Mistrust of foreigners amid Egypt revolt

Sunday, February 6, 2011

CAIRO - As the taxi pulled up to a police checkpoint in Cairo, ID’s were checked and the car was searched.

With hundreds of civilian, police and military checkpoints throughout the city, these types of searches in the evening during the hours of military curfew have become routine procedure since anti-government protests began 13 days ago.

But along with the unrest of nationwide protests calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, a growing suspicion of foreigners is sweeping through the country.

“If a foreigner rides with you, you take them straight to the military from now on,” a policeman told the taxi driver.

A few kilometres later, a soldier at a military checkpoint demanded the same.

For different reasons, both pro- and anti-government protesters have also grown wary of foreigners in recent days.

Among the anti-government camp, there are those who believe that Western allies are supporting the embattled president to stay in power until September, when he vowed not to run again in elections.

“This is the oppressing regime that the West has been supporting for 30 years, this violence is what it’s doing to its people,” said Mustafa Hussein, as he looked down from his balcony onto Tahrir Square, where thousands of pro-democracy protesters continue to call for Mubarak to step down.

But suspicion of foreigners has also grown among Egyptians who believe that countries from Iran to Israel want to weaken Egypt.

Recently, Vice President Omar Suleiman said on state television that “foreign agendas” and “conspiracies” were behind Egypt’s unrest. Such accusations have helped to sow distrust of foreigners.

“I think this is very orchestrated by state television, but I’ve been here for two years and experienced very little trouble as a foreign woman until now,” said Merrit Kennedy, a student in Cairo who also assists foreign journalists.

But last week, during interviews with people on the street, a man started accusing her and her colleagues of being Israeli or possibly working for al-Jazeera.

Soon, a crowd soon formed around Kennedy, and her Egyptian colleague was punched in the face several times, she said.

Prior to the protests, having a Western passport would almost always guarantee better treatment by police who wanted to avoid diplomatic scuffles.

However, journalists, including foreigners or locals working for foreign news outlets, were targeted recently by Egyptian authorities, with at least two dozen being detained or arrested.

Meanwhile, an Israeli correspondent was arrested by Egyptian intelligence as he photographed armed forces in Cairo and sent back to Israel.

Some foreigners reported being called names in the street, while others have tried to keep a low profile out of fear of arrest for simply not being Egyptian.

Popular resort towns along the Red Sea were shut down, and out of 350 study abroad students registered to study this spring at the American University in Cairo, only about 20 remain.

Filed under: Diplomacy

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