In the second installment of Chronicle of a Caged Journalist, Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem describes how his own life and freedom became inextricably tied to the fate of his country as it was dragged back from the threshold of democracy. Read the first part – A trial without a case – here: Chronicle of a Caged Journalist: a trial without a case
Cairo, Egypt – From November 2011
For more than 19 months I – and 13 others, including my new friend and cage-mate, Robert Becker – endured a humiliating, medieval inquisition-like trial.
It wasn’t until much later – almost a year, in fact, after we’d both received unjust two-year prison sentences – that I realised that of all those involved in the trial – the defendants, prosecutors and judges, Egypt and the US – it was Becker who had remained the most “free”.
He had given up the comforts the US embassy offered and chosen instead to remain with his Egyptian employees from the National Democratic Institute, where for two years he had worked to train Egyptian political parties to run election campaigns.
As much as I came to love Becker, I also envied him – and the freedom he felt in spite of our circumstances.
Throughout my career, I have tried to live by an old saying that I learned from the Zulu tribes of south-eastern South Africa: “If you are bent on crossing the river, don’t think too much about crocodiles.”
As an Egyptian journalist working across the Middle East and the developing world, I had always been aware of the crocodiles in the river. But it had never occurred to me that I would encounter so many when I accepted an offer to work with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).
After Egypt’s January 25, 2011 revolution, which ended 30 years of tyrannical rule by President Hosni Mubarak, the ICFJ, a Washington-based NGO that specialises in advancing quality journalism around the world, asked me to initiate a programme aimed at enhancing the skills of Egyptian journalists. The timing seemed perfect: the Egyptian media had, I believed, been acting like a runaway train, pitting Egyptians against each other, inflaming tensions and inciting violence.
By late August 2011, we’d set the curriculum and tackled the logistics. Shortly after, we signed a partnership agreement with the region’s most prestigious newspaper, Al-Ahram, where I was the deputy editor-in-chief. Everything appeared to be on track.
Then, in November 2011, before the programme had even begun, I received a seemingly innocuous summons from the ministry of justice.
It turned out to be anything but innocent.
At the ministry in downtown Cairo, the investigative judge welcomed me warmly before launching into a monologue about what he called the plots against Egypt. I listened, perplexed. What did any of that have to do with me?
It lasted for about six hours – his mood veering from friendly and reassuring to antagonistic and aggressive. I eventually found out why I was there. I was being charged with illegally opening a branch office of a foreign organisation, accepting foreign funding without government approval and several other fabricated charges.
I was stunned.
My whole body tensed up.
“Relax,” he said, smiling. “It’s not a big deal.”
During numerous, lengthy investigations, I provided extensive documentation to discredit their charges.
Nevertheless, the investigative judge lodged criminal charges against me and 42 other defendants, including 15 Egyptians. The foreigners were mainly Americans.
Of all the defendants, I was the only journalist and of all five NGOs involved – four American and one German – only the ICFJ was concerned with journalism.
Despite the fact that the case was unjust and politically motivated at a time when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had taken over after Mubarak stepped down, I decided to stand trial out of respect for the judiciary.
I’d assumed it would be a fair trial.
I was wrong.
What I hadn’t known was that this was never intended to be a legal battle based on facts. It was more akin to an arm-wrestling match between the Egyptian and US governments: a bogus trial concocted by the Egyptian military in order to portray the US, NGOs and the ordinary Egyptians who might have worked with them as responsible for the January 25 revolution.
It was, in effect, the first step in a 28-month process leading to the July 3, 2013 overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, the country’s democratically elected leader, by the head of the Egyptian Armed Forces, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
From standing at the doorstep of democracy, with all its glories and difficulties, Egypt was being driven back to totalitarianism. And my past, present and future was being dragged along with it. A political conflict was, in short, coming to define my entire life. Although invisible, politics was the prosecutor and judge in my case and the cases of those standing alongside me in our cage.
Of course, in free, democratic countries, defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty. No such principle applied to us.
As I write these words now – in exile from my own country, where I have been sentenced to imprisonment for a crime I did not commit after a trial I cannot forget, so many questions stalk me.
How can you reconcile yourself with hearing your indictment announced on television by judges who had not bothered to inform you or your family? What can you say to your 10-year-old daughter as she cries on the phone, asking: “Are you really a US agent, a traitor to Egypt?” What should you do when enraged people show up at your home seeking revenge against the “enemy of the state”? How can you shake the memory of having to plead – often unsuccessfully – for the young women caged alongside you to be allowed to go to the bathroom?
I didn’t have the answers then, as I stood crammed inside that small, dirty cage. And I don’t have the answers now.