The global assault on independent storytellers, whether journalists or documentarians, has been played out in Pakistan, but seems far more pervasive in post-referendum Egypt. The tides of military rule reaching the shores of a nation are not unfamiliar to Pakistanis, but as General Sisi becomes President Sisi, Egypt is witnessing an unprecedented era of paranoia and conspiracy that allows for the regime to imprison all free-thinking professionals on trumped up charges of ‘spying’ or ‘threatening national security.’ Such was the case for Jeremy Hodge, an American freelance translator working in Cairo, who was recently released from custody in Egypt and his friend, the documentary maker Hossam Meneai, who remains in prison on falsified charges.
The story of Mr Hodge and Meneai is not uncommon in today’s Egypt. Both were working in apolitical professional roles: Hodge as a translator and occasional freelance writer and Meneai as a documentary maker who was working on a project describing the history of Saint Mark, the man who brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century. Meneai did not deal with political subjects, barring one historical documentary on Hosni Mubarak for a Chinese client who required a historical primer on the former ruler for an audience unfamiliar with Mid-East politics.
When asked if he thought his arrest was part of an assault on journalists, Mr Hodge explained that he and Hossam were not really engaged as journalists, nor were they covering political issues. All of this makes Meneai’s continued imprisonment perplexing. That is not to say that journalists who are engaged on the frontline of political coverage should be subject to arrest and detention, but when the regime is locking up apolitical documentarians, one wonders how paranoid it is at losing its iron grip on the power behind Egypt.
Mr Hodge explained that he later discovered that both he and Meneai were accused of being spies. There was even a story in the Arab press that Mr Hodge read while in Washington, DC said that he was currently in a Cairo jail, after confessing to taking pictures of police stations. None of this is true; Mr Hodge was released with the assistance of the US embassy and was not convicted of any crime, much less espionage activities.
The snatching of young people by a regime attempting to ‘tie up all loose ends’ before taking political power was best described in Pakistan by Habib Jalib, who wrote, “Humans are cowering with fear, bloodsucking monsters are on the rampage”.
Even worse than the false accusations is the beatings suffered by detainees like Meneai. Hodge told Egypt Independent that Meneai has endured physical and psychological harassment while in detention. All of this is compounded by the inhuman conditions of detention, where clean water, food and warmth are rare commodities.
While Meneai’s professional work strayed from political subjects, he was vocal in his personal life with critiques of military rule. Though possessing such an opinion is not officially a crime, it can certainly lead one to the same unjust treatment that Meneai is facing today by an increasingly authoritarian regime. As we speak, he sits in a jail cell alongside criminals accused of rape and drug offences, rather than with other political prisoners.
What threat could Meneai pose to the regime with his personal opinions? His threat could not be from his professional work. It couldn’t be his fun-loving demeanor or his love for Michael Jackson. Perhaps, it was because of his open-mindedness or his friends from around the world, who he welcomed with open arms to Egypt. Or perhaps, his continued detention is due to his gall of exercising his democratic right to critique the military regime in a personal capacity.
But, as the military regime latches itself firmly in the President’s Palace, people like Meneai are at risk primarily because they remind the world of the true potential for Egypt as a place open to all people with true freedom for its citizens. The lament of Egypt’s revolutionaries is not just due to their lack of cohesion in taking on Sisi’s regime, but also due to their dream deferred by military hands. As Jalib wrote: “Every night is desolate, every road and every alley is struck by calamity/ With hope in our hearts we searched for a city, where is that city now, my devastated heart?”
NB: Thanks to Amandeep Singh, a former intern with the Middle East Institute, for bringing my attention to this issue.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2014.
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