Reporter's Notebook

Detained: My story of interrogation by the Egyptian military

Julia Simon Dec 16, 2011

I knew the Egyptian military was sensitive about its role in the Egyptian economy, but I never knew it was THIS sensitive.

I was detained for 12 hours yesterday, first by the Egyptian police, then by the Egyptian military. It started around noon when my suspicious cab driver drove me to a police station. I had been recording street sound near a cluster of military factories. A guard had assured me that as long as I was well outside the factory walls on the street it was OK to record, and because I know Egyptian law forbids it, I didn’t take any photos.

But apparently I frightened the cabbie. I’m not sure what he told the police but it was enough to get a group of police officers and Ministry of Interior officials to ask me pointed questions about my reporting.

I told them the truth, in Arabic and English: I hadn’t recorded anything that I wasn’t supposed to record. I am an accredited foreign journalist here and all I did was get sound of the street for my Marketplace story. I had the police call the Egyptian Government Press Office to confirm that they knew I was doing reporting on Egyptian factories. But unfortunately, this was just the beginning of the story.

“Friendly” isn’t the word I would use for the police and the spy service men I met at the station. “Don’t worry, we will not rape you” wasn’t the nicest reassurance. I managed to make a call to my friend at the U.N. to tell him I was detained.

Then the police confiscated my cell phone, and after hours of questioning they took me in a van to an army base.

At the army base the military blindfolded me and then escorted me by the arm to a room full of bright fluorescent lights. At this point it was after 7 p.m.

The Egyptian military confiscated my laptop, my recorder, my notebooks, and all my other possessions and left me alone. I was so bored that I did some yoga on the dusty rug.

A major in the Egyptian army intelligence finally came to talk with me. He asked me to write a report, and I was finally able to explain to him what “ambient sound” means and why I was on the street in the first place. I actually gave him a little lesson in radio production – sound waves, mixing, the whole shebang.

At around 10 p.m., the major told me they would let me go. He told me they had deleted the sound files on my recorder and copied “some things” off my laptop. I assume they copied everything. I felt a bit… violated. 

The military driver gave back my cell phone and I called my friend at the U.N. to tell him I was alright.  The military drove me to yet another gated army compound. They took me a room that said “VIP Lounge” on the door and I met a very friendly general and a naval commander. They gave me some juice, and crackers and military manufactured cheese.

Around midnight, a colonel from the U.S. Air Force and a U.S. Embassy employee came to escort me home.

The Egyptian army may have deleted my sound from the street, but I had all my previous interviews saved at home, and I have a lot more interviews to do now that, after 12 hours of some serious thinking, I know the right questions to ask.

Stay tuned for a Marketplace story in the coming weeks, an adventure into Egypt’s military economy.

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