In Alexandria, Egypt, during the 2011 protests, Al Jazeera English’s Rawya Rageh and her team found themselves in an extremely dangerous situation.
“As I’m doing the live shot, we suddenly see a group of people joining or marching onto the square,” Rageh remembers. “It transpires that this is actually a pro-[then-Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak crowd approaching the protesters in the square, and we’re like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, this can’t end well’. And sure enough, they arrive to the square and the clashes began, they start attacking the [anti-Mubarak] protesters with firebombs, with sticks, with stones, and this is all being taken live, and obviously the [news] desk goes crazy over it.”
In fact, the shot is so good, it ends up being broadcast much more widely than Rageh expected.
“Al Jazeera Arabic, obviously, is monitoring our output, and they see [the clashes] and so they take our signal live, they too start carrying this footage of this battle. And remember, this is the very first time we see the thugs being sent like that on the street to attack the protesters during the 18 days. And it becomes very problematic for us because obviously whoever sent them is watching Al Jazeera Arabic, and everybody in Egypt at that time was watching Al Jazeera Arabic. For Al Jazeera English, you don’t have the same viewership in Egypt like you have, obviously, for the Arabic channel, which is what the majority of the population see. So, it became a major security problem because they realised that these pictures were being beamed on Al Jazeera of these thugs attacking the protesters.”
The square is ringed by coffee shops, which are mostly blaring Al Jazeera Arabic on their television screens. And it’s relatively easy to work out from looking at a camera shot where the camera might be located.
“[The thugs] turn around and go building to building looking for us to attack the live position … We’re talking about 20 machete-wielding thugs below the building looking for us. So we immediately bring down the live shot.”
The crew headed back downstairs into the apartment of the residents who gave them permission to film from the rooftop.
“They start hiding us, literally, in kitchen closets and under the beds and stuff. And these [thugs] are going door to door, knocking on doors, looking for us and looking for our equipment and literally searching the apartments. Obviously we had to call the [news] desk immediately and … I think this was the very first big major security incident that an Al Jazeera team had had during the revolution.”
In Doha, the news desk sprang into action and activated contingency protocols. Managing director Al Anstey was notified of the situation and he arrived at the newsroom around 3am Doha time.
Rageh’s predicament was “unforeseen, but shall we say, not unpredictable”, says Anstey. “[The newsroom] had a number of different conversations that I was involved in or briefed on … what is the right thing to do? Hunker down, keep yourself, as it were, out of view?”
“We see them, the ruling party candidates, they use them and we know them and they’re going to have no mercy, they’re going to kill us …”
Among other ideas being considered in those conversations was calling on the services of risk management firms such as AKE and Pilgrims Group to extricate Rageh and her team. While an exact plan was being formulated, a strict routine was established, requiring the team to call Doha every 15 minutes to maintain contact.
Management finally decided that the team should stay put. “There was an evac plan in place if we needed to get them out,” remembers Anstey, “and we made a decision that they hunker down and keep out of view.”
In the end, Rageh and her team remained holed up inside that apartment for seven hours. “We had no doubt that if we came out they were going to hack us, that they were going to attack us,” she recalls. “I remember there was at one point talk of a helicopter being flown in and all sorts of crazy ideas like that because we were just cornered there. We can’t get out, they’re not going anywhere with their weapons.”
But by 9am the next morning Egypt time, Rageh and Doha decided that the risk had probably lessened enough to attempt escape. Rageh was also conscious of further compromising the safety of the apartment’s residents.
“They [the residents] were telling us, these are the election thugs. We see them, the ruling party candidates, they use them and we know them and they’re going to have no mercy, they’re going to kill us … So we were in this really precarious position where we had to balance our security with the security of these people who gave us refuge.”
Abandoning the television equipment because it would only attract attention, the team made its escape.
“[W]e stepped out of the building one by one. I covered my hair. I walked out with one of the building residents, and the producer and the cameraman were going to walk out on their own … the thugs had largely left, but they left two guys behind and these two guys were like, ‘We know that you are in this building because we had been through all the other buildings and this is the only building you could’ve been in.’ … They didn’t catch me, but they immediately identified that the producer and the cameraman were strangers. They caught them and then they shook them down for money.”
Rageh distinctly remembers Doha’s instructions as she walked away from the building: “We want you in the first car out of Alexandria, all of you.”
*This is an excerpt from 18 days: Al Jazeera English and the Egyptian Revolution by Scott Bridges, published by Editia this week. Bridges will appear in conversation with ABC 7.30 ACT presenter Chris Kimball at Paperchain in Canberra tonight, with journalist and academic Matthew Ricketson at Readings Carlton on Monday and with PM presenter Mark Colvin at Gleebooks in Sydney on May 18.