghdad's famous Rashid Hotel during the Iraq war: a place of gathering and shelter for journalists. When the bullets died down, we made sure no one had been hurt.
On my first night at the hotel, a motorcycle carrying three men tried to crash into the lobby. They fired shots into the hotel, and a police chase ensued. When two of the three were captured, they said that they had just been lost in the desert and confused, a funny excuse for something that was not funny at all.
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