While Australia’s foreign minister was quick to intervene when lawyer Melinda Taylor was arrested in Libya, the reaction to Australian journalist Austin Mackell’s arrest, interrogation and five-month legal limbo in Egypt has been very different.
One night in Beirut, some time after the 2006 July-August war, I was telling my friend Nizar Ghanem at length about some brilliant idea I had to change the depressing situation in Lebanon. “No! No! No!”* he interrupted me. I was missing the big picture. “Nothing will really change in the Arab world till it changes in Egypt. Look to Cairo, when Cairo rises, the Arabs will rise.”
Nizar had by this stage convinced me that regarding the politics of his country and the region, he was the smartest guy I knew. Nizar was a rare breed. Most of my Arab friends were to lesser or greater extents, Westernised. With Nizar there was something qualitatively different. He was secular, progressive, learned and fluent in English, but he was not Westernised.
He complained that he was the only person in the office of his NGO who could actually type in Arabic, leaving him to do the work of his colleagues, Arabs educated in English and French language schools. None of this meant he shunned Western cultural influence, not even a little bit. The difference in his world view was summed up best in a story, very possibly apocryphal, that he told me, and that I have retold many times since:
The staff of an Arab NGO attend a conference in Japan. As the final day ends the Japanese organisers say to their guests: “We must show you the city! We will go for dinner at a very traditional restaurant, then afterwards something of your choosing. What would you like?”
The Arabs say they want “Japanese music”. But after dinner at the bar, they see a drum kit and electric guitars on the stage. The band is playing rock and roll. Dismayed, they say to their hosts: “Oh no, you must take us to see Japanese music, this is Western! We are drowned in Western culture constantly!”
But the Japanese weren’t drowning, they were swimming. They replied “Excuse us, but all the people in this bar except yourselves are Japanese. Those are Japanese people on stage, singing in Japanese. If you wanted to see traditional Japanese music, you should have said so.”
The Japanese in this story have confidence in the strength of their own culture’s ability to grow and change, a process that includes adopting technologies and cultural forms from other societies, without losing its essential character. And really, for all its hyper modernity and interfacing with Western culture, can one say that Japan’s culture is not vibrantly unique?
Nizar was an Arab who had similar faith in his own culture to function as an equal to the West and other great world cultures, in both the context of fruitful cross-pollination and in the competitive spirit of “anything you can do, I can do better”. I would meet many more young Arabs like him over the years, with their roots deep in the rich soil of Arab and Islamic civilisation, and their branches reaching for a sky that is the property of no-one.
Whenever I met them however, they seemed to feel that they were not simply to be a minority, but to be alone – a scattered collection of individual deviants, not a cohesive community or latent political force.
Then all that changed. Egypt rose.
I missed Al Ayam, The Days, as they are simply called, between the initial uprising on January 25, 2011, or “Police Day” as it was designated by the regime, and February 11, when Mubarak was finally forced from office. Arriving later that February, however, I knew there was plenty more story yet to unfold.
My two main focuses have been basically consistent since my arrival. One was the imperial context of Egypt’s politics, and the immense threat it poses to US hegemony in the region. This meant looking at the role of the Egyptian military, today the revolution’s most dangerous enemy, which receives US $1.3 billion a year from the US (Hillary Clinton has even signed a special national security waiver, vetoing attempts by Congress to have this linked to democratic progress).
My other focus was the interwoven issues of poverty, class, and Egypt’s failed neo-liberal reforms. The chant was “Bread, freedom and social justice” in that order. Here the heroes of my stories were the brave workers who had faced up to torture and intimidation in their fight for unions independent of the state apparatus.
It was while attempting to report on the latter, in particular to interview Kamal el-Fayoumi, an independent union organiser from Mahalla, that on February 11 this year (exactly a year to the day after Mubarak was forced from office), I was first mobbed and then arrested.
Also arrested were my translator Aliya, the taxi driver Zakaria, who we had hired for the two-hour drive to Mahalla from Cairo, and Derek, an American Masters student with an interest in the union movement. We were held for a total of 56 hours by police, state security and military intelligence, during which time we were driven hundreds of kilometres to be repeatedly interrogated.
We were also taken to the general prosecutor’s office. Here Zakaria and Kamal, who had joined us at the first police station out of solidarity, knowing it would likely mean his own arrest (which it did), were reclassified as witnesses. Aliya, Derek and I were charged with inciting vandalism; specifically it is alleged we promised to pay children if they went and threw stones at a police station. The charges, which are entirely and demonstrably false, carry a maximum sentence of seven years.
For nearly five months now we have been banned from leaving Egypt as the case is held over us, and we await a decision about whether to set a court date or “archive” the case. During this time the Media Alliance and the embassy staff have been of much assistance, and made strident efforts to have the issue resolved.
My impression however, is that for whatever reason, both are being stonewalled by the Australian government just as much as by the Egyptians.
As the mask of transition drops away, and the attempt at a military coup becomes more desperate and brutal, the danger I and my colleagues face grows. I came here to report on the Egyptian struggle for human rights, now my own rights are violated and my government is silent. As Egypt struggles to build its democracy, is ours eroding?
Austin Mackell is a freelance reporter whose work has appeared in The Scotsman, CBC, New Matilda and other outlets