Foreign journalists dispatched to cover the spiraling chaos in Egypt found themselves the subject of news stories on Thursday: The Egyptian military began rounding up reporters and photographers after pro-government supporters assaulted them in increasingly violent protests in Cairo's Tahir Square.
Some witnesses speculated that the military was trying to protect the foreigners, but at least one journalist told his publication a different story about his detention: Reporter Serge Dumont told Belgian newspaper Le Soir that unidentified men took him to a military outpost: "They accuse me of being a spy."
Egypt's newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, stoked anger against foreigners, blaming them-along with anti-government protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood-for demonstrations that have shut down the capital city, leaving Egypt's future uncertain: President Hosni Mubarak faces intense pressure to resign, despite promising not to run for reelection later this year.
After they took to the streets on Wednesday, pro-government protesters began to turn on Westerners and other foreigners they suspected of supporting anti-government demonstrators. Advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said it had confirmed dozens of reports of violence against international and local journalists.
CNN's Anderson Cooper released footage of his frightening walk through Tahir Square on Wednesday: A seemingly calm crowd suddenly turned angry, chasing the reporter and his photographer, and throwing punches at the pair. A Greek journalist said protesters stabbed him in the leg with a screwdriver. An Associated Press reporter said he saw military detain eight foreign journalists.
Though the assaults on international reporters shocked many, the pattern fits with the country's longstanding practice of government control over media: Egyptian journalists and bloggers have faced firings, harassment, and prison time for speaking against the government outside of state-controlled media.
Late last year, government forces clamped down on media ahead of November's parliamentary elections, arresting some reporters and accusing them with bogus charges. Others have faced blasphemy charges: Authorities recently released blogger Kareem Amer after four years in prison for criticizing Islam and Islamic violence against Coptic Christians.
While the threats against journalists remained serious, the government's attempts to control information grew absurd, reflecting the loosening grip on a country engulfed by thousands of angry protesters: State-controlled media didn't broadcast television images of Tahir Square until Thursday. Until then, millions of Egyptians well aware of the protests retreated in their homes and found two kinds of programs on television: soap operas and cooking shows.