The first Egyptian police report described Andrew Driscoll Pochter as an American and a photojournalist.
The 21-year-old student from suburban Maryland was not identified as being Jewish because we Americans, unlike Egyptians, do not carry government IDs that identify our religion. That in itself is a great relief and advantage when living or visiting countries wracked by sectarianism and bigotry like Egypt is today.
The fact that Pochter was taken for a journalist does offer an important clue as to who killed him and why.
He was reportedly killed during an anti-government rally that surged toward the headquarters of President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood party in the port city of Alexandria.
Over the past few months, Muslim Brotherhood (MB) militants and at times their allies from the Salifi sect have badly beaten up suspected journalists and in particular photojournalists. They have been particularly aggressive in defending various MB headquarters or MB demonstrations backing Morsi from attacks. They have expressed particular hatred for the passionately anti-Morsi privately owned Cairo press as well as a longer history of deep paranoia about the global press corps.
So it is important to note that Pochter was killed as anti-Morsi protesters were trying to storm MB headquarters in Alexandria and were being beaten back by MB militants defending their headquarters. That suggests they might have been involved.
As time passes, this sort of street violence escalates on both sides in Egypt. Clubs replace stones, knives come into play alongside clubs, and in time pistols and shotguns also surface, army steel helmets replace motorcyclist helmets and killing at times trumps beatings.
Those who killed Pochter , whoever they were, would not have known he was Jewish, even if they realized he was an American. In the Cairo street, particularly, the average demonstrator on either side of the fence would not jump to the conclusion that an American tourist could be Jewish. Quite the contrary, they would tend to associate the Jew with the hooked nose, and payus and long beard that they have likely come across in anti-Semitic screeds that circulate widely here.
Of course, the Morsi government is seeking to blame its opponents for the killing.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s official English website — still alluding to Pochter as a journalist, and making no reference to his being Jewish — claims that opposition protesters attacking its headquarters set upon Pochter.
That is not inconceivable, given his appearance and the situation. Pochter wore a beard as many MB youth do, which may have aroused suspicion. And if he was taking pictures or videos of the protestors, he certainly might have become object of suspicion and rage in a country polarized by mutual suspicion and rage. It’s very likely we will never know the full truth.
Pochter was in Alexandria via the good offices of AMIDEAST, an American educational foundation that has long encouraged educational exchange programs involving American and Arab university students. Years ago in Beirut, Lebanese leftists accused AMIDEAST of being covertly sponsored by the CIA.
If that unfounded charge ever filters into the MB, then Pochter’s presence as an AMIDEAST exchange student will be cited as proof that his presence in Egypt is part of some kind of American government conspiracy. His presence at the opposition demonstration will likely be twisted and he may well be portrayed as a pawn in some kind of Zionist-American global plot.
All these conspiracy theories and propaganda will likely gain strength as the opposition demonstrations continue to gain force and a showdown looms on the streets of Egypt’s major cities on June 30.
Even the possibility of this smear campaign makes Pochter’s death all the more tragic.
From his family’s Facebook statement that “he cared profoundly about the Middle East, and he planned to live and work there in the pursuit of peace and understanding,” one can infer that his intentions were good. His enrollment at Kenyon College, associated with liberalism and tolerance, also suggest that he came to Egypt out of selfless volunteerism.
Two things are for sure: Pochter’s Egyptian elementary school students lost a gifted role model. And Egypt is still burning.