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Egypt's State Security Gets Very Interested When Reporters Talk To Bedouins

Maliha, a Bedouin mother of four, at her home in Nuweiba, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt. i i

Maliha, a Bedouin mother of four, at her home in Nuweiba, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt. Holly Pickett for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Holly Pickett for NPR
Maliha, a Bedouin mother of four, at her home in Nuweiba, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt.

Maliha, a Bedouin mother of four, at her home in Nuweiba, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt.

Holly Pickett for NPR

Egyptian authorities are sensitive about anyone talking to Bedouins near the Israeli border, as I discovered during a reporting trip for Part IV of our series on Egypt airing on Morning Edition this week.

We sought out the Bedouins, tribal desert-dwellers, for a story on the rights of minorities and women in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak has been vocal about promoting national unity and supporting the rights of women and ethnic and religious minorities. But the government has done little to enforce those rights.
And some Egyptian authorities were clearly nervous that we were seeking out the views of Bedouins.

Part of it is that officials are quick to blame these nomadic people whenever there's malfeasance on the Sinai Peninsula. In fairness, some Sinai Bedouins are — by their own admission — involved in smuggling across the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip.

The other reason for the uneasiness of officials is a desire not to get the Bedouins riled. They are not shy about making their displeasure known, sometimes violently.

I was surprised at how quickly the authorities figured out where we were and who we were talking to. Both Egyptians and Westerners vacation on Sinai, so it's not that we stood out.

Yet my colleagues and I had barely finished talking to and snapping photos of Sheik Asheesh Aniz in the privacy of his waterfront retreat when a burly man who identified himself as an agent with Egypt's state security showed up. He spent the next 45 minutes grilling Aniz and my Egyptian producer as they sipped sweetened cups of Bedouin tea. He demanded my passport and that of my photographer. We turned them over.

In Egypt, you don't say "no" or ask "why" unless you want to be arrested on the spot.

He tried to lighten the mood by joking that with a name like "Nelson," I must be related to South Africa's Mandela. No one smiled. He checked and then rechecked our government-issued press cards, scribbling down every bit of information about us he could glean.

We weren't breaking any laws and hadn't done any reporting or photographing on public lands. That technically requires a permit from the Interior Ministry if the authorities want to play hardball.

The agent agreed we'd done nothing wrong, but said his interference couldn't be helped.

Surprisingly, he let us go while his superiors figured out what to do about us. The bureaucratic wheels churned slowly enough for us to get in a full day of reporting and picture-taking.

By the following morning, the state security agent called our producer. He mentioned one of the places we had visited to the day before. He tried to pry out of her who we had spoken to. He forbade us in no uncertain terms from doing any more interviews or taking any more pictures. Otherwise we'd be arrested.

We decided not to press our luck and returned to Cairo. There was no point in endangering the Egyptian driver and the producer, let alone ourselves. Nor did I want state security agents swooping down on the Bedouins we had talked with.

Here is an audio slideshow from our trip to see the Bedouins:

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Cairo and covers the Arab world from the Middle East to Africa.

On Monday's Morning Edition, she reported about the growing number of Egyptians who are tired of President Hosni Mubarak's iron-fisted rule and hope next Sunday's parliamentary elections will produce some change. Tuesday, she focused on Egypt's changing economy. Wednesday, she went to a Cairo slum.

Her reports about life and the pace of change in Egypt are due to conclude on Friday's Morning Edition. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

Posted by Mark Memmott.

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