By Shmuel Aiello, Israel
Last week I helped oversee a wonderful 4 days conference for Jewish and Palestinian students. After the conference, I took an overnight bus to Eilat, on my way to Egypt. It was going to be my first visit to Egypt in 9 years. Instead, I was held by Egypt for 34 hours, refused a translator, lawyer or even provided basic needs like food, water or toilet paper. Eventually, I was returned to the Israeli side of the border as a “security threat” to Egypt. All this because I worked with human rights activists in Egypt almost a decade ago.
9:00 AM I arrived at the Egyptian side of the border crossing, bought a visa to Cairo (more than the visa to just the Sinai), and went to pass through. When my US passport was scanned, the customs worker stopped me, asked for my second passport and told me to wait. I asked if something was the matter, and was told that there was a problem, something that had happened 9 years ago. I assured him that I did nothing wrong on both previous visits to Egypt, and had no encounters with the police. I was told to wait. And wait.
After more than 3 hours, I was finally brought to see someone who seemed to be in charge. He was also the only staff there I would see in 34 hours who spoke English. He told me that this was a case of “mistaken identity” which they were working to resolve shortly. He also asked me a series of questions about my upcoming trip to Egypt, who I would see, whether I would ask Egyptian friends, and about my prior trips to Egypt (2 week-long visits). I asked him why any of that information was relevant, and he assured me that “no, it had nothing to do with the issue.”
Once again I waited. And waited, and waited. I would periodically enter the office to ask if there was any update, and each time I was told to wait outside, that the situation would be resolved imminently. Often I was told that I would be on my way within an hour, or even within minutes. As the day passed, I expressed concern that I would be stuck there for the day, and was assured that I’d be out by the night.
It was midnight when I realized that I wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, that was when I was told that I could not leave. I had believed until then that the delay was over whether I could enter Egypt. It hadn’t occurred to me that I couldn’t leave on my own. It was then that it dawned on me that I was really being kept against my will. My entire approach to the situation changed from it being a tedious start to my vacation, to a potentially serious violation of my rights.
Thursday night I spent on a bench in the office. Even after an all-night bus, it was not a good night’s sleep. But the morning was worse. I went to sleep having had free range of the small border area, and being told that I would be leaving soon. When I awoke and asked when I might leave, I was told “Allah knows”, essentially an Egyptian shrug of the shoulders. I was no longer allowed to leave the office, and was given an escort to take me to the bathroom. Equally troublingly, when I asked, they no longer said that there was a mistaken identity issue, but that I was the problem.
I spent most of Friday having resolved myself to spending Shabbat, and possibly the 9th of Ab fast, in a dingy room on the border. My first moment of salvation came when I left to go to the bathroom and found a friend’s brother, who had been looking for me. He had brought a package of tissues for me. It sounds trivial, but when there aren’t any tissue or toilet paper in the entire building, that becomes an invaluable resource.
Three hours before Shabbat began I asked for another update. At this point, I was told that I would, in fact, be leaving imminently. It took almost the full three hours, but finally, I was handed my passports back and told to leave to the Israeli side of the border, where I made it to a host family just in time for Shabbat.
I was never told what the issue was, or why I was not allowed into Egypt. I was told simply that the security forces had blocked my entry. In fact, everyone I met and talked to claimed that they did not know or understand the specific problem.
All I’m left to do is make an educated guess. On multiple occasions, they did mention or ask about my previous visit to Cairo, when I met with numerous human rights activists and wrote a report on efforts to improve religious freedom in Egypt, along with recommendations. They also asked about those I had met with, typically lawyers working on rights for Christians, Bahai’i, and other minority groups, or educators promoting democratic values. Probably either my interest in basic civil and human rights in Egypt or one or more of the activists I met a decade ago in Cairo, are the reason I was classified as a security issue for the state. This despite the fact that there have been two revolutions and different governments since summer 2010.
34 hours in confinement, served one meal, with no translators, sleeping on a metal bench, was not the most pleasant start to my vacation. But it was fine; I left, went home, and am free to write about my experiences. I feel however for my Egyptian friends who have to deal with a government that is so insecure, which faces real security issues, yet abuses its power to crack down on anyone interested in religious freedom, civil rights, or other liberal democratic values.
The Egyptians who went out to Tahrir square, the activists I met even before the revolutions, are some of the bravest people I’ve met. And they love their country, and dearly want it to go in the right direction. Yet regime after regime, they get the short end of the deal. Egypt now is somehow in worse shape than it was when I first visited in 2009 (although better than it was under the Morsi government in 2014); its economy worse; any progress on human rights, women’s rights, minority rights, limited and undermined by the aggressive steps taken in the name of achieving stability. Egypt sorely needs safety and stability, but it also needs to find its way in protecting the rights of its citizens. And it needs a government answerable to its people, that doesn’t need to imprison those who criticize it. One need look just further west to Tunisia to see the potential that Egypt can unlock if it can find its way. I hope that I don’t have to wait a decade to visit again, and that when I do, perhaps Egypt will have found that way.