Mubarak and Omar Suleiman, now the interim vice president, worked closely with Israel on everything from the Gaza blockade to intelligence-gathering; they allowed Israeli warships into the Suez Canal to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza from Sudan, and did their best to stir up tensions between Fatah and Hamas. The Egyptian public is well aware of this intimate collaboration, and ashamed of it: democratization could spell its end. A democratic government isn’t likely to abolish the peace treaty with Israel – even some of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have said they would respect it. But Egyptian foreign policy would be set in Cairo rather than in Washington and Tel Aviv, and the cold peace would grow colder.
In 2009, I joined a Facebook page in support of Philip Rizk, a graduate student at the American University in Cairo who took part in a six-mile march in support of Palestinians in Gaza. I never met Philip personally but I’d had one of his cousins in a class once.
At the end of the march, all fourteen protesters were taken by the police to a station to be given citations. Philip went into the police station to sign a form when he was suddenly whisked out the back and into a van before his friends could react. They jumped in their van and tried to follow but were stopped by a police blockade.
For four days we wondered whether his family would ever see him again. Then, without warning nor explanation, he was driven home and dropped off. He was never charged. His round-the-clock interrogation by security agents was illegal, but no branch of the police ever took responsibility for it.
Philip had German as well as Egyptian citizenship. His family is very well off by Egyptian standards and lives in an upscale Cairo neighborhood. He was a student at the most elite university in Egypt, and had studied in the U.S. The Facebook page “Support and Prayer for the Safe Release of Philip Rizk” created by his friends and family had more than 6,000 members from Egypt, the U.S. and many European countries. It is perhaps not surprising he was ultimately released.
Another protester, taken into custody the same day as Philip, has not been released. Diaa Eddin Gad was a high school dropout turned political blogger. He was one of the bloggers who created the Arabic-language blog Sawat Ghadib (“An Angry Voice”). In one blog he called President Mubarak a “Zionist agent” and joked that he should really be named “Ehud Mubarak”–serious stuff in a country where insulting the president is punishable by a year in prison.
Diaa Eddin Gad lives in a lower middle class neighborhood, and is one of the tens of millions of unemployed. Philip Rizk created a Facebook page in support of his return to his family–but it has only about 300 members. Gad was ultimately released after 49 days–again, no police unit took responsibility for his kidnapping, detention and ill-treatment.
Most Egyptians, Muslim and Christian alike, have strong feelings of solidarity with the Palestinian people. Their government, however, sets foreign policy in consultation with foreign allies, not with regard for public sentiment. Public protests in support of the Palestinians are met with harsh reprisals often by internal security forces, who can, under the emergency law, detain anyone without charge and without explanation.
The cases of Philip Rizk and Diaa Eddin Gad are not unique, or even unusual–just well-publicized.