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Egypt: Eyewitness to an Uprising

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Length: 5:14

Riot police

During the crackdown, a 15-year-old boy and two men were killed and more than 100 wounded.

Editor's Note: Freelance reporter James Buck was detained by Egyptian security forces on April 10 while photographing demonstrators outside a police station in the city of Mahalla, where food riots had broken out. A journalism student at the University of California at Berkeley, and a contributor to the FRONTLINE/World website, Buck had gone to Egypt on March 24 to complete a master's degree project and traveled to Mahalla on April 6 to report about a planned strike at the Middle East's largest textile factory.

Due to a security clampdown, the strike fizzled, but the industrial city erupted in protest as demonstrators clashed with police for two days and nights. A 15-year-old boy and two men were killed and more than 100 wounded, many hit by rubber bullets and live ammunition fired by police.

Alerted by a text message from Buck that he'd been arrested, friends and university officials intervened to secure his release, but he fears that his translator, Mohammed Maree, is still in police custody.

Watch Buck's narrated slideshow and read his account of the food riots and his own arrest.

* * *

In September of 1981, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat rounded up 1,500 members of political opposition groups, professors and journalists, and threw them in jail. A month later, he was assassinated.

In Mahalla, some 300 young men were detained during two days of rioting. Many of them were arrested as a preventative measure, plucked from cafes or on their way home from school, nowhere near the uprising.

This spring, Egypt's current president Hosni Mubarak has begun a similar crackdown, arresting members of the opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, along with journalists and bloggers. In the northern, industrial city of Mahalla, some 300 young men were detained during two days and nights of rioting in early April. Many of them were arrested as a preventative measure, plucked from cafes or on their way home from school, nowhere near the uprising.

I was there in Mahalla when the riots erupted, the worst the country has seen since the bread riots of 1977. Food prices have skyrocketed -- rising by 26 percent over the past year, according to official statistics. Many residents report even higher price hikes, with the cost of some staples doubling or even tripling. The government's response has largely been to crack down with military force against the protesters, rather than to deal with the food problem, and the people's response has become increasingly desperate.

On April 10, I was swept up in the widespread arrests. At the time, I was taking photos of a small sit-in of mothers demanding information about their missing sons and husbands. Under "Emergency Law" since Sadat's assassination, Egypt gives almost unlimited power to its police and military to detain anyone at any time for any reason. As I learned firsthand, once you have been detained, there's little concern about prisoners' rights. No lawyer, no phone call, no explanation, no charges, no food, no water.

mass street demonstration

Thousands of people gathered in the streets of Mahalla protesting the steep rise in food prices, chanting "Enough! It's wrong!" in Arabic.

I had taken the train to Mahalla, a city of 2 million people in the fertile Nile Delta on April 6, to cover what was a long-planned strike at the Misr Spinning and Weaving factory. But about an hour before arriving, I got a text message from Hossam el-Hamalawy, whose 3arabawy blog is a key source of news for reporters and Egyptian democracy activists.

"Strike aborted," it said.

Like all the other reporters in our car, I got on my mobile and tried to find out what was happening. We learned that there was a heavy police presence in the city. When we arrived at the train station, cops in full riot gear eyed us warily. We made our way to the factory where we were given a tightly controlled tour.

Afterward, I ventured out into the city and quickly discovered why Mahalians have a reputation for kindness and hospitality. Many people wanted to talk, but they were incredibly nervous to speak in the open. I was taken to a back alley where I took out my microphone and people began pouring out their complaints about the food prices and police repression. I was given four cups of tea, the best seat in the alley, and thought everything was fine until two men with police radios sat down, one on either side of me, and asked me what I was doing. I played the innocent tourist, but was escorted back to the train station with a steel grip on my arm.

The man who rescued me pulled me down a series of side streets as the crowd trailing me grew smaller. I was distraught, confused. I wanted to get back to the action.

On the train back to Cairo, I got word that Mahalla had erupted in protests. I returned the following day, disappointed I'd missed the excitement. But by late afternoon, a new protest had begun. Thousands were sweeping through the streets of Mahalla chanting "Enough! It's wrong!" in Arabic. I got caught up in the crowd and lifted onto someone's shoulders to photograph, but the crowd swarmed me, and I was afraid of what might happen.

The man who rescued me pulled me down a series of side streets as the crowd trailing me grew smaller. I was distraught, confused. I wanted to get back to the action. He grabbed my by the shoulders and looked me in the eye.

Mohammed Maree

Mohammed Maree was arrested with the reporter and is still believed to be in police custody.

"Listen, listen," he said. "I am Mohammed. Come with me."

I followed him and he negotiated a safe house for us to get away from the crowds for a while. I reloaded my camera and he took me back out into the fray. I told him who my Egyptian friends were, the bloggers, and fortunately he knew one of them. An understanding passed between us: we were safe with each other.

He would get me as close as possible to the police to take photos, and when they turned on us with rocks and guns, we'd turn and sprint away. When we were stopped by a plainclothes thug, he would somehow talk our way free just before we were teargassed. (The canisters, I learned, have "Made in the USA" printed in big letters; the U.S. gives almost $1 billion every year to Egyptian military and paramilitary forces.)

We navigated our way through back alleys to the other end of town by nightfall. The police had blockaded all the major streets so we had to wend our way around. By then, people were lighting fires in the road and throwing rocks at the police barricades. Someone brought out a drum and the crowd began chanting against Mubarak. This felt like a popular uprising -- the collective outburst of a desperately poor and fed up city. We were teargassed again and again, and every time Mohammed would pull me to safety in someone's home to wash our faces.

Man after tear gas used.

Security forces were brought in from other cities to quell the unrest and many protesters were teargassed.

The next day I came back to Mahalla to cover the aftermath: groups of families, mostly mothers, wailing in distress because their sons and husbands were missing. When they saw my microphone, they crowded in to tell me their stories.

"Only six years old!" one of the women shrieked about her missing son. A boy standing next to her held up six fingers for me to photograph. They were desperate for my help. All I could do was promise them I would tell people their stories.

I went back to Mahalla one more time on April 10 to finish my reporting, planning to leave Egypt on the morning of the 11th. I had heard that reporters trying to talk to families of the detained had been detained themselves, so I planned to be very careful and stay a safe distance from the demonstrators so there would be no confusion that I was a journalist. I approached the group of families outside the police station in the late afternoon, and though they pleaded with me to record their stories, I hesitated, noting the heavy police presence.

Later, after Mohammed arrived, I decided to try taking some photos of the women holding signs asking about their sons. I recorded audio and took photos for less than five minutes when the crowd started pushing me away, saying "Go!" I didn't understand why until police tried to grab my arm and I realized I was being targeted. The crowd of protesters were trying to protect us.

We escaped in a taxi, but were caught by the police less than a mile away. Without further explanation, we were taken to the Mahalla 1st police station and questioned for 8 hours.

We escaped in a taxi, but were caught by the police less than a mile away. They told the driver I was "from the CIA." Without further explanation, we were taken to the Mahalla 1st police station and questioned for 8 hours. The police wanted to confiscate my photos, but with Mohammed's support, I held out. Finally, we were taken to the prosecutor's office where we signed statements (in Arabic) that we were students, not revolutionary leaders.

The prosecutor cleared us and we were released, without charge, around 2 AM. Thankful we'd escaped the heavy hand of the police, we ran out of the station, and into the arms of the officer who'd brought us there.

We were caught again. We told him we had just been unconditionally released, but he didn't even pretend to listen, and took us back to the first station. There, I was told I could go free, but Mohammed had to stay. I refused to leave until he was also released.

A lawyer hired by my university arrived to get me out, but said he could not help Mohammed. I stayed with Mohammed until the cops took him to another station. The last thing I saw him do was try to get the detainees in his cell food and medicine.

Egypt's major cities remain under heavy police presence following the riots in Mahalla. In the days since, factories in Alexandria have gone on strike, and more journalists have been detained. Though I am now safely back in the U.S., Mohammed's whereabouts are unknown.

Special thanks to Mohammed Salah Ahmed Maree for his courage and help.

Slideshow Technical Support: Milt Wallace

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steve brown - worcester, ma
Thank you James for putting your body and mind on the line to report the developments and give voice and face to distant human sufferings. Keep twittering and poking our sleeping conscience.

Andrew Gates - New York, NY
This is really great work - a firsthand peek into the situation on the ground. I would have appreciated more background and explanation of the food price situation.