“They are trying to silence the voices that criticize the [Egyptian] government’s performance and send a message by assaulting and kidnapping, to say that criticism will not be tolerated.”
– Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information on the recent spate of blogger arrests in Egypt.
Philip Rizkwasn’t “unlucky” or at “the wrong place at the wrong time.” Instead, he found himself quite the deliberate target of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
On Feb. 6, the 26-year-old German-Egyptian blogger and filmmaker took part in a march with fellow activists belonging to the group “To Gaza,” an organization under the umbrella of the Gaza Popular Committee in Solidarity with the Palestinian People.
Rizk and 14 others held the six-mile march in Qalyubiya governate, a rural area north of Cairo. Their purpose was to draw attention to, and raise awareness of, the terrible humanitarian situation in Gaza under the Israeli embargo and subsequent attack. They also protested Mubarak’s order to keep the vital Rafah border crossing with Gaza closed and demanded an immediate end to the blockade of the territory.
A graduate student at the American University of Cairo, Rizk, a frequent contributor to CounterPunch, had previously spent two years living in Gaza and made a documentary film of life there. He also ran the Tabula Gaza blog, where he was critical of both Egyptian and Israeli policies toward Palestinians.
On their way back to Cairo from Qalyubiya, all 15 activists were stopped and detained by Egyptian State Security officers. They were arrested and then released. Except Philip Rizk. He was taken out the back door of the police station and whisked away in an unmarked van.
Like so many others in Egypt who dare to speak out, Rizk simply disappeared.
An intense campaign by family, friends, colleagues and human rights groups ensued. A website and Facebook group set up in his name rallied support in calling for his immediate release. Five days later, Rizk was unceremoniously dropped off at his apartment. No criminal charges were ever filed.
Rizk told reporters he had been held in solitary confinement, blindfolded and handcuffed. During interrogation, he was alternately accused of being an Israeli spy and a gun-runner for Hamas and was subjected to psychological abuse, but not physically harmed. While in custody, his apartment was broken into and his computer, hard drives, digital and video cameras, film, phones, and documents confiscated. His blog was also taken down.
Rizk spent little time talking about himself though. He preferred the media’s attention be focused on the fate of other Egyptian bloggers imprisoned or who had simply disappeared, mentioning Diaa Eddin Gad in particular.
Gad is a 23-year-old blogger who also had taken part in a peaceful demonstration in support of Palestinians in Gaza, and ran the Sout Gadeb or “An Angry Voice” blog (in it, he described Mubarak as a “Zionist agent”). The same day Rizk was arrested in Qalyubiya, four security men jumped Gad outside his family’s apartment and arrested him. He has not been heard from since and his whereabouts remain unknown.
In addition, Egyptian military tribunals this month sentenced Ahmed Douma and Ahmed Kamal to one year in prison for “illegally” crossing into Gaza during the Israeli invasion and blogging from there.
As one might surmise, Egypt still operates under Emergency Law, which it has been under since 1981. For 27 years, these laws have afforded Mubarak and his State Security officers the ability to arrest and detain any citizen without warrant or charge for an indefinite period of time. They restrict both freedom of speech and assembly. Amnesty International estimates that there are approximately 18,000 political prisoners being held in Egypt under the provisions of Emergency Law.
If the Gaza war accomplished anything, it was to bring many longstanding Middle East realities to full light. These include the savage extent to which the Israeli government will go to crush resistance to occupation and Palestinian aspirations to form a state independent of their dictates; the successful fracture and dissolution of the Palestinian leadership; Mahmoud Abbas’ utter lack of credibility and integrity; the marked political divisions between the Arab states opposed to, and those that tacitly approved of (or were complicit in) the Israeli invasion of Gaza; and the complete failure of the Arab League as an effective body.
Even more evident was the disconnect between rulers and the ruled. Specifically, the hypersensitivity of the Mubarak government to not just criticism of its policy keeping the Rafah border closed, but to any public expression of sympathy or support for Gaza.
While Israel has ended its war (for now), Mubarak’s is ongoing. As true of all dictators, it is one being constantly waged against the people.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri at yahoo dot com.