Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 August - 3 September 2003
Issue No. 653
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Mystery in our midst

Jailan Halawi explores the mysterious disappearance of prominent journalist Reda Hilal

Reda Hilal
"Where is Reda Hilal?" Ever since Al-Ahram's assistant chief editor disappeared on 11 August, journalists and newspaper readers alike have been incessantly asking that question.

Although journalists often attempt to unravel mysteries in search of the truth, very few could have ever imagined that they would themselves become the subject of such a pursuit. In the case of Reda Hilal, everyone is clueless, including both the journalistic community and the security bodies -- which, despite an extensive investigation, have not been able to provide any definitive answers regarding whether Hilal's disappearance was personally, criminally or politically motivated.

The perplexing disappearance of the prominent journalist began on a seemingly ordinary Monday afternoon. The 46-year-old Hilal was last seen by his colleagues leaving the Al-Ahram building at about 2pm. He was driven to his downtown flat in a company car. Upon his arrival, Hilal asked the house attendant to get him some juice from a nearby vendor. He had also apparently ordered a kebab meal from a nearby restaurant. But when the delivery man and the attendant arrived with his orders, a lock had been placed on Hilal's apartment's front door.

The next day, Hilal's brother opened the flat to find everything in place. The one possibly anomalous sign was that the windows had been left wide open.

Theories regarding his disappearance quickly emerged, and rumours spread like wildfire. Had he been kidnapped for his political views? Did Islamist extremists kill him for his overt criticism of their activities?

Known for his liberal views, his criticism of Arab nationalist discourse, and his support for improved relations between Egypt and Israel, Hilal was, undeniably, a controversial writer -- to the extent that the most far-fetched theories regarding his disappearance involved questions about Hilal's relations with foreign countries and exotic personalities.

Hilal's daring views on such issues as the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, often made him the target of other political commentators' biting criticism. These conflicts and rivalries reached such a level that Hilal had stopped going to a downtown hangout frequented by journalists and intellectuals, in order to avoid any unnecessary disputes.

His colleagues, however, played down the possibility that he could have been kidnapped for his political views. If that were the case, they stressed, it would be a dangerous precedent indeed.

A vast array of security bodies, meanwhile, have been working around the clock in search of clues that may unravel the mysterious disappearance, or at least confirm or deny some of the speculations.

Although security experts agree that there is no such thing as a perfect crime, they are convinced that whoever is behind Hilal's disappearance is intelligent and cunning enough to have managed to get away with it for this long without leaving a single trace in their wake.

According to one theory, Hilal was not forcefully hauled out of his house, nor was he kidnapped; he left willingly, and even had enough time to place a lock on the front door. Inside his flat, everything was in its place, indicating that there was no resistance of any kind. Even the fact that the windows were left open could have meant that Hilal thought he would only be out of the house for a little while.

Another theory posits that professionals -- whose intricate plan was executed so cleverly that not a single thread would lead back to them -- kidnapped Hilal. Hilal's house attendant denied having seen the journalist leave the building -- to these theorists, this meant that the perpetrators had even managed to distract the porter while they executed their dastardly deed.

The press reported that Hilal -- a bachelor -- had made reservations at two different resorts -- one on the Red Sea, and the other in Alexandria, where he usually spends part of his summer holidays. He did not, however, show up in either place. The police also excluded the possibility that Hilal might have voluntarily left the country via any of its air, land or sea ports.

Everybody who knew him has been -- or will be -- questioned by the authorities. The police are also carefully examining all the phone numbers he called, or had been called from, on his mobile phone before it was abruptly turned off.

As police continue to search for clues, Al- Ahram staff members continue to find themselves bombarded by questions, wherever they go. "Any news of Reda Hilal?" they are asked.

But it's the same question they are also asking amongst themselves -- and the answer remains as elusive as can be.

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