The appearances of Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam al-Erian have by now become customarily associated with controversy. While his televised invitation for the return of the Jews to Egypt and prior fiery statements about the opposition have been the talk in Cairo, I recount a rather uncovered story from his visit to the US last December.
On 8 December, Erian was introduced to the audience, and I prepared myself for another long night of “Egyptspeak,” my term for the inability of many Egyptian expatriates to discuss anything other than politics since the revolution. Even Egyptians who gave up on their country long ago will preface their statements with “I don’t really know too much about this, but ...” and then proceed to express an opinion.
Erian had been invited to speak about the constitution, which was passed weeks later during a referendum in Egypt. He spoke at the private and Islamic Al-Noor School in Brooklyn, New York City, at an event hosted by “the Egyptian-American community.” No one would get more specific than that, but based on people I recognized in the audience, as well as the appearance of the majority of the attendees, I think it would be fair to say it was organized by the Muslim Brotherhood or Muslim Brotherhood supporters. It was only after I sat down that I realized I was the only woman not sitting in the “women’s section.”
A prominent figure within the Muslim American Society in New York City appeared to be methodically photographing the audience section by section, almost as though he was creating a visual record of who was there for later reference. There was also a professional videographer, and many people were taking their own photos and videos, but the general coordinator of the Constitution Party in the US was told by an organizer that no photography was allowed.
I don’t speak enough Arabic to fully understand a detailed conversation about the constitution, but it was apparent that Erian had launched into what was more of a sermon than a political discussion. Several people, including one woman in a black abaya and headscarf and another who was unveiled, shouted out that we were there to talk about the Constitution, not religion.
Erian then spoke in generalities and platitudes about the Constitution, saying that it would give Egyptians more freedom than they’d ever experienced before and would become a model for other Arab nations.
The event had started promptly at 7 pm, as advertised on Facebook. Shortly after 7:30 pm, a small group of people seated near the back of the auditorium abruptly stood up and began to shout. They called Erian a liar and a killer, and were quickly approached by waiting police. The police had been there since the beginning, but what I didn’t know at the time was that the protesting group in the back had already been warned after they heckled Erian on his way in before the event started.
Erian seemed to be thrown off by the commotion. One of the women who had started shouting at him is known for being disruptive. Just last month, she similarly interrupted a Constitution Party event in New Jersey at which activists Ahmed Harara and Esraa Abdel Fattah were speaking. At that event, people turned to look at her, but no one made a move. Even Abdel Fattah attempted to engage with her and answer her accusations.
But I was about to experience something entirely different.
As the police rushed in to remove the protesting group, as they had apparently said they would if there was any disruption, audience members also began to stand up. A few men were trying in vain to convince people to remain seated and quiet as the situation devolved into chaos.
At this point, the protesting group had been dragged out the back door of the auditorium to a hallway. Not satisfied with letting the police handle their job on their own, a large, pushing, shoving, shouting mass of men had also formed and was attempting to “assist” in removing the protesting group, which consisted of about four individuals.
I had started to shoot video of the chaos with my phone as I quickly stuffed my DSLR into my bag and grabbed my jacket. I waded into the melee, squeezing sideways, phone held aloft. I vaguely remember trying not to step on anyone’s feet as I stupidly muttered “Excuse me, excuse me,” to the mass of bodies pushing toward the door.
The auditorium was on the second floor, and I was really just hoping to get to the hallway and see what was happening to the people who were being dragged out. More people were pushing from behind me, and I quickly made my way through the double doors.
The main commotion seemed like it was moving down the stairs to the exit, and I was about to do the same when I felt a hand grab my right forearm. Another hand immediately grabbed my left arm, and before I had a chance to react I was being violently shaken by a bearded man who looked old enough to be my father.
He was shouting in my face and shaking me so hard that my own fists were hitting me in the face. I don’t remember what either of us screamed, but my side of it can be clearly heard on the video footage that I was still recording. I’m assuming that he wanted me to stop filming the chaos, lest the footage make its way onto the Internet and contradict their constructed narrative, but I don’t know for sure. The video clip lasts for about 15 seconds, but it felt like an eternity.
A police officer had come up the stairs behind me and then the shaking stopped. The man said nothing, as others around him tried to shush me. The officer escorted me down the stairs. The whole incident hadn’t even sunk in yet, and I found myself standing on the sidewalk. My first thought was that I had “won.” My phone and footage were intact.
It took me a little while to realize that I was angry. There was still a great deal of commotion going on in front of the school, which ended up with the still-protesting woman being arrested for disorderly conduct. I started thinking, “I should have kicked him.” After having this experience, I will never question why someone acted the way they did in this type of situation. I didn’t fight back, I didn’t do anything but grip my phone like my life depended on it and scream, because I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t prepared to be assaulted like that, and why should I have been? This is Brooklyn, not downtown Cairo.
I found the officer who had escorted me down the stairs and told him I wanted to file a report against the man who attacked me. He told me to go to the precinct because he doesn’t have time to do it and the atmosphere there would be calmer. I agreed, but insisted that I be allowed back inside to identify the man so that I would have someone to file a report against. I was not allowed back inside the building, but because he had seen the incident take place, the officer was able to go identify him and get his driver’s license.
He showed me the photo on the ID, covering the name and address with his hand. It was definitely my guy. “Last name, Jamil. First name, Ahmed. Middle initial, M. Year of birth, 1958. That’s all I can give you,” he said. I was still pretty rattled, so I just thanked the officer and agreed to go to the precinct to file the report later.
It was cold out, and I shivered as I leaned on a fire hydrant tweeting out video and my account of what had just happened. I soon overheard a few people telling a different officer that they had been punched and kicked and would also like to file police reports. The officer refused to let them back in to identify those that they were accusing and told them they were welcome to go file reports at the precinct, but nothing would come of it.
“I’m just being honest with you. You think we’re going to launch an investigation? We’re not. It’s your right, do it if it will make you feel better, but nothing will happen. It will get filed away in a drawer. You’re just killing trees,” he told the group. He proceeded to explain that, unless an officer sees an incident with his or her own eyes, they can’t make an arrest, and all you can do is file the report.
Arrest? For some reason this hadn’t even occurred to me. I interrupted the conversation and explained what had happened me, that an officer had witnessed the attack. He shrugged. There would be no more arrests. So much for a functioning justice system. I’m thoroughly convinced that if I had walked into a precinct and reported that I had just been assaulted on a street corner I would have gotten more assistance.
I stayed there, shivering in front of the school, until the event was over. I was hoping to see Ahmed M. Jamil. I’m not quite sure what I would have done, but I felt like I needed to wait. He didn’t come out.
Heated arguments erupted on the sidewalk. Some were angry about the way the protesters were treated, some were angry about the “disrespect” the protesters had showed, some were angry about the fact that one of the organizers was Palestinian, some were angry that they were lumped in together as “opposition” and kicked out even though they hadn’t done anything. Everyone was angry.
I received numerous apologies from people wishing to assure me that “these people” don’t represent Egypt.
It started to rain, dispersing the crowd more effectively than the police could. I headed to the precinct. The officer who retrieved Mr. Jamil’s ID for me had changed into civilian clothes. He wished me luck on his way out.
The officer on duty took my report. I asked again if there was anything more that could be done. He said no, and that my report would be for harassment, not assault, because I wasn’t injured.
“If he had punched you in the face or choked you, it would be a different story,” he said.
Future domestic violence victims beware, it has to be the “right” kind of assault for the authorities to recognize it.
As a non-Egyptian, I don’t feel like it’s my place to judge the particular ins and outs of Egyptian politics, and, as a journalist, it’s my job to not judge and assign value to the beliefs of the various factions involved. And I try not to. But I will pass judgment on people who try to prevent me from doing my job, especially through physical assault.
This was not the first time I’ve angered someone through image-making, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But from the high school principal who took away my camera to the riot police who chased me in Spain to the soldiers who hassled me in Cairo, no one has ever treated me this badly. And I know that that makes me lucky.
As we’ve witnessed over the past couple of years, journalists and protesters in Egypt have suffered far worse fates, and I’m in no way comparing what happened to me to what’s happened there. I have nothing but a bruise on my arm. I’m based in New York, where the expectation is to be able to work without being assaulted, and I’m incredibly thankful for that.
But my experience that Saturday and the mob mentality behavior that I witnessed does lead me to wonder what would have happened if I had encountered Mr. Jamil outside the presidential palace instead of in a school auditorium in Brooklyn.
Kirsti Itameri is a photographer, graphic designer and multimedia journalist based in New York City.