Egypt: Arrest of foreign journalist highlights rise of xenophobia

The World

For six hours yesterday, Aliya Alwi live-tweeted her interrogation and arrest by Egyptian police and later military in the Delta city of Mahalla.

She traveled there with an Australian journalist and an American student to cover a general strike in one of the country's most restive towns. According to her tweets, they are being transferred to a regional military intelligence office to be charged with "incitement." This is extremely troubling.

But, for many journalists working here since the revolution, it is not altogether surprising.

Following a year-long campaign by Egypt's military rulers to frame the country's turmoil as the work of foreign instigators – or "foreign hands" – many Egyptians have grown suspicious or downright hostile to foreigners, and particularly foreign journalists.

The detention of Aliya and her colleagues appears to follow a familiar pattern I've seen all too often in Egypt in recent months. Groups of "honorable citizens" will often forcibly detain foreigners and march them to their local precinct.

In one instance in Nov. 2011, I was placed under citizen's arrest with a TIME correspondent in the northern Cairo neighborhood of Shubra, after locals accused us of trying to paint a bad picture of Egypt – or worse, of being spies – while we interviewed a fruit vendor on the street.

Our translator was assaulted and we were escorted by the mob to a local police station. Luckily the police were less suspicious, and after verifying our press credentials, the local police commander sent us on our way.

"Things are very dangerous now for you [meaning foreigners]. You should take care when you are coming to these places," the commanding officer, Major-General Tareq, said. "We cannot guarantee your safety."

He didn't appear to understand he was admitting his police force wasn't doing its job.

I've been interrogated by groups of Egyptians on the streets several times since, and have always asked to be escorted to the police, who appeared more level-headed when it came to understanding the role of foreign journalists.

But that appears to have now changed.

I was at the government-run press center today for a meeting, and inquired about the status of the Australian journalist's press credentials. I was not given a definitive answer on whether or not Austin Mackell, who is reportedly a freelancer, is properly accredited.

More from GlobalPost: Egyptian press still not free

"Does he have a press card like yours?" one press center employee asked, pointing to my permanent press card.

"I don't know," I replied.

"Then tell me, why did they go to Mahalla?" the employee said.

It's an unnerving question from an employee responsible for accrediting foreign journalists, and that should in theory know the role foreign media plays in covering developments in the country.  

But on the heels of an unprecedented crackdown on foreign NGOs for what the government says is their attempt to manipulate Egypt's post-revolution politics, it was unfortunately expected.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.