Egypt’s Airport Crackdown

Egypt’s Airport Crackdown

Travis Randall called his friends briefly on September 1, to inform them of his arrival at Cairo International Airport. The excitement in his voice could easily be heard as the young American headed to customs for the simple scan of the passport and the usual “welcome” that accompanies Americans into Egypt. But twelve hours later, Randall was forced onto an EgyptAir flight back to London after authorities had told him he was on a ‘list’ of persons not being allowed into the country.

“I think I’m about to get interrogated,” an SMS sent to Bikya Masr news website read at 9.36pm, only minutes after arriving in what Randall had hoped was going to be his new home.

From there, for over two hours, security officers would give no explanation as to why he was being detained. Randall himself said one officer confided that they had “no idea” behind his detention.

Now, over one month later, Randall has repeatedly said that he “just wants to come home”, arguing that he has no activist inclinations. This comes as the American Embassy in London told Randall earlier this week that he was deported as a result of his participation in a small demonstration in support of Gaza.

The Embassy received official word from the Egyptian interior ministry regarding his deportation.

“I was denied entry due to (my) participation in a protest march,” Randall said.  The embassy official said that the only way he would be able to appeal the decision would be “to hire a lawyer in Egypt, which would be an expensive and lengthy process.”

Swedish journalist Per Bjorklund, who was also present at the Gaza march in February attended by Randall, was deported from the airport in late September, after spending nearly two days in police custody at the airport. He will likely face a similar response from Egyptian authorities, which appears ready to bar foreigners who demonstrate from entering to the country.

Upon arriving in Cairo, Bjorklund was also told his name was “on the computer” with a note telling airport security the Swede was not to be allowed into Egypt, a country he had been living and working in for the past three years.

The arrests have sparked outrage among human rights activists and bloggers, claiming that even the tiniest actions are being used as reasons to crack down on individuals.

Bjorklund had been active in covering the current Egyptian strike wave and human rights abuses; stringing for a number of Swedish publications and Electronic Intifada; and writing on his English language blog, “Egypt and Beyond.”

A number of American twitterers likened Randall’s situation to James Buck – the American photographer detained briefly in 2008, during the massive Mahallah worker’s strike in the Delta. They agreed that the American Embassy did too little for their citizens. In Buck’s case only cell phone credit was sent and for Randall, nothing was done except a simple “obey the law” statement to him as he remained under police supervision.
Hossam al-Hamalawy, a leading Egyptian activist and intellectual, wondered what Obama would do, if anything. He called the Egyptian security forces “disgusting pigs” adding, “now let’s see what Mr. Yes-We-Can in DC has to say about this.”
For Randall, his future is unknown. He was agitated by having had to purchase a new ticket back to London. With plans to promote a number of new projects in Cairo, now put off, the young American traveler has found himself facing the precarious decision of whether to attempt a return to Egypt in the near future or not.

One of the problems facing both Randall and Bjorklund was the manner in which the Egyptian blogosphere and activist circles promoted their detentions. Both the Swede and the American were quickly labeled as activists and bloggers. For Bjorklund, at least, this was not far from the truth, even though he promotes himself as a journalist, not a blogger.

In Randall’s situation, the unfounded accusation quickly became problematic, and has likely resulted in his continued banning from Egypt.

“The government can now look at the articles written about him [Randall] and say ‘look, we are right, he is a blogger, he is an activist, the Los Angeles Times and other publications say so.’ It is not good because of all the people the government has done this to, Randall is the least likely candidate. The problem is the bloggers and activists in the country,” a former foreign ministry official told The Media Line, on condition of anonymity.

A leading Egyptian intellectual, Fahmy Howeidy, wrote in his September 10 article in the independent Al-Shorouk newspaper that a “security source said that the man was engaged in banned political activity through his blog, where he used to criticize Egypt’s decisions to keep the Rafah crossing closed.”

The report was typical of what many publications were writing regards Randall at the time despite the fact that Randall had not published a single posting on his blog since leaving an internship with the British parliament over two years ago.

The article continued to quote the source as saying “that the man [Randall] had already participated in a demonstration in support of the Palestinian people, and was arrested at the time, where he was held for twelve hours at the headquarters of the State Security Investigation, until a delegate from the American Embassy took him.”

Los Angeles Times and Global Voices Online, both published similar reports detailing Randall as a blogger.

“This was news to me. If I am an activist, I am not very good,” said Randall from London.

“Everyone appears ready to put Randall on ‘their team’ and create facts where they don’t exist,” the ministry official said.

Randall and Bjorklund now find themselves away from family and friends in Egypt, with little hope of returning to what both have said is their adopted home. At least, they have the support of local activists who have often experienced the heavy handedness of the Egyptian security forces.

“We have long lived with this sort of thing and now that foreigners are being deported, arrested and forced to change their lives, maybe something will change,” said Karim, a Kefaya activist who was beaten by police at a demonstration earlier this year.

Despite the deportations, both the Swedish and American embassies have said they can do little to change Egyptian government policy.

“It is their right to do this and all we can do is file a formal complaint,” a Swedish Embassy official said after Bjorklund had been deported.