In Cairo, at the mercy of the mob

Sharif Nassef was pulling an all-nighter in Gelman Library when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned last February.

“I wished with all my heart and passion that I could be there,” Sharif, who was born in America to an Egyptian father, said.

When he returned this summer to his Cairo home – 10 minutes from Tahrir Square – the rising junior expected to attend a wedding and spend the holy month of Ramadan with his relatives.

Then in late August, the deaths of five Egyptian police officers in a crossfire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants sent ripples through an already-unsteady international scene.

The skirmish gave way to protests outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo, gathering thousands of Egyptians who had learned firsthand the power of taking their grievances to the city’s streets.

Two hands for protection

On Aug. 20, Nassef sped off to the protest hoping to get a scoop for an article for Fair Observer, an online journal where he interned.

Pen and pad in hand, Nassef pulled on shorts and a T-shirt and went to the Israeli embassy. In retrospect, he said, not donning more traditional long sleeves and pants was his first mistake.

“Unfortunately I was dressed way too American-looking I think. I didn’t plan it out right,” he said. “I just kind of looked out of place.”

He interviewed protesters for about 45 minutes, quickly translating their tirades from Arabic to English in his head and scribbling them in his notebook.

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Nassef’s Western outfit and English notes began attracting the attention of the crowd, more so even than his towering 6-foot-6 frame. When locals questioned him, he calmly responded in Arabic that he was Egyptian, but lived and wrote for a website outside the country.

A man emerged from the crowd and questioned Nassef about his nationality. When Nassef insisted again that he was Egyptian, the man demanded proof and pressured him to present his passport – a document tucked safely in a knapsack blocks away.

Two soldiers guarding the embassy agreed to allow Nassef to leave the area. Set on avoiding trouble, he began walking away when he received a call from his mother. But the rowdy group of more than a dozen protesters followed him down the street and cornered him against a truck. He hung up on her.

“Mom, I need to go. I need two hands for protection,” he remembered saying.

An Egyptian name

Fifteen armed Egyptian soldiers descended on the mob – now 40 protestors strong, all demanding to see his identification – and escorted him out of the throng.

The troops detained him in a military vehicle while members of the crowd jeered and snapped photos on their cell phones. He waited.

The soldiers returned and instructed Nassef to get out of truck. They formed a circle around him, escorting him to their superiors at the center of the protest.

“The whole attention of the demonstration turned to me and they were like, ‘We caught the spy! We caught the Israeli spy!” he recalled the mob cheering.

Nassef tried to be appeasing as the commanders and intelligence officers questioned him about his address, his schooling in America and his journalism background.

“I don’t have my Egyptian I.D., but my name’s Egyptian: Al-Sharif Ashras Nassef,” he pleaded with them, knowing the mob could turn violent if he didn’t convince the soldiers of his citizenship.

“I obviously learned my lesson then. Everywhere I went afterwards I would carry my Egyptian I.D.,” he said.

The commanding officer on scene – finally convinced he was harmless – let Nassef leave the scene, but confiscated his notebook.

“It could have been worse. I could have disappeared and no one would have heard. It all turned out well,” he said.

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