Protective Custody’ or Arrest? Either Way, I’m Stranded

Haaretz reporter in Egypt expected he would be home in time for Friday night dinner, but the angry pro-Mubarak reporters who blockaded his Cairo hotel had something different in mind.

The only journalists who managed to reach Tahrir Square, a short way from the hotel, were those who left in the short time between the retreat of Mubarak’s supporters from the road and the army’s arrival.

Those who made it had no reason to rejoice. On the way back to the hotel army officers arrested every journalist openly carrying a camera and took him into “protective custody” for several hours.

Egypt protests

I approached the square with several other journalists a few minutes after the army had set up roadblocks on the street, the bridge and passes under the bridge. We returned to the hotel when we saw the pro-Mubarak gangs milling around the tanks and the soldiers looking idly on.

Besides, it was time to pack, check out and head for the airport, allowing for traffic jams, roadblocks and the beginning of a curfew. My revolution week in Cairo was winding to an end. I even wrote a farewell column.

At the only hotel entrance that remained open in the last few days of riots stood a group of large men wearing leather jackets. They were not the hotel’s regular security guards. It was clear they weren’t letting anyone leave. Hotel staff were dragging heavy wooden platforms and setting them in front of the entrance.

Hotel workers were confiscating cameras and equipment from every journalist in the lobby. If anyone resisted, they threatened to throw him out, to where the rioters were roaming.
“It’s for your own safety,” the deputy manager said.

The Americans went to their rooms with their computers. The British sat at the bar, drinking beer. A group of Japanese guests huddled together with maps and the French guests telephoned President Sarkozy. Two Mubarak supporters broke into the hotel but were immediately escorted out by the security guards. The Al Jazeera crew lost no time in reporting that the masses were storming the hotel.

The hotel’s cleaning workers continued polishing the marble floor regardless of the battle raging around us. Television crews made urgent telephone calls in search of photographers who had been arrested or were missing, and the rest of the journalists went out on the balconies once an hour to check out the battlefield not 200 meters away.

It was not clear whether it was Al Jazeera’s reports or the French president’s people that made the difference, but the army beefed up its presence around the hotel. Armored personnel carriers guarded every corner, snipers positioned themselves on the roof and a squad of soldiers with red berets and bayoneted AK-47s settled in the lobby.

Night fell. The sounds of rifle fire and clashes gradually grew fainter, but there was no way of telling if the rioters were still blocking the road out of the city. The farewell column will have to wait.