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Trouble in Cairo.

THE interesting story in my column last Tuesday did not end with my exclusive interview with the late Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi and his unique and everlasting watch.

It had a troublesome sequel that began after I left Tripoli, Libya, and reached the immigration counter of the Cairo International Airport in Egypt at 9:10 in the morning of December 28 to take my connecting flights to Beirut, Bangkok and Manila.

Unaware that passengers entering Egypt from Libya were on strict scrutiny, an immigration officer, after examining my passport, immediately ordered me to a smelly room packed with other incoming passengers, and then transferred me to an investigation room where I was fingerprinted, photographed and held like a spy for the next 15 hours.

I was very lucky Dave Baquiren, a former colleague in the Times-Mirror-Taliba chain of newspaper, who was to meet me at the airport, spotted me right away while I was walking toward the immigration counter.

Dave, who joined the foreign service after he left the Times and became a senior assistant to Philippine Ambassador to Egypt JV Cruz, knew I was on that flight from Tripoli as I earlier gave him a call for assistance on my lengthy transit passage at the Cairo airport.

Dave knew that my connecting flight to Lebanon was at 3:30 p.m. that day, and he suggested we have lunch outside as soon as I cleared the airport before we go back for my connecting flight, but fate intervened.

Worried after a long time that I had not emerged from the room, Dave immediately contacted Ambassador Cruz, who told him he was traveling with some friends to the scenic pyramids at the outskirts of Cairo and won't be back until 3 p.m.

Meantime, a bearded immigration officer opened my luggage, meticulously examined my portable typewriter, emptied my shoulder bag and turned to the Qaddafi watch as if he found a spy gadget, thoroughly checked it and then impolitely asked incoherently: 'What was your business in Libya? Why you traveled there several times already? What is your purpose in Egypt? Who are your companions? Why do you have cameras and especially this watch, which,' raising his voice, 'is strictly a banned item here?'

When I politely answered him, he zeroed in on the watch, so I told him I interviewed President Qaddafi, and he gave the watch to me as a gift. He stood up and shouted at me: 'Who the hell are you trying to fool?' Apparently, he did not believe I met President Qaddafi, considering his tight security and reclusiveness.

At that point, I remembered that Qaddafi and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat were at odds. 'With this watch, you're a high-risk person,' the immigration officer said.

I told him I do not understand him and reasoned out that it was not my concern if the two presidents are quarreling. The officer just ignored me and continued asking ridiculous questions. When I told him he was inordinately holding me and violating my right as a legitimate transit passenger, he blurted out: 'Fuck you!'

Unexpectedly, Dave Baquerin entered the room with another immigration officer who inquired in Arabic what was happening. Thinking I got a relief, the two officers instead told them about the watch and that they could not release me because of it. While figuring out what to do next, Ambassador Cruz arrived with a high-ranking Egyptian diplomat and a Customs official.

After discussing my case, the diplomat told me that I was going to be released and the Qaddafi watch returned to me on one condition: 'I will remain under the immigration cell at the airport until my exit flight, and the watch will be released to me when I am already on board the plane.'

Ambassador Cruz asked the diplomat and officers if it's possible to put me in his custody in his office instead of at the immigration detention cell at the airport. After evaluating my case, they agreed, and off we went with two immigration guards who stayed with us until we returned to the airport at 1:45 a.m. the next day for my connecting flights.

Over a late dinner and a bottle of premium scotch, I told them about the meeting in Libya between the Barbero panel and the Moro National Liberation Front group that led to the successful signing of the Tripoli Agreement, my exclusive interview with President Qaddafi and how I got it.

On my long flight back to Manila, I wrote seven articles on the Tripoli meeting, about my interview with Qaddafi and exclusively submitted my series to the Times Journal. Surprisingly, my editors told me that other major dailies would also publish my story. I suspected Mrs. Marcos and JV Cruz had a hand in it.

Looking back, I thought how the everlasting watch already outlived its original owner for 42 years, and how it nearly landed me in jail in Egypt, some 9,172 kilometers away from home when I was just 34 years old then, like the Libyan President.
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Publication:Business Mirror (Makati City, Philippines)
Geographic Code:6LIBY
Date:Jan 10, 2018
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