The Day of Hunting Journalists

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

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.


Day of the Thugs

The surreal crackdown on Tahrir Square leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

CAIRO — Feb. 2 actually started out as a pretty good day for the anti-government protesters still massed in Tahrir Square. The usual festive mood and sense of community reigned after another chilly night outdoors. When Internet service abruptly returned around noon, the good news spread throughout the crowd. It was taken as a sign that the government's grip was weakening and the tide was turning toward a resolution of the weeklong standoff with President Hosni Mubarak.

That turned out to be a gross miscalculation. By nightfall, the streets around Tahrir were littered with wounded protesters who were frightened, enraged, shell shocked, and desperately short of medical supplies.

The first sign that things were about to tip badly into darkness came shortly after the Internet returned. I was in a taxi with a group of journalists heading to opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei's home on the outskirts of Cairo to attempt an interview. From the other direction came what looked like a 1,000-person march of pro-Mubarak supporters chanting slogans like "We love the president" and "He's not going." Many of the protesters were riding horses and camels -- from the looks of them, many appeared to be tourist touts coming from the stables clustered around the Pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo. At the time, my colleagues and I thought it made for a great journalistic visual; we snapped a few pictures and furiously started scribbling in our notebooks. Within hours, those horses and camels had been used in a bizarre, medieval mounted charge into the unarmed civilians occupying Tahrir.

The pro-Mubarak rallies that have turned the protests into a street war started late on Feb. 1, clustered around the Information Ministry, about a 10-minute walk from Tahrir. A group of roughly 500 had organized a rally there, in full view of the state and Western media outlets that have their offices on that block. It was a clever tactic, serving two main purposes: It allowed the state media to film the rally from upstairs and broadcast an endless loop of citizens declaring their love for the president; and it enabled the protesters to essentially hijack a number of prominent Western news broadcasts.

Around 5 a.m. on Wednesday morning, I watched as the pro-Mubarak crowd noted the studio lights of a live shot in progress from a balcony, and then gathered below to loudly chant pro-Mubarak slogans. I observed for a moment and then walked away with a sort of bemused respect for the enduring craftiness of the supporters of Mubarak's regime. But by the time I made it back to Tahrir around 3 p.m. on Wednesday, the scene there couldn't have been more different from the euphoria of the preceding days. The protesters in the square were being besieged, and I saw dozens of bloodied young men staggering or being carried away from the front lines.

Crowds of rock-throwing, pro-Mubarak protesters were attempting to overrun the Tahrir crowds, who were fending them off with their own barrages of rocks and cement chunks. Tahrir is a huge public space with at least nine major entry points, and the pro-Mubarak crowds continued to probe the edges, seeking a soft way in. Protest leaders with megaphones organized the defenses, summoning teams of youths to block different intersections. I saw a middle-aged man walk past with blood streaming from the back of his head; a veiled woman held his arm and guided his steps, hysterically repeating, "We won't die. God is with us. We won't die."

As the fighting ebbed back and forth from about 2 p.m. until early evening, the anti-Mubarak protesters became increasingly paranoid and angry. They were convinced that their attackers were largely made up of plainclothes officers from the police and State Security -- basically the revenge-seeking remnants of the police state that had melted away last week after Mubarak called in the Army.

But the anti-Mubarak protesters were determined not to break ranks and remain vigilant against the threat of infiltration by provocateurs. In previous days, the Army and volunteers had set up egress checkpoints, checking IDs and searching protesters for weapons, but on Feb. 2it was much more aggressive. All people approaching the square were repeatedly frisked and forced to show their national ID card -- which would show on the back whether the holder was employed by the Interior Ministry. As far as the protesters were concerned, anyone with an Interior Ministry connection was a thug. I watched as one man was apparently unmasked as an Interior Ministry employee; a group of young men nearly killed him before others dragged them off. The bloodied man was then turned over to the Army. One protest leader read off the names and ID card numbers of alleged undercover security officers the crowd had detained.

Much is still unclear, but Feb. 2's violence is likely to intensify questions about the stance of the Army, whose behavior was at the very least puzzling -- and potentially very suspicious. Just before the clashes started, an Army spokesman released a statement appealing to the protesters to return home and allow normal daily life to resume.

The soldiers sitting on their tanks seemed to be passively observing the battle despite desperate pleas from the Tahrir protesters. One man seized the microphone and issued an angry call to the troops: "Make a decision now" and defend the peaceful protesters, he shouted. But other protesters were keen to maintain harmonious relations with the Army, long viewed as the protector of the people. As the man's criticisms of the military grew more strident, others wrested the microphone from his hand. One youth yelled at him, "We don't want to turn the people against the Army!"  

The government's motivations at this point are truly mysterious. If it did indeed plan this as a sort of street-power move, why would it restore the Internet two hours beforehand, enabling besieged protesters to send a barrage of frantic and chilling tweets from the maelstrom?

As I left the square, a middle-age man saw my notebook and asked frantically, "Are people coming? Do you know? Are the youth coming to help us?"

Chris Hondros/Getty Images