Reporter's Notebook: My search for the 'man on the street' proves an unfixable problem in Egypt's Rafah

The heavy shadow of authority looms over attempts to speak to locals.

rafah 248 88 (photo credit: Brenda Gazzar)
rafah 248 88
(photo credit: Brenda Gazzar)
While reporting in and around Rafah in Egypt's Northern Sinai Peninsula on Saturday, I was closely monitored, contained and controlled at all times by the Egyptian government. While Egypt, like many other dictatorial regimes around the world, is a police state and the government in general keeps a tight lid on sensitive issues, including the country's border security, the fact that I am an American journalist who writes for an Israeli newspaper must have raised additional red flags. Although I had been granted a permit to travel to Rafah and report for The Jerusalem Post from the Egyptian press office in Cairo, my local fixer - who I found with the aid of a local blogger - urged me to check in and get permission from the press office of the Northern Sinai governate in El Arish as well to avoid any problems. After about an hour, they gave us the OK. My fixer, who I later understood is both a journalist and works with the press office of the Northern Sinai governate, enthusiastically suggested I first meet with a few hand-picked sources in El-Arish from international or regional organizations. After I finally convinced my fixer that it was time to head to Rafah, he insisted that our first stop be the Rafah municipality building. I told him I wanted to talk to average people on the street, and he said we would get to do that, but first we should follow protocol and talk to the mayor. After my fixer was in the mayor's office for about 20 minutes behind closed doors, he called me in to speak to the new mayor of Rafah. Several other people were in the office, listening carefully to our conversation. After I finished my half-an-hour interview, the mayor wanted to know when I would be leaving Rafah. "That's it. You got all the information you need, right?" I told him that I actually hadn't and that I wanted to speak to average people on the street as well. The mayor insisted that we call someone from the municipality's public relations department to assist us in finding the kind of people I wanted to talk to. I understood that I had no choice in the matter, but on our way there, I asked my fixer to talk to people we passed. One woman that I spotted working at an Internet cafe did not want to speak to me. We continued to drive along a main road, hoping to spot others, but we soon arrived to our destination, the home of the public relations woman, who is also a member of the North Sinai council. After introductions, the public official allowed me to talk to a convenience store employee in her presence, but brought an end to my conversation with her when I started asking her opinion about smuggling and tunnels. "You can't just talk to people on the street like that," she said. "I can tell you everything you want to know." When I insisted on speaking to other "non-government people," she also introduced me to a friend of hers, who lives quite close to the Philadelphi Corridor and showed us where his house was damaged from the Israeli shellings in the Gaza Strip. Local officials say 100 homes were damaged inside Egyptian Rafah and that many of their families experienced the same fear that their friends and even relatives experienced in the Palestinian Rafah. Even this "average citizen," it turned out, had worked as a principal at a government school before he retired. Meanwhile, the press officer from the North Sinai governate made several phone calls to my fixer during the day, wanting to know where we were at various times, and if I was still in Rafah. Later that night, my fixer called me twice, enthusiastically wanting to know where exactly I was and what I was doing. From the minute I landed in Cairo on January 15, my movements had been recorded and followed. I was advised to coordinate my trip in advance with the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv to be able to get any assistance I would need in Egypt. Like other foreign journalists who register in advance, I was greeted at the airport by a cordial official from the government press office, who kindly asked me to fill out a form with all of my contact details and length of stay in the country. I was advised to visit the Egyptian press office in Cairo, which wanted an itinerary of my trip and wanted to know with which officials I wanted to speak. When I changed hotels in Cairo, security officials questioned others about my whereabouts. In El Arish, I was convinced I was being followed by various plain-clothed security officials stationed around my hotel. I had much more freedom of movement in Cairo, where I did most of my reporting during my trip, though I found that much of it was easier to do by telephone. The government officials were also courteous, kind and surprisingly helpful at times. (A top official at the press office in Cairo, who is also a journalist, worked at least two hours of overtime to ensure I would get my Rafah permit before they closed for the weekend - something I can't imagine happening in many other countries. It's also a rare gesture for a country as bureaucratic as Egypt.) I realize too, that as unnerving as my trip was at times for me, it might have been unnerving as well for these government officials to have someone like me roaming around Rafah, trying to ask difficult questions involving security. Egypt has enough problems to deal with at its borders already.