[Tahrir Square on November 27, 2012]
It’s a fair bet that lots of people have got an ‘I wish I hadn’t done that’ story. This is one of them.
Let me set the scene.
Egypt was about to hold its first ’free and fair’ Presidential elections. Previously, it was a simple choice for voters. Choose the one candidate, or don’t. But now there was a whole pile of possibles to put your X against. There had been claims of ‘free and fair’ elections before but they didn’t turn out that way. This was supposed to be the real deal.
For the state broadcaster, the Egyptian Radio and TV Union (ERTU), this presented quite a challenge so they asked me – a veteran of many a UK election – to join a team of consultants to share our experiences with their journalists.
The ERTU occupied a massive building in Cairo. 40,000 (yep, 40,000) people worked there. It was a heavily guarded place. Big fences topped with barbed wire surrounded the building. Soldiers and armoured personnel carriers stood behind it. The building had been the target of protests because ERTU was regarded as the mouthpiece of the government.
After negotiating the protective fences and the suspicious gazes of the soldiers there was a tight security process to go through. Inside the building, on every corridor, sat a security guy with an ominous looking machine gun. A world away from the BBC News base at White City in West London.
The work was a challenge, chiefly because the ERTU journalists were completely unfamiliar with the freedom enjoyed by UK journalists. There was a somewhat incredulous reaction to my stories of elections covered – none more so than when I played footage of Gordon Brown railing angrily against ‘that bigoted woman’ – Labour supporter Gillian Duffy – who he had encountered on the campaign trail in Rochdale ahead of the 2010 election. Unfortunately for Mr Brown he was still wired up to a Sky News microphone when he had finished talking to Mrs Duffy. He had made a schoolboy error. Always make sure your microphone has been removed – or at least silenced – when you are off-camera. Oh, the tales I could tell of well-known people learning this lesson the hard way.
Friday was a day off and time for a bit of sightseeing. The first stop had to be the magnificent Cairo museum, which then stood on a corner of Tahrir Square (it has since been re-located to the outskirts of the capital.) The superb sarcophagi and countless ancient artefacts filled a happy several hours. But things were a little less happy outside the museum.
The Muslim Brotherhood had occupied Tahrir Square. Tens of thousands of people were protesting against the military-backed transitional government. The security forces ringed the square. Ambulances were standing by in the side streets.
I stood and watched for a while before deciding to walk through the square to try to get a feel of what was going on. It was a bit lively and noisy but I certainly didn’t feel threatened in any way.
A couple of hours later back in my hotel room I turned on BBC World News. ‘Breaking News” was flashed across the bottom of the screen. The military had moved in on the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Tear gas had been used to break up the protests. There were reports that shots had been fired. Ambulances were leaving their side street sanctuaries. It all started spilling out of the square and very quickly led to a security lockdown for most of the city.
Things weren’t a whole lot better the next day and it was clear that our work with the ERTU was going to be put on hold and may be ended completely.
At this point, it would have been sensible to just sit tight and await developments. But second on my must-see list after the Cairo Museum were the pyramids at Giza. How could anyone spend time in Cairo and not see one of the wonders of the ancient world?
I asked at the hotel reception about getting a taxi to the pyramids but was told it wasn’t worth the trip as the site would be closing early to set up for an evening light show. All I wanted to do was see the things: there had to be a way around it. The receptionist said I could try the metro, which didn’t actually go as far as the pyramids (even though the station I was told to travel to was called Giza) and would involve finding a taxi to complete the journey.
‘Agree a price with the driver and don’t hand over any money until you have been delivered back to the metro station.’
With those wise words in mind, I found myself climbing the stairs at Giza metro station. A man approached me and asked if I wanted a taxi and where I wanted to go.
I told him I wanted to see the pyramids and we agreed a price to take me there and back to the station.
I was also reassured by the man’s claim that he was ‘number one taxi driver in Cairo.’ For some reason he then said ‘Manchester United’ and – I kid you not – ‘lovely jubbly.’ I have no idea why.
As we drove off he asked me all sorts of questions while talking to someone on his mobile phone and smoking a cigarette. Soon I could see the top of a pyramid on my right in the distance. But suddenly the driver took a series of turns and I next saw the pyramids on my left.
And, just as suddenly, the taxi drove into a cul-de-sac and the driver got out and walked off.
You remember in my first sentence that this was a ‘wish I hadn’t done that’ story? It was exactly what I was thinking of at the time. I have been trained by first-class military experts in how to deal with potential hostile environment situations. Lesson number one was not to put oneself at unnecessary risk.
The taxi was surrounded by half a dozen men, who all seemed to be talking at once. My Arabic is pretty much non-existent so our conversation wasn’t getting very far.
Then the taxi driver re-appeared.
“What’s going on?’ I asked.
“These men will take you to the pyramids,’ he said. ‘Look, they’re ready for you.’
I looked out of the rear window of the taxi and saw a man holding a camel by the reins.
I’d had enough of all this.
“Forget the pyramids, take me back to the metro station.”
‘Ok, ok. I thought you wanted to see the pyramids. Only trying to help.’
“Yeh, well I’m not being ripped off. And I’m not getting on a bloody camel,’ I replied.
The men surrounding the cab dispersed, looking a little disappointed.
The driver headed off to what I presumed would be the metro station before taking a few turns and stopping by a huge metal fence. Behind it, in all their glory, were the pyramids and the Sphinx.
“There – the pyramids,’ he said.
I got out of the cab to take a photograph. Ok, I hadn’t actually been up close, but I had seen the pyramids.
As I stood admiring the sight a man approached me and asked if I would like to go into the site and get a closer look.
“But I thought it was closing?’
‘I can get you in,’ said the man, “if you give me 100 pounds (Egyptian pounds – worth about £10 at the time) I can see if the security guards will allow you through. I will be your guide.’
Well, I thought, I’m here now and it’s only a tenner. “Ok, I said, handing over the money. “But I am not – repeat NOT – getting on a camel.”
Five minutes later I was sitting on a camel with a turban around my head.
Now things began to get messy. My guide who had got me into the site said I must pay him and the camel owner 100 Egyptian pounds each.
“No chance. I’ve paid you already. I’m off.’
Now, the one sensible thing I had done through this sorry episode was to make sure the taxi driver hung around by telling him he wouldn’t be paid until I had been safely returned to the metro station.
As I walked off the pyramid site the guide and the camel owner demanding money followed me. We reached the security hut at the entrance and a guard now joined the ‘give me money’ chorus.
I strode off towards the taxi, not quite running but keenly aware this was all beginning to look like the end of a Benny Hill show.
The cries for me to hand over money got louder before, for reasons I can’t fully explain, I stopped, faced my pursuers and flashed my BBC pass with the words “I’m am a security consultant here to advise on your country’s elections. Any more of this and I will report you all to the authorities.’
The chasers stopped for a moment, probably thinking ‘what on earth is he on about?’ which gave me just enough time to run to the taxi and order the driver to “go NOW!”
Later that evening back at the hotel I recounted my story to the team I was working with. They agreed unanimously that I had been something of a fool.
“Yes, but at least I saw the Pyramids.’
“But you put yourself at unnecessary risk”, they replied.
Do you know what? I wish I hadn’t done that.
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