Notes from a Cairo Journalist Being Hounded by Spies and Thugs
Four journalists have been shot dead in Egypt this week. Dozens of others have been arrested, and I myself—a relatively young reporter—have received death threats. I am now being followed.
Since last Wednesday, I have seen my closest friends and colleagues beaten and repeatedly arrested as they have struggled to cover a story that the Egyptian government would prefer the world ignored. More than 600 supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi were killed on August 14, when the security services moved in to forcibly disperse a protest camp inside Rabaa el Adaweya Square. They came with bulldozers and guns.
The standoff lasted for ten hours; by 3 PM, bodies lined the floors of makeshift field hospitals andeven a mosque. Muslim Brotherhood supporters say this was a “massacre.” According to Human Rights Watch, it was “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.” But most journalists could only watch from afar: police and army troops blocked off the site, firing tear gas, birdshot pellets, and live ammunition at anyone who tried to enter.
I spent hours trying to find a safe route in, but every side street was blocked. Instead of doing my job, I could only run from gunfire or crouch behind cars. By the end of the day, three journalists, including veteran Sky News cameraman Mike Dean, had been killed. Another photographer remains in the hospital, suffering internal bleeding and serious kidney damage.
The situation can only get worse. Politically, the country is now so dangerously polarized that coverage on either side of the divide invites attacks. On Sunday, I received a warning that I would be “shot in the back” as a result of my articles examining pro-Islamist protests. Most worryingly, it name-checked people close to me. I am now living out of a rucksack in a different part of town, and have repeatedly been followed by a man who appears to be from state security.
THE MYSTERIOUS AND DEPRESSING CASE OF PRISONER X
The grave of Ben Zygier, Israel’s “Prisoner X”
On Tuesday morning, the Australian news network ABC broadcast a story revealing the identity of the mysterious “Prisoner X,” who died in solitary confinement in an Israeli prison in 2010. In fact, “Prisoner X” was the subject of a case so secret that ABC claimed even the guards inside the Ayalon prison didn’t know his identity, and that he “lived hermetically sealed from the outside world.” His arrest and detention have been described as a “disappearance,” setting alarm bells ringing for bodies such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, who argued that the idea of individuals simply vanishing from society is not a characteristic of a democratic state.
If the case already sounded like a bizarre 21st century combination of a Cold War spy thriller and The Man in the Iron Mask, things only got murkier when it was revealed that Prisoner X was found hanged in a cell that was under 24-hour surveillance, yet his incarceration was not officially recognized by either the Israeli Prison Service or the government. The Sydney Morning Herald also revealed on Wednesday that he was being watched by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), and that he had traveled to Iran, Syria, and Lebanon—all places that bar entry to people who’ve visited “the Zionist entity.” Israel forbids its citizens from traveling to these places for “security reasons,” so it was reported that Zygier, along with at least two others, had used their Australian passports. It’s been suggested often before that Australians are favored for spy missions because they don’t attract suspicion.
One thing ABC was clear about from the start was his identity—he was an Australian national named Ben Zygier, who had moved to Israel ten years before his death and changed his name to Ben Alon, before marrying an Israeli woman with whom he had two children. It seems likely that Zygier spent time working as a spy for the infamous Israeli secret service agency the Mossad before being jailed without an open trial and dying in his cell. ABC stated that his body was flown to Melbourne in December 2010 for burial, but the Australian government wasn’t informed of his death. This constitutes a violation of fairly basic international law, something that Israel is admittedly no stranger to.
Ayalon prison, where Zygier was detained
This is where it all started to become a problem for the Israeli government. Israeli media outlets usually manage to bypass the military censor for high profile stories by quoting foreign media sources and, initially, the local Israeli press jumped on ABC’s revelation. However, it seems that the Prisoner X case is shrouded in even more secrecy than the strikes Israel recently carried out in Syria and the country’s incursion into Lebanese airspace. Ha’aretz later reported that:
“The Prime Minister’s Office called on Tuesday an emergency meeting of the Israeli Editors Committee, an informal forum comprised of the editors and owners of major Israeli media outlets, to ask its members to cooperate with the government and withhold publication of information pertaining to an incident that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency.”