In Egypt, reporting raises suspicion of foreigners

The World

CAIRO, Egypt – I am currently in the throes of reporting for GlobalPost a series of articles on Egypt's changing relationship with the Nile River, the desert country's primary source of water and which has fed Egyptian civilizations for millennia. 

As part of my reporting, I arranged – through a translator – an interview with the media spokesperson for Egypt's Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, Khaled Waseef, to speak with him about some of the government-run projects to help better manage and conserve the Nile flow that wets the country's farmland.

Outlining the issues I would address in the interview, including Egypt's irrigation systems and urban access to water, my translator also alerted him that I sought more information on new developments with the Nile Basin Initiative, a World Bank-backed framework to coordinate efforts among all Nile Basin states. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Who owns the Nile? 

But upon arriving at Mr. Waseef's office last Thursday, it was clear he was immediately uncomfortable with my presence as a member of the foreign press.

Egypt is undergoing a wave of xenophobia following a heavy state media campaign to paint continued political unrest as the work of foreigners seeking to sow chaos in and destroy the country.

To be accosted on the streets by self-proclaimed "honorable citizens", who often accuse foreigners of spying, is commonplace. (I myself have been detained numerous times by ordinary Egyptians, whom insisted I prove I was not a foreign agent). 

Right now, 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, are on trial for receiving foreign funds to "influence" Egypt's political environment.

However, I had yet to experience outright suspicion of my role as a foreign journalist inside a government building and from an official media spokesperson who should, in theory, understand the role of the press and the existence of foreign reporters in Egypt

Several days prior, I witnessed my translator arrange the interview for myself, an American journalist, and state clearly that the GlobalPost was a US-based news outlet – and he agreed.  

But Mr. Waseef, now visibly troubled at the thought of being interviewed, in person, by a foreigner, refused to even start the interview because he had assumed he would be "speaking with an Egyptian journalist," he said, rather abruptly. 

He forcefully demanded a copy of the newspaper through which I am employed (and did not accept the GlobalPost URL as valid), and scoffed at my government-issued press credentials. 

"This information is very sensitive," he said, after I presented the series of questions I planned to ask, mostly on the subject of water conservation. 

"We cannot just give this information to anyone," he said, hinting at my status as a foreign journalist. 

Egypt's control over the Nile is indeed a sensitive subject for the government, and has long been deemed an issue of national security in the event any upstream states – most notably, Ethiopia – decides it wants a greater share of the Nile waters. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Tensions rise over access to the Nile River

But reaching out to government sources to share their expertise and explain the initatives taken to craft sustainable solutions for their own population is key.

Before the current unrest, in 2009, I was able to secure an interview with the deputy minister of housing, who spoke to me at length about how Cairo's informal slums were virtually ticking time bombs from a political perspective.

My questions for Mr. Waseef did not seek to probe any high-level military plans to invade Ethiopia in order to secure the Nile, but rather paint a picture of government efforts to assist local farmers and modernize Egypt's irrigation systems. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Egypt loses a President, and maybe its water

Benign enough, right? Perhaps even positive? Apparently not. 

Even a government-accredited journalist requesting information from an official government spokesman can be spun so as to be part of the grand (although rather ambiguous) plot by "foreign hands" to stymie Egypt. 

Needless to say, the interview did not proceed, leaving the water ministry with less representation than it deserves in a story on the Nile. 

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