Egypt’s Journalists, Still Under Siege

The New York Times

CAIRO — I LOOKED on, astonished, as a man a few yards away told protesters that he would slaughter me.

He spoke resolutely and enthusiastically, and seemed utterly willing to carry out his promise.

The man, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, stood among thousands of stick-waving supporters, their beards long and their faces angry, as they chanted “God is great” and “Down with infidels.” They watched him make the familiar and menacing gesture of tracing his finger across his throat as he said, “We will slaughter Ibrahim Essa.”

This was in March. I was in a car trying to get to the Egyptian Media Production City, a compound a half-hour’s drive west from downtown Cairo that houses many television studios, to record my daily TV program, which was critical of the Brotherhood and its political leader, President Mohamed Morsi. The group had surrounded the compound and locked its gates. They had set up tents at the front and communal toilets outside the walls.

I had gotten used to threats during the long rule of President Hosni Mubarak, which dragged me before its courts about 70 times and sentenced me to prison on four occasions. But the Morsi era was different. Under Mr. Mubarak, I was threatened only with prison; under Mr. Morsi, my life was in danger.

The Morsi supporters’ siege of the Media City compound was airtight. They hung up my picture, alongside that of other commentators critical of Mr. Morsi, with nooses drawn around our necks so that we looked like wanted criminals from old Westerns. Meanwhile, they searched all those who came in and out of the studios, destroying cars and attacking some of the journalists and Morsi opponents who’d had the bad luck of being scheduled for a TV appearance.

Later, a reformist judge who looks somewhat like me told me that, after leaving a TV show where he had been a guest, some of the Brothers mistook him for me. The judge screamed that he wasn’t Ibrahim Essa, and proved it by showing them his belt. (I’ve become well known for wearing suspenders, so much so that the Brothers mockingly call me Ibrahim Abu-Suspenders.) As the judge told the story, he blinked back tears, still reeling from the fear and tension.

The night of the siege, we journalists drove down abandoned back roads in the desert to reach the studio, driving past walls of barbed wire that brought to mind images of the United States-Mexico border. My co-workers at the TV show were already heroic for coming to work despite the pressures of the siege, the threats and the constant fear, and on top of it all they had to ensure my security and daily survival.

Even today, nearly two months after a popular revolution removed Mr. Morsi in July, Media City remains under threat by the Brothers, who accuse the media of being the prime instigators of the revolt against Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood. The power of reporters and commentators to lead a revolution would come as a surprise to my colleagues, whose open secret is a constant despair at being unable to change much of anything.

Threats, sieges and targeting of journalists are among the Brothers’ favorite tactics, and they continue to bide their time with such activities, despite the ouster of Mr. Morsi and the violent crackdown on the Brotherhood.

Just last week, the sound of bullets was so loud and close that we all rushed into the lobby of the hotel near the Media Production City. Since the imposition of an emergency curfew following the Brotherhood’s attacks on churches, journalists, government bureaucrats and ordinary citizens, the hotel has become a twin of Baghdad’s famous Rashid Hotel during the Iraq war: a place of gathering and shelter for journalists. When the bullets died down, we made sure no one had been hurt.

On my first night at the hotel, a motorcycle carrying three men tried to crash into the lobby. They fired shots into the hotel, and a police chase ensued. When two of the three were captured, they said that they had just been lost in the desert and confused, a funny excuse for something that was not funny at all.

Remaining in the hotel with other television journalists, also living under death threats, was terribly depressing. For safety’s sake, I asked a police officer to escort me back to Media City, even though my house is only 10 minutes from the compound. As the siren of the police car driving ahead of me blared its way through the curfew and I sat next to a police officer in a bulletproof vest holding an automatic rifle, I recalled the day in 1992 when I opened the door to my apartment and found an officer from the Interior Ministry, warning me that I had appeared on a militant group’s list of assassination targets because of my criticism of Islamists.

At the time, I was writing against the rising tide of terrorism and extremism during a difficult phase in Egypt’s history. I was also single. Looking around my small, sparsely furnished apartment in obvious distaste, the officer asked me if I wanted a moving guard (who would accompany me everywhere I went) or a fixed guard (who would just stand outside my home or workplace). I told him that I didn’t own a car, and asked whether the officer would just ride the subway or the public bus with me. The officer was fed up with me and decided I would get a fixed guard.

The guard’s job was to accompany me as I crossed the street, then stand by my side as I negotiated with taxi drivers to take me to work. Once I’d found my ride for the day, he would wave, then go back to his post outside my apartment building. Later, when I learned more about confessions by members of the group that had targeted me, I learned that they knew where I lived, that the sister of one of the men lived nearby, and that I had been under threat wherever I went. During this period, I learned to be brave in the face of death, and since then, I have not feared anything else. Since the start of my career, I have faced accusations of blasphemy and death threats. I have been fired; seen publications I’ve edited get shut down; and watched as copies of my novel “Assassination of the Big Man” were seized.

Last week, as I waited for the police car to escort me to the studio and for the fully armed officer next to me to shield me from a potential attack, I found history repeating itself on a grander, more dangerous scale. It’s as if terrorism will never end, and my fate is to face death because of what I write and what I say. Sometimes, when I set out for work and say goodbye to my wife and children, I feel like a soldier waving to his family from a train as he heads toward battle.

Ibrahim Essa is co-founder and editor in chief of Al Tahrir, a daily newspaper founded in 2011, and the author, most recently, of the novel “Our Master.” This essay was translated by Ghenwa Hayek from the Arabic.