In late November of last year, I was haphazardly invited to watch a documentary film screening in the posh Cairo suburb of Ma'adi. Exhausted from the workday, I begrudgingly agreed to take the hour-long trip to some obscure coffee shop to join a friend in what I figured would be an exercise in futility. After all, the film was titled "This Palestinian Life," and therefore concerned a topic so horribly sensationalized that I tend to avoid documentaries on the subject altogether. Surprisingly enough, though, this short twenty-minute film presented a quite lucid yet unexaggerated account of non-violent resistance by everyday Palestinians. Indeed, this short film did the unthinkable by humanizing those embroiled in this contentious and hotly debated conflict.
I had to excuse myself immediately after the film had ended - and before the question-and-answer session - but later learned that this brave filmmaker, a German-Egyptian dual citizen named Philip Rizk, had spent two years living and working in Gaza. Yet his social conscience wasn't limited to this cause alone: in his next film he hoped to focus on Egypt, using personal interviews to humanize the struggles of working-class Egyptians and their frustrations when faced with a dire lack of upward mobility. Clearly, Philip fit the profile of the avant garde artist.
On February 6th, I was shocked to learn that the brilliant filmmaker I had met in Ma'adi three months ago was arbitrarily arrested by Egyptian state security, corralled into an unlicensed Suzuki microbus, and herded off to an undisclosed location, in what amounts to a bona fide state-administered kidnapping. His crime? Organizing and participating in a non-violent demonstration in support of the people of Gaza. He, along with fourteen other activists, had marched from Cairo to the neighboring governorate of Qalyubiyya draped in Palestinian flags. Photographs from the protest show Philip holding a sign reading, "Al-Kayl qad tafah, iftahu ma'bar Rafah!" which loosely translates as, "Enough is Enough! Open the Rafah border crossing!" Egypt's refusal to open this crossing contributes to the dire shortage of medical supplies and other humanitarian necessities in Gaza, which in the eyes of Philip and other activists makes Egypt complicit in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians. Yet the Egyptian government keeps the border closed, both to keep US military aid flowing and to avoid "insurrectionary spillover" - in other words, armed Palestinians organizing in Egypt.
Thankfully the international community quickly responded, and under the pressure of daily protests at the American University in Cairo and elsewhere, the Egyptian regime acquiesced and released him early Wednesday morning. Still, the fact remains that Philip was arbitrarily abducted, with no right to due process whatever, simply for demonstrating non-violent support for Gaza.
For any seasoned commentator on Egyptian politics, this incident wouldn't seem particularly unique at first glance. After all, the infamous Emergency Law, a draconian measure in place for over a quarter-century now, prohibits assembly of more than four persons at any given venue. But there's more to Philip's case than meets the eye.
Expatriates in Egypt, myself included, have conditioned themselves to believe that their foreign citizenship immunizes them from harassment by the otherwise insidious Egyptian security apparatus. The putative laxity of the Egyptian authorities towards foreigners can quickly translate into foreign journalists and activists exercising more latitude than the average Egyptian when engaging in political activity. Philip's abduction is unique because, as a dual citizen, he is technically accountable to Egyptian law, yet ostensibly can expect to be shielded from the worst excesses of Egyptian police brutality by his German citizenship. Clearly this wasn't the outcome.
Egyptian security's grandiose kidnapping of an utterly benign protestor in the obscure governornate of Qalyubia seems to indicate that the Egyptian regime is in no mood to tolerate criticism of its policy towards Gaza and the Rafah border - whether by Egyptians or foreigners. Indeed, on Monday Egyptian authorities arrested a second blogger sympathetic to Palestinians, one Diaeddin Gad, whose whereabouts are as of this writing stillunknown. It seems that the Egyptian government is set on making an example of Philip, and any other activist who dares to challenge its position on Gaza.
On February 4th, two days before his abduction, Philip made the following post on his blog, tabulagaza.blogspot.com, titled "Rafah to Close":
Word on the street is that Egypt is closing Rafah crossing to all journalists and doctors entering or exiting Gaza on Friday
Does this mean more bloodbaths to come?
That remains to be seen, but based on Philip's case, anyone with an axe to grind with the Egyptian government's position on Gaza stands to suffer a similar fate. On Wednesday, the same day Philip was released, Egyptian police arrested 30 truck drivers carrying food and supplies toward Rafah, and the next day Egyptian authorities arrested two Muslim Brotherhood members attempting to transfer 2,200 tons of food and medical aid into Gaza. Clearly these arrests aren't arbitrary. Barring a stern condemnation from the Obama administration at the horrible internal abuses committed by its so-called ally in the Middle East - who annually receives a $1.7 billion aid package from the US - there is no telling how many more peaceful pro-Palestinian dissidents Egyptian state security will round up in the coming weeks and months.