On Friday, 25 March, Mohamed Radwan, a 32 year-old Egyptian-American was apprehended, among others, by Syrian authorities during pro-government and anti-government clashes in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. For the past nine months, Radwan, a graduate of Texas A&M University, has been in Damascus working as an engineer for his family business.
Maha Samadony, Mohamed’s mother, who sat with Ahram Online on Wednesday, related that her son “has [Syrian] residency and an official security clearance which he received three months ago because it takes some time in Syria.” She emphasised that her son had no prior run-in with the country’s authorities.
Radwan, returned to Cairo from Damascus on 28 January after hearing about the events in Tahrir Square. “He came to join the youth,” Maha stated. “He was mainly concerned with bringing food and drink to those inside Tahrir,” Maha stated, but it was a “beautiful thing”, she continued, that her son who had been educated in the US could speak to the British/American media with a “Western mind”, reaching out and explaining events to a “Western audience”.
Soon after Mubarak’s ouster, the Egyptian-American engineer returned to Syria to resume work. Once violence broke out Wednesday, 23 March in Deraa, a southwestern city near the Syrian-Jordanian border, Radwan’s parents asked him to return to Egypt. He assured his parents over the next couple of days that Damascus was “very safe” and “quiet” and that there was no reason for concern; he sent his mother a “winking, smiley face”, she said, indicative of his “funny nature”.
On Friday morning, the day he was detained, Radwan sent his cousin Tarek Shalaby an email saying he intended “out of curiosity, to go and watch” the events unfolding at the Ummayad Mosque. The last message his family received was on Friday at noon via social-networking site Twitter: “Umayid Mosque #syria just turned upside down, pro anti rwgome [sic] crash.”
The next time his family heard of his whereabouts was on Saturday, 26 March via the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) which published an article stating: “[Mohamed Radwan] said that he visited Israel in secret and confessed to receiving money from abroad in exchange for sending photos and videos about Syria.” On Sunday, his father took the first flight to Damascus. Maha has since seen the video and described Radwan as “not himself ... tight”.
“He would often look around [during the video], look at somebody as if [to say] am I saying the right thing,” expressed Radwan’s mother.
The Syrian press had made “insinuations, many many insinuations” but “he was never charged officially; never!” stressed Maha. Certain media outlets have nevertheless used headlines such as "Mother of accused spy denies son ever travelled to Israel". She emphasised that both the Arab and non-Arab media have exaggerated the event’s narrative, forgetting that they are “gambling with somebody's life”.
The media’s tone “started with just investigations, to apprehension, to detainment, to imprisonment ... and then the ‘accusation’ first started with asking him questions about this foreign persona [who] all of a sudden became intelligence and then turned to espionage ... to tell you the truth, [the Syrians] have not accused him officially which is good because they are investigating what is happening and I’m sure they will come to nothing.”
“It is getting worse through the media who want a thrilling story instead of the truth.”
The truth is Radwan had a camera phone, but “who doesn’t have one these days?” Maha asked. According to Tarek, there were a string of emails between him and a Colombian radio presenter which he then passed on to his cousin in Syria. “If [he has done] anything wrong, it is taking the pictures, but I don’t think there is a law against just taking pictures ... it’s an interesting event, why not?” Radwan’s mother asked. She continued stressing that he was not politically engaged, “It is their country ... who are we to interfere; they didn’t interfere in our problem.”
Regarding the insinuations of Radwan’s secret travel to Israel, Maha stated that many Arabs, both Christians and Muslims, would love to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem, but as it is “there are no stamps (referring to both his passports), no stories and no photos ... his entire life is registered on the internet with photos.”
While his father, now in Syria, and brother, in Washington DC, have both been working through US and Egyptian foreign relations channels, Radwan’s mother has been busy working through Egypt’s foreign ministry in Cairo who “have been great ... but unfortuntely we haven’t reached anything yet ... Until now they have denied my husband a visit to see our son.” She added that nobody has been to see her son as "the Syrian government has denied all access until they finalise their investigation.”
On Wednesday, 30 March, Maha and dozens of friends, family and activists gathered in front of the Syrian embassy in Dokki, Cairo. A friend of Radwan’s from middle school, Adel Abdel Ghaffar, was among those peacefully gathered, holding flowers in silence and raising signs, stating simply: “Free Radwan.”
Adel stated that the demonstrators “hoped to shed more light on Mohamed,” but he stressed that “We made it a point not to make it a political rally, but more humanitarian which is why there are no political slogans here.” He emphasised that they just wanted to get reassurance of his well being, adding that Maha had insisted on flowers to show the peaceful intentions of the demonstrators. She also chose the slogans, eliminating any political tone.
After almost two hours of silent demonstrating, the Syrian ambassador to Egypt, Yusuf Al-Ahmad, addressed those gathered on the steps of the embassy. Maha stood next to the ambassador as he spoke.
Al-Ahmad stated that during Egypt's uprising, Syrians were also taken by authorities and held. He asserted that this was part and parcel of any unrest in any country. Mohammed Radwan, he continued, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and if he is indeed innocent, it is only a matter of time before he is released. He emphasised that the Syrian authorities picked up several people on 25 March during clashes at the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus. It will take time, according to Al-Ahmad, for the authorities to investigate each one.
When asked whether Mohammed's father or an Egyptian official could be allowed to visit Mohammed, the ambassador stated that it was against the government's policy to do so until full investigations are carried out. He said there have been no signs that Radwan had been tortured.
Maha stood peacefully next to the ambassador and on more than one occasion tried to prevent any interruptions or signs of protest. Afterwards, she stated that she, more than anything, wished to see her child assured of his safety and well being.
In a heartfelt plea, Maha told Ahram Online: “Please, I am reaching out first to [Syrian] President Bashar Al-Assad ... number two I’m reaching out to [Egypt’s de-facto leader, Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein] Tantawi, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and [Foreign Affairs Minister] Nabil El-Araby and even Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam and the Coptic Church’s Patriarch; I’m reaching to all these people; please let them release my son. He hasn’t done anything.”
Until now, the Syrian authorities have made no allegations or raised any charges against Radwan.