Jeremy Hodge Returns to America After Detainment, Shares Story of Jail-time in the Middle East
After being released from an Egyptian jail last week — where he was held in the midst of a military-backed crackdown throughout the country — 25-year-old UCSB alum Jeremy Hodge has returned to the United States and is currently advocating the alleviation of charges against his former roommate, Egyptian filmmaker Hossam Meneai. The pair was living together in Cairo when Egyptian police investigators showed up to their house on Jan. 22 and held them in custody at an Egyptian jail.
During his time at UCSB, Hodge went abroad to Egypt and studied at the American University in Cairo. He was forced to leave the university halfway through the 2010-2011 academic year after the school was evacuated following riots against former president Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Hodge was transferred to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and following his graduation from UCSB in 2012, he moved back to Cairo to work with Daily News Egypt, then began working with nonprofit organization Transparency International the year after, in November 2013. In this interview, Hodge speaks with the Daily Nexus about his time at UCSB, his experiences in the Middle East and the events leading up to his arrest.
DN: Tell us about your time as a student at UCSB. Did your experiences here play into your eventual interest in Egypt and the Middle East?
JH: I’ve been interested in the Middle East my whole life, even before I went to college, so me studying abroad in the Middle East was kind of inevitable. I’ve been studying Arabic since my freshman year, and I did my last quarter at UCDC— where I interned for the Middle East Institute. At UCSB, I was a Middle Eastern studies major and was in the Model Arab League, the Olive Tree Initiative — which is an organization that works toward a peaceful resolution for the conflict with Israel and Palestine — and Project Nur — which advocated for getting rid of the stigmatized image surrounding Muslim communities.
DN: So your senior year you decided to study abroad in Egypt and found yourself in the midst of the Arab Spring. Can you tell us more about it?
JH: I went there from August 2010 to February 2011. I was supposed to spend the whole year there but then the revolution started and I had to be evacuated. I was evacuated from Egypt so I had no choice, I had to leave … me and some other students decided to go to Israel because that was the only other program from EAP where I could study Arabic, [so] I went to Israel in February 2011 and left June 2011.
DN: So what were the events leading to you and your roommate’s arrest?
JH: We were targeted pretty randomly … I had also been working part-time as a freelance journalist last summer in Egypt. As a result of that, I did have previous run-ins with state security but that’s normal for all journalists… All foreign journalists in Egypt always walk around with a slight air of paranoia with regards to the fact that you may be being watched or that something may happen to you. I can’t pinpoint a specific time at which things started going into motion before I was arrested but … the police investigators showed up at our house out of nowhere, unannounced, on Wednesday Jan. 22 and then from there everything started.
DN: According to some news sources your roommate was beaten. Is that true?
JH: Well yeah, I mean for the entire time we were in jail, I personally saw him beaten four separate times.
DN: Was he making films about the Arab Spring and protests against the government? Is that why he got arrested?
JH: Well no actually… He never did anything. I mean he had his political opinions, and he would post things on Facebook, but … none of his work was political at all. He never did any political reports; he wasn’t a member of a political party and he never attended one protest in the entire time I knew him or was living with him. So that’s actually one reason in which he’s very different than everybody else who’s been arrested in Egypt now. He wasn’t doing anything like that — he was simply arrested. In my opinion, this is what makes this case such a dangerous precedent going forward.
DN: That’s so weird. Why is it that he got detained and beaten if he is not an activist?
JH: I think that security services thought it was suspicious because he was an Egyptian living with an American and … I think that naturally aroused suspicion. But most importantly, he is from Northern Sinai governorate, where there’s a low level Islamic extremist insurgency taking place right now against the state… so once they was found where he was from, he was held in higher suspicion.
DN: Wow. So what was it like being in jail in Egypt?
JH: I mean, obviously it sucks. Well I said that Hossam got beaten four separate times … I would say that’s pretty normal for almost all the other prisoners sitting in jail. At first, when they brought us to jail, we were questioned over and over by a bunch of different investigators and then after the questioning, we were basically handcuffed to a table and left there for about 36 hours.
DN: That’s gnarly.
JH: Yeah, and then during that time, they just left us there while they were processing other groups of criminals who came in. That being said, I as a foreigner definitely received the best treatment out of anybody in the jail. I mean it’s an international incident if something happens to me. So they definitely were nicer to me, although I mean still not, you know, very nice, but I never got hit once, which I think is probably different than a lot of other people. I don’t think they expected to hold me very long, they always kind of knew that I would eventually get released. But I think they were genuinely hoping that they could intimidate Hossam or perhaps beat him enough that he would give him information, even though he’s not involved with anyone dangerous.
DN: Wow, that’s crazy. So what are your thoughts on the state of Egypt after the coup and Egypt currently?
JH: I think the coup has obviously made it much worse. I mean there is a whole lot I can say about that, but the regime is much more popular than anything that’s come before it after the revolution. When Morsi came to power, he lost popularity very quickly: there were protests in the streets a lot more often and their numbers were larger.
DN: So would you say the region continues to remain unstable?
JH: I would say that now the current regime — despite how repressive and dictatorial they are — actually have a lot of popularity in Egypt right now, and not just among rich people or influential people. People there are from top to bottom — rich, poor, everybody: people really love this guy. So I wouldn’t say things are necessarily unstable. I mean there are protests against the current regime, but the numbers are fairly small, despite how it may seem here in the United States. It’s hard to tell when you’re here because you just see pictures on the news or video clips, but the amount of people who go out these days and actually protest against the regime are fairly small, in comparison to previous protests. I would say that, unfortunately, this regime … is riding this wave of popularity to reinstate all of the previous draconian measures that used to exist within Egypt that were temporarily suspended over the revolution.
Photo Courtesy of Jeremy Hodge
A version of this story appeared on page 1 of Wednesday, February 12, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.