On the Benghazi Express

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Greg Betza / www.gregbetza.com

During this Arab Spring, when the sting of tear gas mingled so easily with the scent of jasmine, I was glued to the nightly Al Jazeera live feed on my iPad and transported back to my days as an idealistic public-radio reporter passing through Tripoli and Benghazi, Ismailia and Cairo. Though my time in Libya and Egypt, nearly 40 years ago, was brief, it was enough to experience the corruption that would harden over the following decades and crack so dramatically with last year’s uprisings.

I was 22 when I was sent to cover the Yom Kippur War from the Egyptian side. I can say today with only the slightest cringe that with the Cold War raging I had a rather romantic naïveté about the Arab world. The very sound of it all held some promise to my ignorant self. The Syrian Baath Socialists. The Libyan Revolution. Anwar Sadat following in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Non-Aligned, anti-imperialist footsteps. There was even some sort of socialist revolution, it seemed, in a place called Iraq. All of it appeared to be a refreshing contrast to the dark night of military dictatorship. To be fair to my younger self, I had few illusions about the then five-year-old Gaddafi regime, which already seemed rancid.

One learns only from experience that political labels are deceiving. Left and right mean little when there are no civil liberties, when material needs are not met, when independent thought is suppressed.

Libyan reality hit me hard as soon as my plane from Paris touched down in Tripoli. The airport was a crowded, steaming-hot mess. My task was to take a connector flight to Benghazi and, from there, find a car and driver to transport me 18 hours across the Sahara Desert into Cairo (the airport there was closed because of the war). Fellow journos would soon dub this trek the Benghazi Express.

The squalor of the airport and the steely-eyed stare of the guards were overwhelming. Gaddafi, in a fit of defiant nationalism, had banned the use of any language other than Arabic in official venues. Sweating like a pig in a leather jacket and packing a whole lot of radio stuff, I was lost. With not one English sign to direct me, I had no idea which of the endless lines was the right one for the flight to Benghazi. I ran into an equally confused Brit, who, eyes watering and skin flushed, blabbered about two of his countrymen who had just been pulled out of a line by Libyan secret police and hauled away.

Spooked, I joined a promising-looking queue, tossed all my stuff on the floor, and exhaled out loud, “Shit!”

A portly, well-dressed gentleman–about 50 years old–turned around and said with a thick Arab accent, “You speak English?”

To my great relief, the man was a wealthy Egyptian just returning from Acapulco, heading out on the same flight as me to Benghazi and also wanting to rent a taxi to Cairo. At that moment, Ibrahim Gazarhim was the Greatest Man on Earth. He was even happier that I would split the $900 cost of the car to Egypt with him.

For two hours we sat in the airport lounge with a portrait of Gaddafi in Ray-Bans staring down at us. An eerie silence engulfed the room; it seemed as if folks were trained to keep their simplest thoughts to themselves. When I tried to chitchat with Ibrahim about the war, he glanced toward the Gaddafi portrait and furrowed his brow.

Benghazi at nightfall was a welcome relief from the Tripoli airport. I remember an onshore, salt-scented breeze, a vibrant fish market, and men smoking in the dusk on café terraces.

Ibrahim took me to a lavish dinner at the Omar Khayyam Hotel. The waiters were dressed in pressed whites and artfully served the meal, paying little attention to the ubiquitous Gaddafi posters that marred the gilded walls. By 10 p.m., in some dark alley, Ibrahim secured a car and driver. A black Tunisian guest worker–more or less the equivalent of a slave in Libya–would take us across the Sahara. I just had to sit there and float into this world in which I understood nothing but a creeping fear. At 1 a.m. sharp I was officially on the Benghazi Express, motoring through the desert night toward Cairo.

In the morning, I awoke to the sound of Ibrahim screaming at our exhausted driver, who had pulled off the side of the road after we crossed the Egyptian border. I didn’t understand a word but got the drift when Ibrahim slapped the poor driver.

“He wants to take a nap!” Ibrahim said. “I told him to keep going and get us to Cairo right away or I would take him to the police.”

The incident was jarring. I’d expected Libya to be a piss pot, but Egypt was the cradle of Arab civilization. Nasser had put modern Egypt on the map, he had stared down the Brits, fought for the Suez, survived the 1967 war (at great cost), and was one of the architects of the emerging Non-Aligned Movement, in which countries challenged the bipolar world imposed by the Cold War by trying to stay clear of both superpower blocs. And while I was no Pollyanna, I had some elevated expectations about Anwar Sadat, who had succeeded Nasser three years earlier.

Around 8 p.m. we finally rolled into the driveway of the Cairo Hilton Nile, and it felt like paradise. Ibrahim headed home. I checked into the Hilton just as a ceasefire with Israel was called. That was good, given that it greatly reduced my chances of catching a stray bullet.

As the clerk handed me a room key, I asked for a phone call to be placed to New York so I could file a brief report on the ceasefire.

“Would you like the call transferred to your room or here in the lobby, sir?” the clerk asked.

“In my room, please.”

“Excellent. The call should come in 48 to 72 hours. We will let you know.”

“Um, excuse me,” I said, my heart racing. “I’m a journalist. This is an urgent call.”

“Oh, of course. Press priority call?”

“Yes! Press priority,” I said, repeating his jargon.

“Very well, sir. My pleasure. In that case, it will be 24 to 36 hours. We will notify you.”

Just as I was about to panic, I saw a familiar face across the lobby. A radio reporter I knew was smiling and walking toward me.

He told me how to get around the phone problem–basically, we had to book time on Radio Cairo’s satellite system and broadcast our stories from its studios to an IT&T uplink in New York. Problem was, to get studio time, your script had to be checked and stamped “approved” by government censors. The censors were on the second floor of a ratty, fluorescent-lit, unmarked building. You simply got in a taxi–which was almost certain to be driven by a secret-police snitch–then said “censors” to the driver, who would take you to the right place.

This, plus an order from the army-run press office barring us from interviewing anybody without prior approval, punctured whatever lingering notion I might have had about Egypt being a beacon of enlightenment.

For days we reporters pushed and cajoled the Egyptian press nannies to let us get around the interview ban and do something. No dice. That is, until one Idi Amin showed up in Cairo and we were hustled to a joint press conference with him and Anwar Sadat. This is what you call a teachable moment. I was a 22-year-old kid torn between radical idealism and cool skepticism. But that gulf closed fast when Sadat so gleefully hosted the Butcher of Uganda.

Idi was a jolly old fellow, full of fun–and bullshit. He pledged the support of 5,000 soldiers, who never showed up. He had an “explanation” as to why the Egyptian army’s advance to take back more than a small strip of the Sinai Desert had been halted cold by the Israeli Defense Forces. The Israelis, he revealed, had deployed “battlefield nuclear weapons.” Nukes? Man, this was History! This was a Big Story! A Scoop!

Like a scene out of an old black-and-white movie, all of us reporters rushed out of the press conference to report this “news.” Three times that night I wrote three different scripts, and three times the censors rejected them.

After days of being cooped up by our Egyptian “hosts,” we journalists staged a rebellion and demanded that the government press office take us on a tour of the front. “There’s a ceasefire in place,” we said, “so it should be no big deal.”

“Meet us at 7 a.m. and you’re on” was the surprise answer.

It was a bumpy ride to Ismailia, the point where we crossed the Suez Canal and landed on the West Bank of the Sinai, territory that the Egyptian army had freshly recaptured from the Israelis as a nationalist trophy. Egypt had been claiming that its military forces had taken back a 15- to 20-mile-deep swath of the Sinai. The Israelis said the area was more like 2 to 4 miles.

Our Egyptian army escorts, instead of conceding to the reality that much less territory had been captured, had a simple solution: They looped our jeeps around in sweeping concentric circles over the barren sand dunes to make it seem as if we were going in much deeper than we were.

But things went wrong. Our army driver got agitated, and the chatter on his radio turned nervous. A Brit riding with us said, “I do think these chaps have gotten lost.”

We screeched to a halt in a haze of dusty sand. The drivers piled out into the middle of the desert and started pointing, looking at maps, and arguing with each other. As the debate dragged on, we got hot and cramped in the jeep and decided to stretch our legs.

We clambered up a few feet to the top of the dune and our eyes settled on a brown line of troops and equipment and a blue-and-white Israeli flag in the sand 300 yards in front of us.

We were lost all right. The Egyptians had driven us through the ceasefire no-man’s-land and right into the Israeli front lines. Our escorts figured out the same thing and started motioning at us to hurry up. “Yella! Yella!”

They grabbed us and pushed us underneath the jeeps, and within seconds an Israeli jet roared toward us, swooped down, and fired a burst of warning shots 50 yards to our side.

Of course, when we finally did make it back to Cairo, the censors did not let us report that we had bumbled into the ceasefire zone.

The next day I decided to defy our handlers and do an interview without permission. The late, great Paul Jacobs (cofounder of Mother Jones) had given me the names of some dissident Egyptian intellectuals, one of them in the Muslim Brotherhood, and I thought the time had come to meet with one of them. A good move for an experienced reporter. A stupid move for a kid who could put someone’s life at risk.

An Italian reporter I trusted turned me on to a taxi driver she trusted. Before noon I was tooling freely through Cairo and felt like I had entered the Seventh Circle. The traffic, the incessantly honking horns, the jostling crowds, the folks living on rooftops, and–most shocking–our quick tour of the Cairo cemetery, where thousands lived among the graves and crypts.

By early afternoon we were in a residential neighborhood, pulling up to the apartment of a dissident. My driver, Ali, tapped on the rearview mirror and said, I thought, something like, “We are being followed.” Frankly, I didn’t want to believe him.

The interview with the dissident went swimmingly. He spoke freely into my recorder about Egypt’s lack of democracy, the lack of civil liberties, the rampant crony­ism, the fear of repression, the staged “democracy.” We finished and shared a glass of tea.

On the ride back to the Hilton, Ali looked a few more times in the rearview mirror and smiled and gave me the thumbs-up.

Back in the Hilton lobby, as soon as I picked up my room key, I was cut off by two hefty six-footers in suits and dark glasses. “Mister Coo-pehr?” one inquired. “Please,” he said as he directed me to sit at a table in the lobby.

These two guys were the most polite and scariest sonsofbitches I had ever met. Quietly, calmly, they told me they were from the interior ministry and that I had violated the no-interview rule.

“A glass of tea?” one of them asked and clapped his hands before I could answer. A waiter rushed to him and took his order.

There would be no problem at all, I was told, if I would be so kind as to simply hand over the tape recording I had in the briefcase sitting on my lap. I couldn’t do that, I told them (knowing full well that if they pushed the point hard enough I would have folded). I figured my best shot against getting hauled away was to remain calm and in the lobby, which was crawling with other reporters. During a 30-minute bargaining session, voices never raised, threats never made, we agreed on a compromise. If I would destroy the tape in their presence we could finish our tea and forget the whole thing.

Deal. They shook my hand and expressed their desire that I enjoy my stay in Egypt.

Almost 40 years later I live with a weight on my conscience, wondering what, if anything, happened to the professor I interviewed. He seemed fearless. Was it enough to save him?

I never went back to Egypt or Libya but did spend a horrific 10 days in Saddam’s Iraq on the eve of the first Gulf war, and I shed no tears for the demise of the Baath dictatorship.

Last winter and spring I was transfixed by the great Arab uprising. I found the same sort of idealism I carried on the plane bound for Tripoli rekindled. It mattered not that just below the surface disappointment was most likely brewing. The Facebookers and tweeps who stood down the Tunisian regime, the hundreds of thousands who filled Tahrir Square and squeezed the Jurassic Mubarak regime from power, and especially the courageous youth of Benghazi, who stood unbowed by one of the most murderous dictatorships on Earth, can fail to inspire only the most coldhearted or the most ideologically blinkered.

I long ago abandoned any faith in political categorization, and it matters not a whit to me if these regimes, or their opponents, call themselves left or right, revolutionary or democratic. The world is, in reality, a much simpler place. There are those who wish to be free and those who wish to enslave. Whose side you are on? It’s an easy choice to make.

Journalist Marc Cooper has reported on politics and culture from around the world for four decades. He is an associate professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School. Excerpted from the third issue of Slake (2011), a Los Angeles-based reader devoted to deeply reported narrative journalism. http://slake.la

Have something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.

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