Egypt: Arrests 'a sign of desperation', says Mackell

Austin Mackell. Photo taken from his blog, Moon Under Water.
Thursday, February 16, 2012

Australian journalist Austin Mackell, United States student Derek Ludovici and Egyptian translator Aliya Alwi are facing charges of inciting people to vandalise public property after being detained by the police in the Egyptian city of Mahalla El-Kubra on February 11.

The group tried to interview Kamal Elfayoumi, a trade worker in the industrial city, when their car was surrounded by groups of local residents. Reports posted by Alwi on Twitter said: "Our car got rocked and beaten against the glass, got called a whore and all sorts of things. Police escorted us to station."

At first, the group thought they were simply being protected by the police. However, after several hours, the police told the group that they were being charged with "offering money to youth to vandalise and cause chaos".

Alwi said they were being transferred to military intelligence in the neighbouring city of Tanta. In the next three days, the group was moved back and forth eight times to stop supporters mobilising in their defence.

However, several activists from No to Military Trials, a network formed to prevent civilians being tried by military courts and other injustices, quickly arrived in Mahalla and began spreading attention to the issue online.

Under pressure from a campaign for their release within Egypt and globally, the three were released on February 14.

Austin told Green Left Weekly: "I've been banned from leaving the country while the charges are being investigated, but I'm trying to get home to renew my passport.

"The Egyptian authorities don't care about me overstaying my visa. I'm being charged with inciting people to vandalise public property, along with Aliya and Derek.

"[Foreign Minister] Kevin Rudd needs to publicly come out and defend me. Embassy staff have told me he is following the case, so he should do something.

"I'm a journalist, not a spy."

Mackell said the two Egyptians detained with the group, Alwi and their driver Zakaria Ahmad, were both treated far more aggressively than he and Ludovici. He said Ahmad was being beaten in an attempt to turn him against the others.

"It's a sign of desperation from [the military regime]," Mackell said.

"The targets of the strategy of talking about 'foreign hands' are not us [foreign journalists], they are Elfayoumi and the other activists here. It's an attempt to discredit their real work.

"I am just a means to that end."

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which controls the military authorities, assumed presidential powers when Hosni Mubarak resigned from office on February 11 last year.

Mahalla has been the epicentre of independent union activity and strikes for the past five years.

"The February 11 strike was a bit of a flop in Mahalla; less than 10% of workers in the factories took part," Mackell told GLW. "But Elfayoumi is still optimistic, he says the momentum in the factories is still building."

In Egypt, activists, unions, bloggers and journalists still face constant harassment from right-wing baltageya gangs paid off by the interior ministry and from official state forces.

"The most likely scenario is some people were there to instigate trouble," said Mackell. "They were not necessarily attempting to instigate trouble against us, but against the strike and the people who were marching.

“Then when we were there we became perfect targets."

More than 12,000 people have been arrested and 8000 charged by military tribunals since the uprising against former President Mubarak began a year ago. Many female detainees have been subjected to cruel and degrading "virginity tests".

In the face of the huge protests that have marked the one year anniversary of the overthrow of Mubarak, the Egyptian government has intensified attempts to discredit protesters and shift the blame away from itself for ongoing repression.

Al Jazeera English reported that a letter from the SCAF read on Egyptian State Television on Friday said: "Egypt is facing conspiracies that seek to topple the state and spread chaos … it will not bow to pressure to accelerate the transition to full civilian rule."

Despite this, millions continue to take to the streets.