My crime is managing a media website

This text was originally published in Arabic in Al-Manassa and can be found here.

Wednesday, June 24 – Morning:

A colleague at the office called me as I was on my way to him: “There are four men here asking about you.” He sounded nervous, and was brief. I didn’t fail to notice the red microbus parked near the office with four similarly sized men in plain clothes standing nearby. We know from previous arrests that they always happen in a microbus by plain-clothed men. I sent a quick message to our lawyer and shared with him the microbus’s license plate number before quickly going up to the office, feeling all special because they uncharacteristically sent me a red one.

I didn’t know at the time that they had literally stormed the office 45 minutes earlier. Two of them had waited in front of the building while six others went upstairs. They held my colleague in place and checked his ID, prevented him from using his phone, then searched the office for back doors. They were stunned by his honesty and the fact that no one else was there.

They shouted at him and threatened him to give up the address of “the other office where the rest of the staff must be hiding.” When he assured them that the office is actually closed “due to the coronavirus” and that no one except him and I come to the office, their boss went out to the balcony to make a few calls during which he briefed someone about the situation and consulted them about next steps. He then asked my colleague to call me without giving me any information. He asked two of his six men to go downstairs and hide in the street with the other two until I came upstairs to the office.

Our office is located on a quiet street in Maadi, with balconies overlooking lemon, pear, mango and orange trees. We chose the southern suburb for its quietness and the office’s proximity to a metro station. We also wanted to stay away from “hot zones”: Newspapers and news websites are usually headquartered in Downtown or Dokki so that reporters can move quickly from their offices to sites of clashes or government offices, but that’s not the field of our work. We chose from the beginning not to compete in news production because it is both costly and risky. We decided to settle for two bulletins per day where we brief our readers on main news contextualized, and because we are such a small team we do it once on Saturday and take Friday entirely off.

I entered the office to find four individuals in plain clothes. Two of them were smoking cigarettes inside our no-smoking office, while already inspecting the computers they found. I will find out later that one of them is an engineer with the rank of major who put together the technical report proving my crime a few hours later. The older man introduced himself as the brigadier general heading the Central Authority for the Censorship of Works of Art. He showed me his ID and asked to enter my office. Had I known how much they mistreated my colleague at the time I wouldn’t have ordered them coffee. The brigadier general asked about the company’s establishment date and its licenses. Whenever he asked for a document, I pulled it out of a dossier we had put together in advance and gave it to him. All the documents he asked for were there in their entirety to the extent that he asked me if I was waiting for him.

The truth I didn’t tell him was that I had been waiting for two years, if not more. When our website was blocked in 2017, I waited for him. Whenever security forces stormed a news organization’s headquarters, I waited for him. Whenever a journalist was stopped at the airport, I waited for him. I was relieved when I weaned my daughter because that put me in a better place waiting for him. Each time my son was done with school exams, I’d feel I was in a better position to wait for him. It is because I waited for this day for so long that we prepared well and obtained necessary licenses. My colleagues and I were keen on ensuring our company is fully legal, producing accurate content, and adhering to professional standards and the law more broadly. 

I knew the brigadier general’s arrival was nearing when a bright, young researcher who collaborated with us was detained from his home a few weeks ago. He disappeared for a few days before appearing at the prosecutor’s office, and within those days an entire interrogation session had been dedicated to questioning him about me and Al-Manassa. I had come to know him four years ago when his strongly sourced writings on Facebook caught my eyes. I invited him to write for Al-Manassa because I saw a greater writer in his future. This is what Al-Manassa does: Find young talents in the world of journalism and support them with skilled editing and a space to publish. This is my personal mission, too: I started my life as a blogger before I joined major news organizations inside and outside of Egypt. As the managing editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm’s website, I gave the same space to young writers, whose articles soon garnered readership and admiration. They won awards year after year.

I never understood the reason behind questioning the young man about us. The last article Al-Manassa published for him was in April 2019, and none of his articles were about Egypt. But who said there is logic behind what we are witnessing nowadays?

Wednesday, June 24 – Afternoon:

After three hours of an interrogation disguised as a chat, the nonsense unfolds.

This laptop has unlicensed software; namely, Adobe Illustrator and After Effects.

But this computer runs on Ubuntu. That’s an open source operating system and it technically can’t run Adobe. So, it can’t have them.

But I found Adobe software on it.

Can you show me?

I can’t find them. They’re there, but they’re hidden. Prove to me they aren’t.

I turned to the brigadier general and told him: “This is unprofessional. It’s not my job to find proof that the programs aren’t on the computer. It’s your job to prove that they are. Anyway, we actually have two licenses to use Adobe, even with the absurdity of this claim.” He said: “You’re right. We’ll need to take the laptop and we’ll need you to come with us so that we run a deeper inspection.”

Fear took over and my hands shook. We’ve delved deep into the absurd. I got a severe stomachache. I went into the bathroom and messaged the lawyer who was on his way to me: “Am I getting arrested?” “Yes,” he responded. 

Suddenly, the fear faded away and was replaced by some sort of serenity. I breathed slowly and recalled everything I knew about arrest, interrogation, detention and my rights as a defendant. The unfolding of the disaster is better than the waiting for it. I prefer an official interrogation over a chat. I like clarity in roles and my adversaries showing their face, even if it means more danger. I don’t fare well in gray zones, even if I tried.

I got into the red microbus with the brigadier general and his seven men. He told me that we’re going to the headquarters of  Central Authority for the Censorship of Works of Art on Gameat al-Dowal al-Arabia street in Mohandeseen. He tried to take my phone, but I insisted on calling my husband first. I quickly told him what happened and where we’re going, then I handed over my phone. Instead of exiting toward the corniche, the microbus headed to the Maadi police station, driving through the suburb’s quiet streets. As I looked out to the trees, I remembered the late Ahmed Seif al-Islam and decided that he’ll be my source of power in the coming hours and days: not as a lawyer — for he never defended me, as I wasn’t in this place before — but rather as a prisoner. On a spring day in 2005, I met him for the first time as a journalist. In our first interview, he talked to me about the time he spent in prison studying law. He came out of his years in prison as a human rights lawyer. He said that he never dehumanized his jailer. He knew very well that his jailer or torturer is but a tool, who is not yet ready to realize the impact of his job on himself before his victims.

Wednesday, June 24 – Evening:

After long hours of waiting without fidgeting alongside 22 stolen bikes guarded by two informants, the brigadier general asked me to sign the report he wrote. I refused. I was taken down to the ground floor where they asked me if I had any cash on me or valuable belongings. They didn’t tell me anything and I didn’t ask, but I figured out I was “handing over my belongings,” which meant that I’m going into detention. I calmly handed them over and went in.

I knew that if I asked or requested anything, they’d take joy in ignoring, yelling or misleading me. I decided to strip them of their weapon and refrained from asking questions from that moment onwards. Time is on my side; they’ll have to bring me before a prosecutor, no matter how long it takes. I psychologically prepared for the worst, which helped me deal with everything that followed.

The women’s cell is 3.5 by 4.5 meters. This space includes a bathroom consisting of a toilet with an ever-dripping overhead shower right on top of it. A white curtain with Manhattan’s skyscrapers in gray and black separates the bathroom from the rest of the cell. In front of the bathroom lies a marble counter featuring a faucet without a sink or drain. Food containers and bottles — both, empty and full — line up on the counter. Underneath it lies a big box for shoes and purses next to a large garbage bag. Across the wall, a clothesline runs the length of the room. It is always swamped with clothes because all cellmates shower and wash and hang their clothes every day. On the wall there’s a large AC that doesn’t work. The spaces in its grill are used to stack Styrofoam plates carrying cheese and cold cuts. Ten women occupy the rest of the space.

I was the eleventh.

I approached them with a smile “I don’t want to bother anyone. Just tell me where to sit and what the setup is, and I’ll go along.” The cell boss was a smug woman in her 60s who cracks jokes without laughing and proudly describes herself as “the owner of the capital’s biggest drug ring in Shaq al-Teaban.” She told me “What do you take us for? Come along honey, grab a bite. Sit wherever you want.”

I ate with them as they introduced themselves and their charges: theft, drugs and prostitution. The one who I later slept next to said “I stole US$120,000 and four diamond rings from a Christian man. I thought there were only $4,000 and two rings in the safebox. When I opened it, I was stunned by what I found. But I didn’t get to enjoy it. The police found my identity through the building’s cameras and took everything back.” They are all strong women who don’t claim innocence. They are at peace speaking about their crimes while briefly mentioning the poverty and destitution that led them here. Their biggest worry is the financial burden their families will bear to cover their expenses in prison. They refuse to call the notorious women’s prison “Qanater”, as it is widely known. The one who will later sleep to my left says “Qanater is the name of the place where we used to go out, ride a boat, eat eggs and feteer. It’s called the General Prison. Girls, no one’s to call it Qanater.” 

I felt at ease among them because in this cell at least, they didn’t claim to be anyone other than themselves. They asked me the questions with which they welcome any new inmate: “Where are you from? What’s your charge?” I told them “artistic works,” but they didn’t understand. “So, what do you do for a living?” I said that I’m a journalist, so they responded: “Oh, we just had a journalist here like a month ago. She was recording an interview with a woman who’s been sitting in front of a prison because her son is locked up and they’re not giving her any letters from him.”

On May 17, fellow journalist and Mada Masr’s chief editor Lina Attalah was detained in front of Tora Prison. She was conducting an interview with Laila Soueif, mother of political prisoner Alaa Abd El Fattah. What are the chances that I enter the same cell Lina stayed in? How could these women still be here after all this time? I learnt that some of my cellmates have spent over seven months in this can. Unlike prison, here they are not entitled to an “exercise hour,” time outside in the sun, nor even a space to stretch.

When it was bedtime, they gave me the third spot from the door. They chose it for me between two inmates who slept well on their sides and didn’t toss and turn much in their sleep. We all had to sleep on our sides so that we’d all fit. But I didn’t sleep until 4 am. Every day, after they sweep and clean the cell, they stay up laughing and singing, and I wasn’t going to miss that.

Thursday, June 25 – Morning:

A police transport vehicle was jam-packed with 30 men cuffed together in twos behind a locked door. The remaining space where guards usually sit is less than a single square meter. Four of us, women,  also cuffed together in twos, climbed up. A policeman climbed up next and brought behind him two bikes — exhibits in the case of one of the men accused of stealing bikes. Then, two other policemen climbed up and one of them was carrying my case exhibit: the laptop. The last door was then locked from the outside, leaving us, the policemen and the exhibits behind it.

I almost fell on the first policeman who lit a cigarette inside this can of sardines. I asked him to move his leg just a bit and began my request with a “please” only for him to yell at me: “You are the defendant.”  His yelling meant “you don’t get to ask for anything here.” I felt angry for a few moments, then I remembered how they want us to be angry and afraid. I wasn’t bothered by the cuffs, having to stand for long hours, or their yelling in my face. If we want to keep going, they must not get to us.

Many long hours passed as I waited at the prosecutor’s office, followed by an interrogation that lasted for an hour and a half. But this was all made easier when Al-Manassa’s lawyer, Hassan al-Azhari, told me that Al-Manassa has remained in operation with its publishing unaffected, of the volunteer lawyers who came to offer legal support, of the organizations that released statements, and of the media coverage.

The prosecutor charged me with “creating an account on the information network with the aim of facilitating and committing a crime punishable by law; possessing software designed and developed without licenses from the National Telecom Regulatory Authority; infringing on the moral and financial rights of the copyright holder of an artistic work; and wrongfully profiting through the internet or an IT tool, the telecommunication service, and an audiovisual service.”

I answered all questions and submitted all the supporting documents, but the context of the interrogation didn’t offer me the chance to share the details. In January 2016, we registered Al-Manassa as a limited liability company with capital of LE2,000. Colleagues and friends donated a printer, used desks and chairs, and some photos for the walls. A friend gifted us a fridge and an AC, another gifted us a whiteboard, and so on. A while later we created the “deductions fund”, which is a fund that draws on salary deductions from tardy colleagues. We used the money to buy a coffee maker, then a PlayStation to pamper ourselves. When it was overflowing with cash, we bought a new set of chairs.

We were eager to start, but we still took the time and measures to stay on the right side of the law. We carefully studied publishing laws and before we launched we put together a style guide and a set of editorial principles. Two years later, we added anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies and mechanisms to ensure a safe working environment for everyone.

We registered our company’s website with the Information Technology Industry Development Agency in 2017. In 2018, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation was formed with Makram Mohamed Ahmed as its head. He announced in October of the same year that websites need to register to receive a license. The registration window was set to close just 14 days from his announcement, and the requirements were crippling.

We raced against time to complete the paperwork and pull together the LE50,000 needed as registration fees. We submitted the request by the deadline and awaited the license. Months passed without a response, so we sent two letters by certified mail with proof of delivery to inquire about the status of our license. We knocked on the council’s door several times and each time, we were told that a decision on us is yet to be reached. We kept working, since there is no legal provision in the media regulation law outlining the appropriate procedures in the event that the council does not respond.

The council’s silence scared us. We didn’t want to work outside the legal framework, but the council was cornering us. We considered filing a case against the regulatory body to compel a response, but then we thought the authorities might view this as an escalation, so we dropped the idea. We don’t want to incite hostility or anger from any party. Ever since Al-Manassa was born, our single objective was — and still is — to continue publishing.

And as for our equipment, all company-owned computers either run on licensed copies of Windows or Ubuntu, an open-source operating system — i.e., its copyright holders have waived all their moral and financial rights. The Windows-run computers carry the Adobe software, which has valid licenses. Since my personal computer is a Mac, we obtained an art production license from the Ministry of Culture, which cost us over LE5,000, because we knew that the Central Authority for the Censorship of Works of Art would consider it an unlicensed editing unit even if it didn’t have any editing software.

Thursday, June 25 – Evening:

I returned to the police station with a smaller number of defendants and the two bikes. The inmate I was cuffed to didn’t stop crying; her detention was renewed for another 15 days and her lawyer didn’t show up. No one told me the prosecutor’s decision; they just said it hadn’t been issued yet. I returned to the cell and looked forward to getting some sleep. I didn’t have any hope of leaving. I expected to stay for several days ahead. I decided that it’s always better to expect the worst. As I fell asleep, loud knocks banged the door. The women rose in fear, covered their hair and stood in two lines bowing their heads. How did this happen? How were all the detainees in a police station, not a prison, tamed into standing with their heads bowed as soon as they hear a knock just like the relationship between the dog and the bell in Pavlovian theory? Do inmates go through a training program?

A man in plain clothes called my name and asked about my mother’s name. I knew that they’ll check the database for my name as a standard procedure to make sure I’m not wanted for any other cases before releasing me. That’s how I knew the prosecutor decided to release me. The man in plain clothes gave me a piece of paper and said “Hold this.” He suddenly took out a camera and tried to take a photo of me. I turned the page over to find my full name and the charges against me per the Maadi police station: managing a website. I refused to have my photo taken; I was afraid of finding myself on the Interior Ministry’s official Facebook page surrounded by weapons, drugs or cash, as often happens. But my cellmates shouted in one breath “Let them take your photo, it’s okay, we all did it.”

They took me to the second floor a bit later. Next to the stairs leading upward, there’s an always-dark, locked room. It bears a sign composed of big, golden letters: “Human Rights Office.” Upstairs, a detective sitting behind a desk took my hand and tried to sign a document with my fingerprint. The document was titled “charges” in print and featured a lot of handwritten text. I withdrew my hand and asked to read it first before giving my fingerprint. He yelled at me and said “Take her back.” I was returned to the cell.

Friday, June 26 – Daybreak:

I finally fell into deep sleep, but knocks on the door woke me. It was a second lieutenant who seemed new to the station. He cursed the inmates and asked each and every one of them: “What’s your name and charge, girl?” When it was the cell boss’s turn, she told him: “I’m the station’s daughter, basha. This chief and the one before him rose up the ranks on my watch, basha. I hope to see a chief.” He yelled at me “Pack your stuff and come with me.” I walked behind him, and he didn’t say a word. He handed me back my belongings and I stood there in silence until he broke it: “What are you waiting for? Go home.”

At home, I realized how stupid I was. Why did I frown when they took my photo? This isn’t even a charge; journalism isn’t a crime. And what’s so problematic with “managing a website”? Maybe if I had smiled at the time and proudly held the piece of paper, they would’ve realized how absurd that charge is.

Dear reader,

We know very well that the overall environment in Egypt isn’t supportive of freedom of expression and journalism. We’ve seen a lot happen since we started down this road. One by one, newspapers and websites shut down or were sold to bring changes to their editorial policies: Al-Tahrir, Al-Dostour, Al-Bedaiah, Al Badil, Manshoor and lately, Zahma and Mantiqti.

Day after day, the scene grows empty around us. One by one, colleagues leave Egypt, either to escape security persecution or in search of a living after avenues here grew narrow. We know very well that in such circumstances, our survival depends on professionalism and respecting the law. My colleagues proofread stories two or three times before publication, and we send dozens of stories to our lawyer to review.

We know very well that our continuing to publish Al-Manassa from inside Egypt is a source of trust in us from sources, readers and the authorities. We know how common it is to distrust websites published from abroad, regardless of the high quality of content they offer. We know the relevance issues colleagues who traveled abroad face in producing fresh and professional coverage that is undetached from reality.

Why do we publish? Do we enjoy the heartache? Isn’t it possible for everyone working at this website, to find better positions abroad? No, we don’t enjoy the heartache. Yes, this team is excellent and could leave for better positions with some research and a few phone calls. But continuing here in this country carries a different message.

One of the classic definitions of journalism is that it’s history’s first draft — I know this seems like an ideal, kitsch definition. But we want to continue publishing in general, and from an office in the heart of Cairo in full view of everyone in specific, so that 20 years from now, a researcher or historian doesn’t have to ask if Egyptian journalism was swallowed by a black hole — from 2013, until whenever asking such a question becomes possible.

As one of very few websites still providing journalism in Egypt, we tolerate such nonsense and the scary and ridiculous charges only because we still believe that journalism has a role to play. We and our colleagues in the remaining Egyptian websites don’t accept that the only possible journalism about Egypt must come from outside Egypt.

What will happen to Al-Manassa in the coming days?

We will continue to publish in the same way, but we’ll be stricter in our standards so that the reports, investigations and stories the state confronts us with in the coming “raids” are stronger and greater in number. This will come at the expense of news coverage, which we will still provide from time to time. Nothing’s wrong with news coverage, of course. But we belong to a journalistic format that we view as better and stronger: investigations and in-depth reports.

Dear reader, we strive to remain here, in Egypt, with this quality or better. We strive to remain with you, and for that, we walk all possible paths.

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