Yehia Ghanem: From Cage To Exile

Yehia Ghanem, one of Egypt's most respected journalists, is living in exile in New York, separated from his family and uncertain of his future. If he returns to Egypt, he faces two years of hard labor in prison after a sham trial that convicted several dozen Egyptians with connections to international NGO's of illegally taking money from foreigners. A Dart Center exclusive.

Editors note: Yehia Ghanem asked that this story be prefaced by the following statement: "This story is not meant to be for me but for the al Jazeera journalists and all of the innocent people facing injustice in Egypt right now." Ghanem spoke at Columbia Journalism School on April 7. Click here for details.

I turned around angrily and grabbed the police officer’s arm, almost twisting it. There was no need to push me through that huge ugly iron door. He pushed so hard I stumbled. Yet, I was so angry I could not speak. Instead, I glared at him in silence, and after we stood there for almost a minute without uttering a word, another officer hurried in to help push me in the cage.

It took the soldier only seconds to shut the iron door while I stood facing the bars. The roaring sound of the door slamming in my face woke me up to reality. “My God, it is not just a bad dream; it is so real I can almost touch it.” I closed my eyes for a few moments then opened them again. Yes, I was still in the cage. I turned around and saw 14 others inside the cage—three of them young women in their twenties—all squeezed into that small dirty hole. It seemed they all knew each other. They were standing in groups of twos and threes whispering, yet they stopped once I entered, or rather, was shoved inside.

In my 20 years as a war correspondent, covering eight brutal wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and the Congo, I was not a stranger to detentions, arrests and even imprisonment, all in the name of truth. Nevertheless, as I stood there caged inside that tiny hole in the criminal court building in Al-Qahira Al Jadida, a suburb east of the capital city of Cairo, I could not recall ever feeling so estranged. I felt foreign, in spite of the fact that my fellow caged defendants were all Egyptians. It never occurred to me that the military would indict me for something I had only agreed to do but had not yet done—especially since this alleged crime was that I was going to extend my role as a newspaper managing editor to teach journalism students, an act they should have thanked me for.

I also felt like a foreigner for another reason: I had covered brutal dictatorships abroad. Being jailed in Egypt made me feel like I must be somewhere else. Unless my country’s regime was no different from the others.

The cage was so small that I could feel my cellmates’ breath in my face and on the back of my neck; the atmosphere was suffocating. I did not want to talk to anyone, so I made my way through to the corner, only to stumble onto a man sitting on the cage floor.

“Sorry, could I get to the corner?” I asked in Arabic. I could see heavy smoke coming up from the cigarette the man was smoking while staring down on the floor. The man looked up and motioned his hand, a welcome sign normally used only by Egyptians.

Once he looked up, I could tell he was one of the American defendants who had also been charged. I was confused. As far as I knew, all Americans accused of crimes took refuge in their embassy in downtown Cairo, and that the US had declared that its citizens would never stand trial for false and politically motivated charges. Another reason for my confusion was that the American seemed to have understood my Arabic.

I crossed over the American to the corner and stood gazing through the iron bars of the cage window, which stretched from floor to ceiling, and looked out onto the vast courtroom packed with people. The noise was deafening. The public gallery was a strange mix; the majority had nothing to do with my case, which struck me as even more strange. I later discovered that the security authorities maintain and compensate audiences for political purposes. The audience consisted of a few family members of the defendants, lawyers for both sides, security in uniform and in plain clothes, and most importantly, other members of the media.

Members of the gallery began to shout. Al Mawt Lel Gkawana! Death to the traitors! Eaadam! Death penalty!

Death? I asked myself. I was just planning to provide training to my fellow journalists to improve their skills as professionals. So why death?

The American stood up and whispered in my ear. “Are you afraid?” he asked.

I looked at him and moved my head to say no.

“Nervous?” he asked.

I closed my eyes meaning yes.

He had a big smile on his face. “Don’t be. They are not going to hang us today.”

At that moment, I smiled for the first time since the ordeal began weeks ago. He introduced himself. His name was Robert Becker, a trainer for a U.S.-based NGO. It was the beginning of a friendship that has continued since that day almost three years ago.

“What state are you from,” I asked.

“Egypt,” he replied, with a touch of sarcasm.

“I meant which state in the United States,” I said smiling.

“Does it really matter? I am from the United States, but in terms of love I am as much Egyptian as any of you.”

“Why didn’t you take refuge with your fellow Americans at the U.S. Embassy?”

“I told you, I am Egyptian,” he repeated.

“Do you realize we may not get out of this cage throughout the trial, and God only knows if we are going to be acquitted?"

“That’s exactly why I refused to abandon my Egyptian brothers and sisters,” he responded.

At that point, I realized how badly my friends, many of whom I viewed as brothers and sisters over the years, had betrayed me. I looked at my American cage mate. “Excuse me, are you for real?”

“Of course I am, he laughed. You are allowed to touch me if you want to make sure I am real.”

I reached out to shake hands with him while we exploded into laughter. We laughed so loud it seemed to attract the attention of those in the audience seated closer to the cage. Soon that audience started calling us names and labeling us as U.S. agents and spies.

My new American friend then asked me what all the shouting was about. I told him that they were accusing him of things that might result in him receiving a life sentence. And, if they could find me guilty, I could get a death sentence.

Becker understood and replied instantly: “I heard you are a prominent journalist and that you are being tried because of your intentions to train Egyptian journalists. Why worry? When the people realize the truth during the course of the trial, they will come to appreciate you.” I told him that I ended up in a cage because my teaching plans were in cooperation with Americans. “Don’t you get it?” I asked. “It is the U.S. who is on trial here, Becker.” He looked at me and stretched out his long arms, hitting several of our cage mates in the process: ”Even so, it is becoming one world.” He paused like this for seconds until I said: “Fold in your arms Robert. Our world now is this filthy cramped cage.”

For more than 19 months, we endured a humiliating medieval inquisition-like trial. It was not until it was all over—almost a year after we both received unjust prisons sentences—that I came to realize that I was wrong. Of everyone involved—convicts, prosecutors, judges, Egypt and the U.S.—Becker had been the most free of us all. He endured everything we endured and yet he was the only one of us who had the choice to leave. But instead he chose to stay. As much as I came to admire Becker, I also envied him. In spite of the two-year prison sentence we both faced, he was free.

During my 20-plus years serving as a war correspondent, I have lived by an old saying that I learned from the warrior Zulu tribe in the southwestern part of South Africa: “If you are bent on crossing the river, don’t think too much about crocodiles.”

As an Egyptian journalist, I have always been aware of the crocodiles in the river, especially while working in third-world countries, including the Middle East. But it never occurred to me when I took an offer from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), the Washington-based NGO that specializes in advancing quality journalism around the world, that I would face so many crocodiles.

After Egypt’s January 25, 2011 revolution that ended 30 years of former President Mubarak’s tyrannical reign, ICFJ offered me a position to initiate a program aimed at enhancing the skills of Egyptian journalists. The timing was perfect, as the media had acted like a runaway train, inflicting damage on both society and individuals.

In late August 2011, we set the curriculum, prepared the logistics, and signed a partnership agreement with the region’s most prestigious newspaper, Al-Ahram, where at the time, I was a managing editor. The program had not yet started when I received a seemingly innocent summons from the Ministry of Justice in November 2011.

During the meeting, the investigative judge charged me with illegally opening a branch office of a foreign organization, accepting foreign funding without government approval, and several others fabricated charges. I was shocked.

During numerous and lengthy investigations, I provided extensive documentation which discredited their claims. Nevertheless, the investigative judge lodged criminal charges against me and 42 other defendants, including 15 Egyptians and 27 foreigners. A large number of these foreigners were Americans.

In spite of the injustice of bringing a criminal case against someone who had been in full compliance with procedures set by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and although it was evident that the case was politically motivated at a time when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had taken over after Mubarak stepped down, I decided to stand trial out of respect to the Judiciary, assuming it would be fair.

I did not know at the time that this was never intended to be a process based on facts. Rather, the trial was just a show of arm wrestling between the Egyptian and U.S. governments. And sadly, I found out that the courtroom’s political conflict was rewriting my past, present and future: in short my whole life. Though invisible, politics was the prosecutor, the judge, and the gladiator.

In free democratic countries, defendants are innocent until proven otherwise. In our case, however, that principle was nowhere to be found.

As I write these words now, while in exile from my own country due to bogus charges, an unjust trial and a sentence of two years of hard labor, I am left with many questions, some of which include:

- What do you say about judges announcing your indictment on TV without bothering to inform you and your family first?

- What do you say to my distraught 10-year-old daughter, who hears this and asks me, crying over the phone: “Are you really a U.S. agent, a traitor to Egypt?”

- What do you do when the authorities create media frenzy against you in a deliberate character assassination campaign, and then leak all your personal contacts to the press? What do you do when angry half-crazed people show up at your home seeking revenge because they consider you “an enemy of the state?”

- How can a judge lure an innocent defendant, like the 27-year-old ICFJ program officer who never faced an investigation in his life, to a meeting without his lawyer present by claiming that he (the judge) will play both the interrogator and defense lawyer at same time, then indict the young man with criminal charges?

- Or when the defense establishes the judge’s flagrant violation of law, something that necessitates dropping the charges altogether, and the presiding judge ignores it?

- How can judges get away with flagrantly committing a felony by going public at a choreographed press conference, right after indicting innocent defendants, and slandering them with charges never included in the indictment, such as attempting to divide the country, photographing military sites and other false charges aimed at inciting public anger?

- What can be said about a government which launches an orchestrated media campaign to incite hatred against helpless innocent people? What do you do when a passenger in the Cairo subway spits in your face, as he did mine, and calls you a traitor?

- What can I say to my 15-year-old son who had his arm broken trying to defend his father’s reputation in school?

- What can we think about an Egyptian judiciary that packs 16 defenseless people in a small dirty cage with no chairs for at least six hours during each court hearing? How humiliating is it for me to plead for young women defendants to be allowed to go the bathroom or be excused for prayer during the recess, most of the time unsuccessfully?

- How do we describe the caged defendants who are deprived of their basic right to hear what is being said in a case that has tremendous bearing on their own lives?

- What democratic country allows a “mobilized” public to attend court hearings and loudly call for the death sentence for the defendants by name, adding to the media show?

- What can be said about a judge, who when upset during the hearings, punishes defendants by throwing regular criminals including rapists, drug dealers and killers into the packed cage just to harass the defendants?

All these questions and many others kept buzzing in my head during the trial.

I was seldom able to even hear the proceedings over the shouts from the audience calling for my death. I spent most of the trial reflecting on many of the graffiti on the walls of the cage. The graffiti was very telling in light of the injustice that so many had endured, some of which included: “When I pass away, I will place my complaint against you to Allah.” I thought to myself: “I place it now before you God, I need not wait until I pass away.”

Other graffiti read: “We were here and so will be others.” In rereading this, I would always tell myself that whoever wrote this understands that injustice for oppressors is like salty water; it makes them thirst for more.

But the one that really got me read: “What have I done to deserve all this?”

I kept asking myself the same question. And as I sit here in my cramped apartment in Manhattan, New York, deprived of my children and my life-long career, even my humanity, I realize that what I did, I did with a clear conscience. I did it for the sole purpose of enhancing the expertise of my fellow journalists.

In spite of the offer the judge made me to testify against wrongly accused staff of the U.S.-based ICFJ, in order for him to view my position in a different light, I would not commit such a crime against innocent people.

Their offer was blunt: Either give false testimony so that we can make a case against the ICFJ and the other NGO’s on trial, or stand trial myself. I was dismissed and given two days to consider their offer, yet as the next round of investigations began, I responded without hesitation: “If I take the offer, I might be saving my skin. However, I am not ready to lose myself. I am sorry.”

I soon found out that the cage I was forced into, and later broke out of, led me to yet a bigger cage: that of exile. I also realized that this exile is not a monopoly to me: I could see the security apparatus behind the case, the judiciary who delivered unjust verdicts, the military who instigated such investigations, Egypt, and the U.S. itself, all in cages of different sizes and forms. This story is not only about my cage, it is also about yours, ours, and their cages—and the hope that we can all break free…