On 11 February Australian freelance journalist Austin Mackell and Egyptian translator and fixer Aliya Alwi were arrested in the industrial city of Mahalla. They spent 56 hours in jail before lawyers secured their release, and the investigation against them is ongoing. THERESA MALLINSON caught up with the pair in Cairo to find out more about their ordeal and how being in limbo is affecting their work and lives.
Australian freelance journalist Austin Mackell has worked with Egyptian translator and fixer Aliya Alwi since mid-2011. On 11 February this year, Mackell and Alwi (together with a US student, Dereck Ludovici, and their taxi driver Zakaria Ahmad) drove to the industrial city of Mahalla to meet with labour unionist Kamal Elfayoumi on the anniversary of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's ousting from power. But mere minutes after they met up with Elfayoumi, a mob started shouting at the journalists, accusing them of being spies and traitors. When Ahmed attempted to calm the crowd, a policeman took his driver's licence, and their car was escorted to the police station for their own “protection”.
Although they were moved many times to different prisons, Mackell, Alwi, and their companions wouldn't be released from custody for the next 56 hours. Alwi says they began to think they were in trouble when “they told us there were witnesses against us, a couple of hours into our custody with the police. They told us there was three witnesses that testified that we were inciting people, but at that point they didn't even clarify that there were charges, so we just thought it was an FYI,” says Alwi. “Later on when they formally charged us in the DA's office, it was inescapable.” For Mackell, “It was just an escalation, a constant escalation. Every step was an escalation on the last step, it's hard to say when you realise; we knew it was bad, and it just got worse.”
Mackell and Alwi weren't physically harmed during their time in custody – although Ahmed (who has not been charged) was beaten up. “I know that I was concerned for the Egyptians I was with, especially Aliya, but... you have to understand Egypt in the international context, even in the minutiae like this,” says Mackell. “The power structure that gives these guys authority is actually an international power structure, and I outrank them in that. It's perverse, even though they're the ones trying to uphold it, and I'm the one trying to report on people agitating against it, there's still definitely that element of special treatment for Westerners going on.”
Although Alwi remained physically unharmed during her detention, the threat of violence was always there. “(I was) very aware of the fact that I'm the Egyptian, and a women, and based on all the stories I've hearing from the last year, of course, I was some stage worrying at that I'd be physically abused,” she says. “When we got handcuffed it became more serious to me, and then later when I was in a prison cell there was always the threat in my mind, because I know all the things that happen from stories.”
Twenty-seven hours into their imprisonment, Mackell, Alwi, and Ludovici were charged with inciting public violence – specifically with paying children to throw stones at a police station. The primary witness is an 11-year-old boy. “No money exchanged hands, not even to the taxi, nothing,” says Alwi. “We were not there a few seconds in the square before this whole thing happened; there is not a chance that we could've provoked anyone or been misunderstood. We were just saying hello to a person, to Kamal Elfayoumi, and people started pointing fingers at us.”
Alwi held onto her phone for the first six hours of their detention, and sent a constant stream of Tweets alerting people on the outside to their plight. “Having pressure from the outside, having activists trying to track us down, I'm sure made the authorities very aware of the fact that they have to handle us gently. It became a public issue from the first hour, because people were following the tweets,” says Alwi. “I think they were very aware of the fact that we were followed and taken care of from the outside, which played a big role in how they handled the whole thing. It was our lawyer (Sayed Fathy) who really pressured so that we'd get a release on investigation, cause I think it's legally possible that we'd be spending the time in jail while being investigated, until now I guess...” Fathy, who is also an activist, is representing Alwi free of charge, and offered to do the same for Mackell. But the Rory Peck Trust – an organisation that offers financial and other support to freelance journalists in trouble – stepped up, and is taking care of Mackell's legal fees, as well as other expenses like loss of earnings.
Alwi has been out of work since her release. “The impression I have from colleagues in the field is that I'm being avoided for a little bit because people are worried about hiring a person with charges against them,” she says. “I completely understand that if I'm with a journalist in the street and already have charges against me it's going to put him in trouble as well by association. So I understand this but the bottom line is I'm not getting any work as a fixer or a translator.” Mackell, for his part, is also finding it difficult to work. “Well, for one thing there's no time. We're constantly busy countering the negative media we've had and making sure our story is out there in the pubic eye,” he says. “Also, I have been writing, but I've been writing accounts of the event; and because that makes me more a subject of the story than the journalist there's ethical issues with when I can be paid for that. (There's also) the fact that my equipment's been stolen, or taken, and we're now hearing that we won't get that back for two to three weeks.”
The pair, together with Ludovici, who has chosen to stay out of the media gaze, are under a travel ban preventing them from leaving Egypt while their case is being investigated. “The big fear for me is having a travel ban stopping me from returning, which is what's happened to a number of journalists who've been to Mahalla before; it seems likes it's a real hotspot for them (the military government) and they don't want journalists coming back who are gonna go there,” says Mackell. “I think Mahalla's probably where they rightly see the seeds of the revolution. The April 6th Movement, which is credited by so many along with the “We are all Khaled Saeed” Facebook page, are the two online networks that people see as organising the day of protests on January 25, which brought on the revolution. April 6 was actually founded as a solidarity network with the strike in Mahalla in 2008 on that date. It is also important to remember it was the general strike in the last three days of the 18 days that everyone refers to – I think incorrectly – as the revolution, that a lot of people credit with forcing Mubarak to step down or with forcing the generals, who have large industrial interests, to turn on Mubarak and look for another option.”
Meanwhile, the investigation against Mackell, Alwi, and Ludovici continues. The authorities are reportedly making hard copies of all the information on Mackell's laptop, before they can further assess the case. While Ludovici is trying to continue with his studies, the other two are living in limbo, until they find out if charges will actually be pressed. If found guilty, they face five to seven years in jail. While Mackell says the Australian Embassy in Cairo, has been “fantastic”, official support from home has not been forthcoming. The Australian foreign ministry has yet to make a statement and, in the time between the arrest in Mahalla and Kevin Rudd's spectacular self-formerising as foreign minister, he chose to ignore repeated calls – via open letters, petitions, and Twitter – to comment on the case. Acting foreign minister Craig Emerson has also, so far, failed to produce a statement.
For Alwi and Mackell, it's important that the media's attention remains on the case – and that the true facts are brought to light. “In consultation with our lawyer, we've decided to take an approach of maximum exposure, because we think they (the military government) can only operate in the dark,” says Mackell. “And this is a political case,” Alwi chips in. “They've already launched the media war on us. What we're trying to do now is we're not being aggressive; we're just trying to be on the defensive – we're just trying to catch up with them. Two hours into our being in custody, there were already papers covering (the case) without any information. They just wrote stuff about like capturing spies and foreign hands and stuff. That is so unethical.”
Their faces were splashed all over the television stations and newspapers, and some newspapers even published the addresses of the foreigners involved in the case. “It implies tacit consent for that kind of aggression from the state,” says Mackell. “It sort of implies that it's open season on us.” And he's fighting back. “In a sense I'm going on the attack,” Mackell says. “I like to bring up the fact in as many interviews as possible that actually there is a foreign hand in Egypt and it is the military and the elements of the old regime who have close relationships with America and Israel and receive billions of dollars from them via formal trade deals. If people want to look for foreigners spending money to subvert the revolution in Egypt or to control politics in Egypt, they don't need to be looking at freelance journalists who are allegedly handing out money to street kids to throw rocks. You know, the whole thing's absurd and I do like to point that out because I think that this whole strategy they're playing talking about foreign hands, is eventually going to backfire on them, because they are the foreign hand.”
For Alwi and Mackell, not much has changed in the Egyptian media since the revolution. “Journalists still get arrested, still get harassed or hassled for going to places and covering (news),” says Alwi, a point borne out by her own experience. “The law of having an escort from the press centre is now less enforced, but it's maybe because they just can't follow up or can't catch up with the number of journalists that flooded Egypt since (the revolution). They don't have enough personnel. In terms of freedom of press, I think it's still superficial; I don't think it's for real and that's probably because people still get arrested for trying to cover a perfectly journalistic event.”
“The only thing that's changed is not the rules, but people's attitudes towards them; journalists are more and more ignoring the rules, and more and more taking risks, and because there are so many people doing it, it can't be stopped,” says Mackell. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces would do well to listen to his words; trying to intimidate journalists by hitting them with trumped-up charges isn't going to stop them speaking truth. DM
- Arrested: Inside my Egyptian Nightmare, on Moon Under Water (Austin Mackell's blog).
- My Mahalla Ordeal, Part 1 & Part 2, on Being Arab... Before it was Cool (Aliya Alwi's blog)
- Australian Prime Minister: Act on Austin Mackell's matter now, on the change.org petition websitehttp://www.change.org/petitions/australian-prime-minister-act-on-austin-mackells-matter-now
Photo: The ordeal of being arrested and charged is not yet over for Austin Mackell and Aliya Alwi. DAILY MAVERICK/Theresa Mallinson.