Bel Trew

I adore Egypt but I can’t go back and no one can say why

Bel Trew, The Times Bel Trew, London 
The taxi had just pulled away from the café in central Cairo when a minibus of plain-clothes police officers cut us off. Five men jumped out and took me to a nearby police station.

Egypt is suspicious of foreign reporters and intolerant of negative news. Journalists have become used to being pulled aside to explain themselves.

With a presidential election in flow and a counterterrorism operation under way in Sinai and the Nile delta, the security forces were on alert and the country on edge.

However, as a precaution, I sent colleagues the name of the police station.

My business in the café had been unremarkable: an interview with a penniless man whose nephew, a teenage migrant, had probably drowned at sea trying to get to Italy. He had been on board a migrant boat that vanished two years ago. For some months, I had been trying to piece together its story.

Yet inside the police station, the questions were taking a sinister turn. An informer in the café had apparently told police that I was discussing the Egyptian state’s involvement in the sinking of a migrant boat off the coast of Rosetta in 2016 — an entirely different boat from the one we were discussing.

By the time word reached the interior ministry, it had included a rumour that I was investigating forced disappearances of dissidents. This has been a contentious subject in Egypt since the murder in 2016 of Giulio Regeni, a Cambridge student from Italy, in Cairo. Italian officials have accused the Egyptian police of kidnapping and torturing him to death while he was researching his PhD. Egypt denies this and all accusations of forced disappearances.

Fortunately, I had recorded all my exchanges in the café. The government, the state, the military, the elections — none was mentioned. I had the audio to prove it. The police confiscated it. Unfortunately, this offered no immediate help. After seven hours of detention, I was threatened with a military trial, a legal process often used against terrorism suspects or dissidents. Those accused are often given long sentences or even the death penalty after short trials with next to no legal representation.

I was refused access to a lawyer or my embassy. I only met a British consular official later, at the airport. There, I learnt that another official who had tried to find me had been told that I had been moved from the police station when I was still upstairs.

The charges were never revealed to me. At about 6pm the police told me my embassy wanted to deport me, which made no legal sense. I was bundled into a police van without knowing if anyone knew where I was, or if I was going to the airport or somewhere more sinister. Officers mocked me for being scared and began filming me on a mobile phone.

I was not physically harmed, but it is common knowledge that detainees in these circumstances risk being hurt. Less than 24 hours after I was first detained, I was marched on to a plane with nothing but the clothes I was standing up in. The choice before me — stay for a military trial or leave — was no kind of choice.

Such an apparent misunderstanding was surely easily cleared up. I was an accredited journalist with a valid working visa who had been in Egypt for years and never in trouble before. The Times and I sought to explain to the authorities their mistake. There were encouraging signs: I was contacted to be told I had been accredited to cover the elections.

If any doubts lingered about my reporting mission that day, all would be explained by the interview audio, which the police had. It was either ignored and not listened to — or listened to and ignored.

It was made clear this week that as far as the Cairo authorities are concerned, I am on a list of “undesirable people” and if I attempt to return I will be re-arrested. I can’t go back to my home of seven years. Nobody can explain why.

Journalists enjoy the ultimate privilege: we choose to be somewhere and we can ultimately leave. So writing in such personal terms is uncomfortable. But this has happened at a very particular time for Egypt, when freedoms are under assault.

Egyptian media have largely become aligned with the state line. Even pro-regime TV hosts have been hauled in for questioning. It is banned to report any death toll of security forces that contradicts official figures. In an atmosphere of fear, many have been practising self-censorship.

There have been unreported instances of correspondents expelled or refused entry to Egypt. Many, like me, are still confused about why. Local reporters have also been targeted and jailed.

In the end I am leaving behind seven years of my life, my friends, my flat and two rescue cats. I am cauterising bits of my heart to dull the searing pain of losing Egypt, a country that was my home and a place I deeply love.