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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Dutch Reporter Spends Night in Cairo Jail After Citizen’s Arrest

A Dutch reporter in Cairo was forced to spend Monday night in jail after the owner of a cafe detained her on suspicion of “spreading European culture” and endangering Egypt’s national security by looking for subjects to interview for a story about youth unemployment.

The freelance journalist, Rena Netjes, told The Lede in an Internet chat she was handed over to the police after the citizen’s arrest. As she reported on Twitter herself, she was only freed on Tuesday after her country’s ambassador, Gerard Steeghs, intervened with Egypt’s prosecutor general who agreed to drop the charges.

Ms. Netjes was also assisted by the activist lawyer Ragia Omran, who found out about the case through Twitter updates posted on the social network by colleagues of the Dutch reporter.

In an interview on Tuesday, Ms. Netjes told The Lede that the incident began the afternoon before in the Cairo neighborhood where she has lived for more than two years. While shopping, she started speaking to two young men who were hanging around outside the cafe, asking them “if they happen to know anyone who may have lost his job” and “would be willing to speak with me about it.” Then, she said, the cafe owner “interfered and took over (very bossy) and asked me what I was looking for. He said, ‘I will help you to find someone, a good one you could speak to.’” Then, she continued,

he asked for my passport and my press card, and I â€" stupidly enough â€" gave him my passport, and said that I had only my press card from last year with me, because I wasn’t planning on doing an interview that late afternoon, but I just bumped into a group of boys that might be interesting to speak with. (They seemed so bored… a lot of unemployed hide out of shame normally).

So he took both, offered me a drink in the cafe, and then I asked for my passport back and he refused. From then, I knew it was like a trap.

I said, ‘I want it back, really.’ Then he started to say: ‘It is very inappropriate that one makes journalistic stories about Egypt now. If you consider the current circumstances in Egypt, you cannot write about it, you have to stop your work.’

He didn’t want to give me my passport, he said the police will come. But they didn’t show up, so he said we are going to the police â€" him, his wife and me. He and his wife were, by the way, staring at me like crazy, like I was a real spy both of them had just revealed.

It was obvious for me than that he, like many other Egyptians, is so scared for some bad news to be shown to the world â€" after all it is a shame culture. So what he did was to stop me working, and then he made up a whole lot of extra stuff, together with two of the four police officers. One “good guy” officer told me: ‘You should never have given your passport to him, then you would have been at home already.’

As the Associated Press Cairo correspondent Sarah El Deeb reported, “An official in the state prosecutor’s office last month encouraged citizens to arrest lawbreakers and hand them to the police, setting off a political storm at a time when reports of vigilantism were already on the rise.”

Ms. Netjes added that the “scary thing” was that citizens who arrested her seemed so glad to take ob police powers. The cafe owner, she said, “was so excited to cause me trouble, and so proud he handed over a ‘danger.’ He said all the time, ‘I fear for this country.” She said that the fear that foreign powers want to destabilize Egypt, “is a national disease here.”

The incident comes ten months after a series of public service announcements broadcast on Egyptian state television stoked xenophobia. One ad in that campaign specifically warned that foreign visitors who strike up conversations with young Egyptians in cafes about the nation’s problems might be spies seeking to undermine the state by fomenting unrest.

A copy of an ad broadcast on Egyptian television in 2012, subtitled by a video blogger.

As The Lede reported last year, that ad was eventually withdrawn, in part because of fears that demonizing foreign visitors on state television might not be good for the tourist industry the Egyptian economy relies upon so heavily.