Saturday, July 16, 2011

Minya's "invisible force"

Conspiracy theories tend to strike a chord in the Arab world. After this week in Minya, where circumstances surrounding our field interviews turned very fishy, I'm starting to understand why.

First, we noticed a conspicuous security vehicle at a number of our destinations. It dawned on us: were we being followed? Our NGO partners in Minya confirmed; regrettably, the hotel alerted somebody/something to our arrival. The police became ever-present as the week went on. By the third night of our trip, they attempted to drive alongside of us as we strolled on the Nile Corniche and trailed us when we walked two blocks from the hotel to get a sandwich.

Our conspicuous police contingent
Our interviews with Egyptians grew shorter and more rushed by the day.  NGO staff started entering the interview room at their own discretion, interrupting the conversation.  Often they would urge us to finish and leave the premises, though for fairly trivial reasons.... like lunch.  When we insisted on continuing (because, for example, lunch is not a limited time offer), we were told that the director of the NGO bids it so.  Upon further protest, we were told that the police bid it so.

One of our interviews was openly sabotaged on my last day in Minya.  Two volunteers from a meeting between businessmen and youth agreed to participate, but it was they who were asking the questions. The young men wanted to know the purpose of our project; we explained.  They wanted to know why we care what's going on in Egypt; we answered, diplomatically.  They pushed, asking with unmasked suspicion exactly why our countries want to know what people in Minya think.  At that moment, a man slid open the door and hobbled in to the room, uninvited and unannounced.  He stood, filming my colleague and I with his hot pink camera phone.  The scene was bizarre but nonthreatening, until he too started questioning us with hostility and contempt.  "Anything you want to know about the revolution you can find in Tahrir," he spat, and told the two men that they were not authorized to participate in such interviews.  Our translator suspected these men belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood (a particularly insular and hierarchical organization).

My colleague ventured a explanation for these events, à la conspiracy theory.  People in Minya (rural and conservative in orientation) are particularly susceptible to state TV propaganda and cautionary SCAF statements; they buy into news of foreign spies, outsider attempts to incite chaos and derail Egypt's revolution, and the international media's penchant for false reporting.  We did not enter Minya unnoticed with our cameras, laptops, and igadgets, and questions of political opinion and civil rights.

Naturally, the hotel was spooked and promptly called what my colleague described as the "invisible force."  The invisible force is the entity somewhere up Minya's chain of command that conspired against us and our work.  The invisible force saw fit to deploy a police convoy (without our consent or even awareness) under the guise of protection. It used a variety of middle men to obstruct or influence our interviews, always pushing us along to carefully planned engagements and stamping out our attempts to break from the itinerary.

The conspiracy theory
If you're confused, consult the picture.  My colleague explains all in a beautifully crafted conspiracy theory diagram, with each component present: the itinerary-obsessed NGO and its overbearing director, the Minya police, our hotel, jumbotrons projecting state TV, Israeli spies, American journalists, Tahrir square.  And finally, the invisible force, which is represented by intimidating squiggly lines.

In all seriousness, Minya was not open for business due to a deep-seated mistrust of foreigners since the revolution and- more importantly- a lingering fear of the powers that be.  The minute the police became involved (on whomever's orders), all parties seemed on pins and needles.  Throughout our interviews, citizens expressed vague notions of newfound freedom, but hesitated to exercise it by criticizing Mubarak or the SCAF.  With a camera pointed in their faces and a police contingent waiting outside, Egyptians instead resorted to varying degrees of self-censorship.

Tahrir square, where Cairenes demand their rights and wax poetic about political freedom, seems more and more a bubble.  In reality, much of Egypt still lives under the shadow of trepidation that Hosni Mubarak (and those before him) cultivated.

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