Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Egyptian State Security intimidated by two women

Our female 'babysitter'
Today was somewhat fascinating from an objective perspective, if intensely boring for those actually involved.

I spent three and a half hours standing in the street with prominent public figure and activist Gameela Ismail this afternoon, after we were prevented from reaching our intended destination by Egyptian State Security. While droves of young football fans were rioting in Zamalek and over 1,000 demonstrators (according to the accounts of others) were gathered near Abdeen Palace, Gameela and I were apparently important enough to have the attention of more than a dozen high-level security officers and the divided attention of around 80 uniformed and plain-clothes police. Who knew two women needed so many babysitters!

Gameela and I reached a side street leading to Abdeen Square - where the President lives, in Abdeen Palace - around 4:15pm. We were stopped just steps from the square itself by a handful of plainclothes officers. They instantly recognized Gameela, who is something of an icon to Egyptians (wife of former Presidential candidate Ayman Nour, Gameela has become an advocate for women's, human, and civil rights, and is extremely active in fighting the regime). Within moments, the number of officers around us multiplied and we were also joined by three women, one in uniform.

Over the next three and a half hours, our babysitters consistantly refused to let us enter Abdeen Square. They tried to get us to go around by means of a narrow alleyway, but Gameela and I were smart enough not to fall for that. Uniformed and plainclothes police diverted pedestrians, and one high-ranking plainclothes officer even told passerby not to look at us.

While being kept from the demonstration - which we could neither see nor hear - was frustrating, I did find it telling that State Security found it necessary to spend so many resources on two women, especially after it became clear that other demonstrators were not coming to our location. Yet our security remained tight, particularly after Gameela managed to move about 5 meters closer to the square when our babysitters were distracted. We were closely surrounded by a group of fifteen uniformed and plainclothes police, and the uniformed female officer and another plainclothes office joined us in our little circle. At least 30 other State Security members watched us from within 30 meters, with others spread beyond that.

Around 7:30pm we learned, via phone and Twitter, that the day's protest was winding down. A few minutes later Gameela told the lead babysitter 'salam w'alaikom' and we walked past our guards away from the square, back towards the car, and left.

What I have to wonder is why we were so interesting. Even if the large numbers of state security were mere coincidence, why was it necessary to keep us so surrounded, particularly when we were still clearly in the eye of passerby? Why was state security so intent to keep Gameela from joining the protest, when other figures such as Ayman Nour and Hamdeen Sabbahi were already there? Is Egypt's State Security really that scared of Gameela Ismail?

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