Around the Middle East there are many countries and several times when security precautions are heavy, to the point of being oppressive. Egypt is one of those countries and this is one of those times.
The ouster of Mohammed Morsi in July and the clashes with his supporters and crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood organization have led to a state of martial law and intense levels of security.
Hotels are under armed guard – with iron gates, sniffer dogs and much more vigilant inspection of bags than usual. Central squares, such as the famous Tahrir Square (meaning liberation), are watched carefully and closed completely on Fridays and other occasions when protests might erupt.
Hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested and many of its leaders are on trial. Thousands of supporters also have been detained for shorter periods and more than 1000 people – including both members and supporters – have been killed in the crackdown. Many of the organization's offices have been destroyed by gangs of thugs.
So it comes as no surprise that finding someone in the Muslim Brotherhood willing to talk to a journalist is harder than usual.
Many of the old contacts are in jail, some are dead, and everyone else is in hiding.
In order to learn as much as we could, my fixer/interpreter, a trusted driver and I strike out for Ismailia, a Suez Canal port city east of Cairo and the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood.
If there is any place in the country where we'll be able to find Brothers and people willing to talk, this should be the place.
On the two-hour car ride to the city we tried to reach some contacts. A call to a media office for the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, its political branch, found the number out of service. Telephoning a personal contact of my fixer was answered by the man's wife, who said her husband was in jail.
Finally, through a friend of a friend, we were given the name of a Brotherhood charity where we could start.
The numerous checkpoints and heavy presence of tanks and armoured personnel carriers around police stations, courts and important institutions made it clear this city too was under heavy security watch.
We found the charity, for orphans, deep in the heart of the poor Mohatta el Gedida neighbourhood. The Society of Muslim Brothers started out in 1928 in that very district with efforts by Hassan al-Banna to help the poor and downtrodden.
As we drove up we noticed across the street at a tea house, a man, dressed in a blue track suit, sitting alone, keeping an unusually close eye on the charity office and its adjacent mosque. My fixer wondered if he might be undercover – a member of the mukhabarat (secret police). But he seemed too obvious – right out of a bad spy movie – to be a threat.
Inside, the man in charge was plainly worried about himself and the charity. He disavowed any connection to the Brotherhood or the FJP, but he did praise their ideas and gave us the address of the organization's and the party's headquarters.
Back outside, our man in the track suit still was there, but now he was talking to another man who had driven up in a car. On the vehicle's front bumper was a large decal of the Union Jack.
In the belief that being up front with someone who might be mukhabarat would be less suspicious than trying to sneak around, we walked up and said hi. Pointing to the Union Jack, I asked if either man spoke English. They didn't. I explained that I was from Canada and this was my first time in Ismailia. I made no mention of why I was there.
"Nice place," I said.
"Ahalan," the track suit replied. You are welcome.
It wouldn't be the last time we saw these guys.
We spotted them twice again behind us – the Union Jack was a giveaway – but we continued on the trail of the Brotherhood.
It probably helped that our Cairo driver was unfamiliar with Ismailia and we were constantly changing course and reversing direction – the Union Jack would have had a hard time keeping up.
The pair was nowhere in sight when we walked into the burned out headquarters of the FJP and stumbled on Mustafa, who admitted to being a member of the Brotherhood's political party. He had graduated from university in mass communications and was eager to communicate, though he acknowledged being afraid.
No sign of our Union Jack friends when we emerged from the building, and I was glad of that. I didn't want to be responsible for outing Mustafa.
We continued to circulate through the city, speaking on occasion to people on the street, asking for their views of the Brotherhood – they universally condemned it. We stopped for lunch in a cafe with darkened windows and apparently frequented by women who wore no headscarf – the only such women we saw all day. The place also was filled with loud techno music. No obvious Brotherhood members there.
Pulling away from the cafe, the Union Jack was a few cars behind us. Our white Cairo taxi must have been as easy to spot as their flag, but we were confident they hadn't been on our trail all along.
Our last meeting of the day was set for early evening at a heavily guarded hotel on the waterfront. Our contacts had been changing phones every time they called us during the day in an effort to avoid detection, they said. They decided on the location for our meeting.
We got lost a couple of times trying to get to the hotel, and were pretty sure the Union Jack had lost us.
The pair we were meeting arrived separately and looked like a couple of prosperous young men who fit right in at a high-end hotel. Indeed, one of the men was from a big business family; they both were engineers.
We sat on the deserted lawn in comfortable chairs looking out at Timsah Lake that forms part of the canal. We sipped green tea; they smoked shisha (waterpipes).
Neither admitted to membership in the Brotherhood, but they acknowledged sympathy for it and strong feelings against the interim government and the army that lies back of it. Both men lost close friends at Rabaa mosque in Cairo, the day in August that the police and army violently dispersed the massive sit-in there.
As a perfect crescent moon and Venus, the "Evening Star," became visible in the darkening sky over the canal, you could easily forget about all the security and the tensions tearing at the country.
They didn't forget.
We left separately. There was no sign of the Union Jack.