Tinpot tyrant ain’t seen nothing yet
I have been in a few dangerous places in my life. In the mid 80s along with an ITN news crew I was bombed by the Ethiopian air force.
My face pressing into the dirt, with no cover around, I saw the shrapnel tear and kill small children and watched others die on a wooden table in a grass hut after they bombers had gone.
I have been bombed by Israel in Beirut and held with an Israeli machine gun at my chest in Nablus during the first Iraq war.
Involuntarily, I put my hands up and the blue-eyed blonde “Israeli” said that if I didn’t put my hands down he would kill me.
I’ve never, however, been in a more dangerous situation than last week in the tiny Sinai port of Al Arish to which the Egyptian dictatorship had insisted we bring our convoy.
Five hundred foreigners from 17 different nationalities with 200 vehicles were crammed into a compound without water, food or toilet facilities. They included 10 Turkish MPs one of whom was the chairman of Turkey’s foreign relations committee.
We captured on film from a third floor office the thugs of the Mukhabarat (Intelligence) piling stones and sharpening their sticks behind the backs of several ranks of riot police with helmets, batons and shields. Then mayhem.
We may have complaints about our police, but I tell you, when you see policemen hurling half-bricks into a crowd of women and men who’d come to deliver medicine to desperate people under siege, you thank your lucky stars we don’t live in such a state. Fifty five of our 500 were wounded and, but for the shocking effect on Arab public opinion (our own media didn’t give a damn) of the live footage (all on Youtube now), we might still be there yet.
Next day, the dictatorship wanted us on our way. We refused to leave without our wounded comrades and the seven of our number who had been taken prisoner. After another stand-off our demands were met and we proceeded to a tumultuous welcome in Gaza our numbers complete. Word came to me from inside the Egyptian tyranny that I was to be arrested when we came out. Had that happened while I was surrounded by 500 pumped up convoy members there would have been serious trouble.
So I sent them the message that I would come out in the dead of the night before and face the music alone but for my old friend Scots journalist Ron McKay.
McKay is a thriller writer these days but what happened next would have taxed even his imagination.
We emerged into the hands of a grim phalanx of mainly plain clothed secret policemen, none of whom could speak English. They tried to keep our passports but we refused to budge without them – even though there was menace in the air, or perhaps because of it.
They bundled us into an unmarked van which they refused to let us climb out of, at one stage man-handling us.
An Egyptian gumshoe journalist from the Daily News tried to interview us but he was battered away.
We were driven off at speed. I knew we were not going to be killed as we were able to make the necessary calls – well at least the call to the Press Association which makes all the difference in these situations.
We made the formal call to the British Foreign Office but it wasn’t worth the money. During the five-hour journey to Cairo the British diplomats did nothing but tell us to co-operate.
That co-operation was difficult as the police could speak no English and were saying nothing.
Word came from London that Nile News, a mouthpiece of the dictatorship, were reporting in the morning the seven convoy prisoners we had released at al Arish were to be re-arrested on emerging from Gaza.
Thus the bloodbath we sought to avoid now looked inevitable. We demanded to return to the Gaza-Egypt border but were refused. At Cairo airport we refused to enter the terminal and tried to hail a taxi to take us back.
Security forces goons pushed us physically into the airport building and gave close quarter attention to both of us, even in the toilet. They followed us everywhere and when McKay took a picture there was nearly a serious incident. They ushered us up to the entrance of the BA plane and the first English speaker of the night stepped forward to declare me persona non grata in Egypt.
I made my own declaration to him which was that he and his fellow torturers would one day face the wrath of the Egyptian people, who had queued up at the airport in full view of the goons, to shake hands with us. Later, his department stated I had been banned from Egypt because I was “a trouble-maker”. Mr Tinpot tyrant 99.99 of the vote Mubarak, you ain’t seen nothing yet.