March 23, 2008 / 12:18 AM / 10 years ago

WITNESS: Chased through the Nile Delta by a blue Peugeot

Cynthia Johnston has been a correspondent with Reuters for seven years. A U.S. citizen, she has worked for Reuters in London, Beirut, Israel and the Palestinian territories, and is now based in Cairo. In the following story she recounts her coverage of attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood to enter Egyptian local council elections, which ended in a car chase across the Nile Delta.

<p>Cynthia Johnston, a correspondent with Reuters for seven years, is shown here in this undated handout. REUTERS/Handout</p>

By Cynthia Johnston

KAFR SAQR, Egypt (Reuters) - The first thing I noticed was the motorcycle.

It was hovering close to the tail of the Reuters Jeep I was riding in to head out of Egypt’s Nile Delta after a surreal day of covering the Muslim Brotherhood’s mostly futile attempts to register for local council elections, due on April 8.

I asked the driver to stop, and the motorcycle stopped as well. When we started moving again, the bike followed. It was the start of a zigzag cat-and-mouse chase along bumpy roads that would last over an hour and involve three pursuing vehicles.

I was in the region to look into complaints by the Brotherhood that the U.S.-backed government was barring its members from submitting nomination papers for the vote, sometimes violently.

The Islamist organization, Egypt’s largest opposition group, is especially strong in parts of the Delta.

In the town of Kafr Saqr, where not a single Brotherhood member had successfully registered before my visit, a handful of candidates told of being obstructed from getting the stamps and paperwork needed to enter the race, and then barred from submitting papers once they were complete.

One potential candidate nursed a black eye. Another, the son of Brotherhood parliamentarian Maher Akl, had a cut lip. Both said they were beaten by police and pro-government thugs when they tried to submit their papers.

Opening up a laptop, the parliamentarian’s son Islam Akl showed pictures of other would-be Brotherhood candidates he said were hurt while trying to submit their papers, including one man with a bloody gash on the back of his head.

“They beat one and it makes everyone afraid. Another one comes, and they won’t let him in, or maybe they will beat him too,” said Hisham al-Ghatwari, a teacher and hopeful Brotherhood candidate who was also acting as my guide in Kafr Saqr.

Egypt’s Interior Ministry had no comment on the allegations.

Egypt’s local councils have little power. But seats could be important nationally if the Brotherhood, which seeks an Islamic state through non-violent and democratic means, wants to qualify to field an independent presidential candidate in the future.

To mount a presidential campaign the Brotherhood would need support from 140 local council members, plus backing from some members of parliament.

TWO CARS AND A MOTORCYCLE

I accompanied the Brotherhood to two nominating stations, hoping to watch them submit papers. In both places, police and plainclothes security men checked our identity papers and questioned the purpose of our visit.

Our guide feared he would be detained, as have hundreds of Brotherhood men since February. We left.

The Brotherhood said it tried to field more than 5,700 candidates nationwide but fewer than 500 succeeded in registering during a 10-day registration period.

Soon after we rolled out of the centre of Kafr Saqr, we noticed the motorcycle on our tail. Minutes later, a light green sedan joined the bike behind us. Our Jeep overheated. We stopped, and our pursuers also stopped.

All of us in the Jeep -- me, the driver Sherif, and Ghatwari from the Brotherhood -- assumed that the men following us were plainclothes government security men, because we could think of no one else with a motive to follow us.

Irritated about being followed, I got out of the Jeep to speak with our pursuers. As soon as I approached, both vehicles sped away and the man on the passenger side of the sedan ducked down in his seat so we could not see his face.

Once the Jeep cooled down, we drove on and the sedan again pulled in behind us and followed us to the municipal boundary, where it pulled off the road. We waved good bye.

But minutes later, a baby blue Peugeot was on our tail. The Peugeot stayed with us for roughly an hour as we zigzagged down country roads and along irrigation canals.

I never feared our pursuers, but did not want to drop Ghatwari off while we were being followed for fear he could be detained for helping me do my job. I did not think he would be arrested in my presence. So we kept driving.

Several times, I got out of the Jeep to try to confront our pursuers, at one point banging on the hood of their car as they sped past me. Increasingly angry, I called the Egyptian government’s press centre to report I was being pursued.

I was told that I was likely being followed for my safety, and that my pursuers would probably drop the chase at the provincial boundary. I offered up the licence numbers of the cars, but the press centre official declined to take them.

In the end, the problem was resolved in Bilbeis, about 45 km (30 miles) south of Kafr Saqr -- when the baby blue Peugeot got stuck on the wrong side of a moving train.

Editing by Sara Ledwith

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