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Police state – a necessary evil?

[CAIRO] It has been a long time since I was last here. Most things remain – the pollution and smog, the traffic jams and the people. Cairo is a mass of people. Seventeen million of them at night, and 19 million during the working day. Every road in the city is one huge logjam. All of them seem intent on their own important mission – getting to work, shopping or taking the kids to school. They all seem to accept the pace on the roads – crawling.

All focusing on their own path, and either unaware of, or deliberately avoiding eye contact with, the police officers who line every street.

While Egypt is perceived as being at the modern end of the Arab world, it is very much a police state. As one local told me, “[President Hosni] Mubarak’s survival depends on it.” And I discovered the local police can be tough, but more of that later.

Given the recent terror attacks in Sinai and in downtown Cairo, it is clear there is something of which Mubarak must be afraid. Islamists claimed the life of his predecessor Anwar Sadat after he deigned to build bridges in Israel’s direction.

Islamists have in the past been put down with an iron fist, particularly after terror attacks against foreign nationals including tourists.

As a result it is hardly a surprise that police officers are positioned every few dozen yards around the capital. However, to the unsuspecting visitor that can pose real problems.

My previous visit to Cairo was as a newspaper reporter with pen and notebook in hand. This time, I am here with a cameraman and bagsful of equipment.

While he was setting up the tripod and positioning the camera I was rehearsing my lines. As he began filming at a busy intersection on the Cornishe, which runs along the banks of the Nile, a police officer marched up to us and told us in Arabic that we were not allowed to film at this particular location. Not being Arabic speakers, we assumed we were blocking his line of sight as he attempted to direct the 19 million people along that particular stretch and we simply moved along the road about 200 yards.

Again the camera sat on its perch and I perched on the balustrade practicing my lines. David, the cameraman, gave me the signal to begin…

“The Nile has been the focus of this people for thousands of years, a place for prayer and food…”

At this point a rotund young man in the compulsory moustache, plaid shirt and khaki-colored cords wandered over and began looking through David’s screen to see the shot. I assumed he was another interested member of the public who was just a little too enthusiastic when faced with a chance to appear on the TV as an incidental man-on-the-street, waving to his mum, girlfriend, or hookah-smoking partners. Speaking firmly in Arabic, he began gesticulating and suggesting rather adamantly we stop filming and accompany him across the road in the direction of some six other men, four uniformed and two in civilian garb.

Not ones for the argument, David and I did as we thought we were being told and joined the group of police officers.

One of the plain-clothed men spoke to us in good English and asked our business. We told him we were filming a tourist/human-interest item for The Media Line news agency – which indeed we were. “It doesn’t matter whether you are filming politics or tourism, it is forbidden,” he informed us.

Fearing the worst, I put on my best British accent and apologized in the most profuse of manners. At that point, thankfully, we were allowed to go on our way, our film still with us.

Only after that experience were we told by other journalists in Cairo that no one is allowed to film in the city without permission, and, according to one or two, without a minder.

For us it was a disappointment. For Egyptians it is daily routine – avoiding the eye contact with the officers. They are necessary in the bid to retain control over the country, but when the Arab world says it is ready to embrace democracy, one wonders whose definition it will use.