Originally appeared in The Atlantic.
CAIRO — Egypt’s cryptic new vice president, Omar Suleiman, is a man who chooses his words cautiously, if it counts as caution not to speak much at all. So when he said this afternoon that “foreign agents” might have instigated the demonstration against his boss Hosni Mubarak, he probably knew the consequences of his word choice. Today Egyptian state TV called out some of the enemy by name, positing a conspiracy between the Muslim Brotherhood (a major Egyptian element in the protests) and Qataris, who fund the pro-protester network Al Jazeera.
This morning I discovered other elements to this sinister imaginary cabal. At around eleven o’clock, after a walk around the area of downtown north of Tahrir, I got into a cab and headed toward the Nile. Three times I found the road blocked by armed men demanding to see my passport, and twice they let me through with the usual apology for having to waylay me. On the third of these, the man roared with delight at seeing my foreign passport and began flipping through it, his eyes drawn first to the stamps with Arabic script. He called over others, and within seconds at least a dozen men in plain clothes surrounded me, two locking my arms behind my back, another threading his fingers tightly through a beltloop, and all the rest hooting with delight at having caught a real Iranian spy.
I have an Iranian stamp, a tourist visa from 2009. Like the United States, Iran includes a photo of the visa-holder on the visa itself. So they saw the visa, with all my biographical details and my photo and “Islamic Republic of Iran,” and thought they were looking at the passport information page of an Iranian citizen. Pretty soon I was being dragged through the street like a deformed farm animal, and the people around me were yelling “Iranian! Iranian!” while I cried out in my best English in protest. We passed two cafés, and no one even bothered to take a shisha pipe out of his mouth to inquire about me.
Foreigners are under attack, not just journalists.The men ultimately delivered me to a government building on the Nile, where a man in a police uniform spoke English and confirmed that I was either a native English speaker with an accent appropriate to his nationality, or an Iranian with an unusually effective ESL teacher. He guessed the former and let me go, but not before telling me by way of apology that there are “foreign people in the crowds who want to create danger and kill Egyptians.” He said roadblocks and crowds along the corniche were advised to hunt down “Iranians, Hizbullah, Qataris, Hamas, and” — because why not? — “Israelis.”
I suppose this list of suspects has some logic to it. Iran hates Egypt enough to have named a main Tehran thoroughfare after Khaled El Islambouli, the Egyptian artillery officer who gunned down Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar Sadat (and injured Mubarak in the process). Qatar’s Al Jazeera is indeed pro-demonstration. And Egypt is no friend of Hamas.
In any case, the net is wide, and purposefully so. Foreigners are under attack, not just journalists. A stroll down the corniche has never been so frightening.