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.

Coptic Christians forced to flee from Isis’ river of blood

The Times
Bel Trew, Ismailia

William had just returned home to north Sinai when masked militants came for him at his corner shop at dusk. They shot him in the head, dragged his body outside and, screaming “apostate”, beat his corpse in the street.

The Christian shopkeeper had fled the town of Arish months earlier after seven Copts had been shot by jihadists. Yet despite death threats from Islamic State, the authorities told him to return to the city to collect his sons’ school certificates, so they could sit their exams.

William, 43, is one of at least 115 Coptic Christians killed in Egypt by suspected Isis militants in a year. Isis has warned the estimated nine million Christians living in Egypt that they will pay for their faith with “a river of blood from their sons”.

Isis militants have stormed Christian homes, businesses, churches and cathedrals and have fired on buses of Coptic pilgrims. More than 300 Christian families fled north Sinai in February after jihadists drew up a hit-list of 40 and started working through it. William was murdered in May.

His widow Mariam, 35, said: “The situation in Arish is getting harder. After William was killed Christians there realised they would never be safe.” She was speaking from Ismailia beside the Suez Canal, where she is living with her two sons, aged ten and 12. “Some families go back to check on their homes but it’s usually only women. They have to be extra careful, they always take supplies with them so they don’t risk going to the shops. They keep their doors and windows bolted. Some just stay in the church there.”

Last month Isis militants stormed a Sufi mosque near Arish killing more than 300 people, the single largest terrorist attack in Egyptian history. President Sisi vowed to crush Isis in Sinai within three months. “You can use all brute force necessary,” he told his security forces.

The interior ministry cancelled annual leave for its employees and deployed 230,000 personnel to protect more than 2,900 religious buildings over Christmas, but Mariam has seen little change.


Read full article here: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coptic-christians-forced-to-flee-from-isis-river-of-blood-0dj3g0sr7

The Flight Into Egypt: Jesus, Mary, Joseph—and ISIS


WADI NATRUN, Egypt—Egyptian security forces wielding assault rifles peer warily into the cars at each of the three checkpoints visitors must go through before reaching the ancient monasteries here about 60 miles west of Cairo. At the biggest checkpoint, on an exposed crossroads, young officers in bullet-proof vests are burning an upturned tree trunk to try to keep warm and to make some tea while waiting, and watching for threats.

During each stop, cars are searched meticulously, identity papers are collected, and visitors gently interrogated. The authorities don’t want to take any chances near a holy site that will soon be the focal point of a major Christian pilgrimage at high risk of attacks by the Egyptian branch of the so-called Islamic State. It could be the target of other groups as well, like the mob that just stormed a church in Giza, across the Nile from Cairo, on Friday.

Coptic Christians believe the Holy family—Jesus, Mary and Joseph—rested here in Wadi Natrun more than 2,000 years ago as they fled the persecution of King Herod shortly after Jesus was born. Now Christians are facing violent persecution by terrorists from the affiliates in Egypt of the so-called Islamic State, and sometimes violent friction with other groups as well.

Although it appears nobody was killed in the Giza incident, an established church that never won official government authorization for services was attacked, ransacked, and some of the parishioners beaten.

This year alone at least 83 Copts have been killed by jihadists. They have stormed cathedrals, churches and Christian homes. It is one of the highest death tolls recorded in a single year, according to rights workers.

The Egyptian interior ministry said last week it had cancelled the annual leave for its security forces and deployed 230,000 personnel to protect over 2,000 religious buildings nationwide during the holiday period, which culminates in Egypt on January 7, the Coptic and Orthodox Christmas.

Here in Wadi Natrun the Syrian Monastery, as it is called, is especially important because of its direct association with the story of Christ. The details of the trip to Egypt made by Jesus, Mary and Joseph are not included in the Bible, which has only one reference to “the flight into Egypt” in Matthew 2:13-2:15. But according to Coptic beliefs the family fled Bethlehem through North Sinai, down to what is modern day Cairo, before crossing to the Delta, hiding in Wadi Natrun, and eventually fleeing south to Upper Egypt

“This year alone at least 83 Copts have been killed by jihadists. They have stormed cathedrals, churches and Christian homes.”

And it is precisely that journey that the government in Cairo and, indeed, the Vatican now want to promote, despite threats by ISIS to launch further attacks on Egypt’s largest minority.

Copts may represent as much as 10 to 15 percent of the population and they trace their roots back to pre-Islamic times. They are not Roman Catholics, but in a historic move last October, Pope Francis blessed and ratified  the “Holy Family Trail,” which means it becomes an official pilgrimage not just for the several million Christians in Egypt but the 1.2 billion Catholics  worldwide.

Francis first mentioned the plan when he visited Cairo in April, and he has declared Egypt “a land where Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus, as well as many prophets lived: a land that has been blessed with the precious blood of martyrs spilt throughout the centuries.”

A delegation from the Egyptian tourism ministry travelled to the  Vatican two months ago to finalize the process. And last week a Vatican delegation, including officials who manage the Catholic Church’s pilgrimages, toured the country assessing the suitability of the historical sites where baby Jesus and his family allegedly rested.

The Egyptians hope the trail will be up and running by May and draw in a slew of foreign visitors who have stayed away in the chaotic aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising  and the 2013 military take over led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who is now president.

Father Angelos, who is part of the team organizing the pilgrimage route, told The Daily Beast it sends an important message at a difficult time for Christians. He is the priest at the 4th century AD Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church in old Cairo, which is is one of the oldest churches in Egypt. The Copts believe it was built above the cave where Jesus, Mary and Joseph hid for several months, and so is regarded as the most important stop on the holy family trail.

“We are spreading the word that Christ has not visited anywhere else but Egypt which makes Egypt like the Holy Land itself,”  said Father Angelos. “It is a message of defiance from the whole of Egypt that it is combating terrorism. It also tells Christians here that they are not marginalized.”

The priest said there were a total of 25 sites along the pilgrimage route, eight of which were ready to be properly opened to visitors next year.

The project is split into two initial stages. The first will see the authorities complete work within the coming year on Wadi Natrun and sites in Cairo, including the ancient Tree of the Virgin Mary in Cairo’s Matariya suburb, where she is supposed to have rested and bathed the baby Jesus. The second stage, which will take a little longer, includes the Muharraq Monastery in the south of the country, Egypt’s oldest working monastery.

The rest of the pilgrimage, which goes through ISIS strongholds in North Sinai, may well have to wait. But plowing ahead with the Holy Family Trail anywhere in the country is a brave move. ISIS has threatened Christians repeately, saying in April they will pay for their faith with “a river of blood from their sons.”

ISIS has also targeted foreign tourists, most notably claiming to have taken down a Russian plane full of holiday goers over Sinai in the autumn of 2015. All 224 crew and passengers aboard the Metrojet flight died in the explosion.

Read the full article here: https://www.thedailybeast.com/in-egypt-mary-joseph-jesusand-isis?ref=author



Egypt’s Assault on LGBT Community worst in over a decade

dailbeastWhen fans waved the rainbow flag at a concert, it set off the latest wave of ferocious persecution targeting Egypt’s LGBT community.

Read original story: https://www.thedailybeast.com/arrests-anal-exams-and-prison-egypts-assault-on-lgbt-community-is-only-getting-worse

Poor Egyptians dig up homes in search of antiquities

The TimesBel Trew, Matariya
An illicit trade in antiquities is booming in Egypt helped by a growing number of people illegally digging under their homes for treasure.

The authorities are struggling to stop the digs and have raised the maximum sentence for illegally selling antiquities from seven years in prison to life, but the collapse of the economy and the currency has encouraged the trade.

“In our business we deal in dollars most of the time so if you sell something for $10 which was worth seven Egyptian pounds, it’s now worth 18,” one antiquities trader said. “That’s more than double. The business has become more profitable for many people.”

He has worked as a broker for 17 years, acquiring antiquities from looters and selling them to buyers in Europe and the US. He said that a new wave of opportunists had started digging under their homes. The busiest areas are two poor districts of Cairo that sit on top of the ancient city of Heliopolis, which was populated from the pre-dynastic period to the Middle Kingdom, up until 1800BC. “The devaluation could be the reason why many more people who live in areas like Matariya and Ain Shams districts have begun digging only recently,” he said.

Between 2011 and 2014 the country lost $3 billion in artefacts taken from sites and museums, according to the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities. Whole sites, including the 4,000-year-old Dahshur necropolis and Abusir cemetery, have been gutted.

Poor Egyptians are using desperate means to make money as inflation soars and energy and fuel subsidies are cut. Now that the value of the dollar has doubled many are trying to find ancient objects to sell internationally.

Read full article: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/poor-egyptians-dig-up-homes-in-search-of-antiquities-vmcv8mzdn


From our Correspondent: In heat and chaos of Cairo an army of couriers has sprung up

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo
The doorbell of my Cairo flat rings. A five-man medical team arrives including two who are carrying an x-ray machine. Earlier that morning I had ordered a doctor through a medical delivery service called Tabibi 24/7. She examined me on my sofa and sent a team round that afternoon. The x-ray and blood test were conducted in my living room and the results were couriered to me the next day. For the entire process, which cost less than £80 and diagnosed a chest infection, I didn’t even get out of my pyjamas.

There has long been a delivery culture in Egypt’s cities driven by the searing heat, crumbling infrastructure and clogged roads. You can have almost anything sent to you, such as prescription drugs, documents, a barber or a single brownie. Most restaurants, pharmacies, supermarkets and salons have their own six-digit delivery number.

But there is a darker side to the luxury of having everything delivered. Labour is woefully cheap, a third of the population lives below the poverty line and the youth unemployment rate is more than 23 per cent. The Egyptian pound lost half its value last year after the government decided to float it. The devaluation of the currency has put pressure on households, but has also had the peculiar effect of encouraging low-cost sectors such as the service industry.

For many, weaving in and out of the traffic on a delivery motorbike or bicycle for less than a £10 a day has become one of the only ways to make a living.

“The delivery culture has spread more in Egypt for many reasons,” says Kiko, who has his own delivery empire within the middle-class neighbourhood of Garden City. The young man used to work for a grocer’s but became so popular that he now has an order book of his own customers who want everything from pastries to prescriptions brought to their door for a small fee. He works eight hours a day and is paid tips of between 3p and £5.

“About 60 per cent of my clients are 80 to 90 years old. These people can’t always carry groceries,” he said. “Some of the rich families bring up their children knowing they can buy anything. But it doesn’t explain why my delivery service is used in poor neighbourhoods and among foreigners who are taught to do everything themselves.”

Entrepreneurs are also cashing in on the delivery craze in Egypt. Apps, such as Mumm and Zeit Zeitoun offer women a platform to earn a living making home-cooked food for delivery.

Vodafone Egypt has created Red Personal Assistant. For £1 a month it will take care of your errands including delivering groceries, arranging bus tickets and sorting out paperwork.

The most ambitious is Elves, developed by five young Egyptians and launched in the US. You can ask the “elves” for anything and the 35 who are based in Egypt will find it for you — often for nothing more than a small delivery fee.

Read Full Article: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/in-the-heat-and-chaos-of-cairo-an-army-of-couriers-has-sprung-up-thpgd769x