Egypt vs. the Bloggers

Days after Egyptian authorities went after one blogger critical of the government’s policy on Gaza and human rights, they’re now going after another. Dia’ el Din Gad, a student blogger is believed to have been held incommunicado in the custody of State Security Investigations (SSI) services and at risk of torture since his Feb. 6.  (Click here for more)

As bloggers have emerged as an active and important voice in promoting democracy and human rights, the government has responded, including Amnesty International prisoner of conscience Karim Amer. It’s part of a larger effort to shut down all public criticism of the government in the press and beyond.

For all of the attention given to the release of Ayman Nour, obstentively as a charm initiative in preparation for a Mubarak visit to DC, the arrest of Dia’el Din Gad is a warning for the Obama administration.  This week, the Washington Post sums up the dangers in an editorial here.

To take action on the Dia’el Din Gad, case, click here.

Egypt: Ayman Nour — released!

Unexpectedly, good news from Egypt.  The government has released Ayman Nour, one of the country’s most prominent dissidents who came in second to President Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections.

The BBC report can be found here; The Associated Press story here. The stated reason for his release was his poor health, although some speculate it is a gesture toward the new Obama administration.

Nour’s conviction and detention despite his poor health has been taken both as an example of the Egyptian government’s determination to muzzle all of civic society and the West’s inability to move the government on human rights.

Egyptian human rights activists, while supportive of Nour, wondered why the West, and the United States government in particular, seemed to focus so much attention on him while being less vocal or silent on other political dissidents.  Indeed the greater the US seemed to focus attention on Nour, the more the Egyptians seemed to dig in their heels.

Upon release, Nour said he was ready to pick up his work from three years ago.  It’s exciting to see such determination in face of so much abuse.

So today is a day of celebration, but a lesson as well. We can’t let action on a single high-profile case turn the human rights community or the American government away from pursuing a broader, more effective human rights policy in Egypt.

For today, even as we celebrate the release of a charismatic leader, the government clamps down elsewhere.  Hours ago, Amnesty reported the enforced disappearance and detention of student blogger Dia’ el Din Gad, a vocal critic of the Mubarak regime. No doubt Ayman Nour would be the first to want all of us to come to Dia’el Din Gad’s aid.

What Happened to Philip Rizk? — Update

Philip Rizk

Philip Rizk

The Gaza war was bound to get caught up in the human rights abuses of other countries in the region.  From Egypt comes news this weekend that German-Egyptian blogger and activist Philip Rizk was arrested by Egyptian security officials during a Gaza solidarity rally.  Friends of Philip say 14 others were also arrested, but all but Philip were released.

This is a recurring story in Egypt, where the government is suspicious of any popular movement or demonstration that exists outside of their control.  Their goal is to muzzle all of civil society. Philip is just one of a number of Egyptian activists arrested because of their public efforts on Gaza.

Following the arrest, security officials continued to harass family members in Egypt. Amnesty International has met with the family and is following the case closely, as it is with the other arrested activists. Support groups for Philip have scheduled protests for today, Monday, in Washington, Chicago and other sites in the United States.

More information will be posted as we receive it.

UPDATED INFORMATION– Philip Rizk was released in the morning of 11 February.

No further action is requested from the UA network. Many thanks to all who sent appeals.

AI Gains Access to Gaza

After weeks of Israeli and Egyptian restrictions, AI finally entered Gaza this past weekend to survey the damages caused by three weeks of Israeli strikes. But because of persistent denials by Israel to let human rights monitors enter, the AI mission was forced to enter through the border crossing of Rafah, a town that was extensively bombed in the recent air strikes. The team entered just hours before Israel’s ceasefire and then traveled via road to Gaza city. In a blog entry posted about the experience, they observed:

We saw many buildings reduced to rubble. Some had been directly targeted; others destroyed or damaged when nearby buildings were bombed. In several places, the outer walls of buildings had been blown off

We found evidence of widespread use of white phosphorus by the Israeli army in densely populated areas in and around Gaza City. In an alleyway in Gaza City, we saw barefooted children running around lumps of still smouldering phosphorus. We found more on the roof of a family’s house and still more on a busy street

In the Zaitoun neighbourhood of Gaza City, rescue workers were pulling out the bodies of members of the Sammuni family from the rubble of their home. They had been killed in Israeli strikes two weeks earlier and Israeli soldiers had subsequently bulldozed the house on top of them

One picture–left behind from an Israeli soldier–had the following words scribed on it: “1 down, 999,999 to go.

Meanwhile as US headlines drift away from the conflict in Gaza, leading European publications are running stories about how the attack on Gaza was perhaps worse than we thought. The BBC reports, that 1300 Palestinians have been killed, 4,000 buildings destroyed, 20,000 severely damaged, 50,000 live in UN shelters. In addition, 13 Israelis were killed.

But some, like Eva Bartlett of the International Solidarity Movement, find little reason to celebrate the ceasefire: “Today was the first day that medics and journalists were able to reach areas occupied by the invading Israeli troops. For some the anguish is immense: pulverised homes, killed family members, corpses unretrieved, sanctimony and all that is sacred defiled. For others, the suffering is in the tragedy of shattered dreams, of every personal item destroyed or lost. While the bombs may have stopped, for now, the terror remains. F-16s still flew low, terrifyingly low, today, so loud, so unpredictable. No one here has any reason to believe any words Israeli leaders proclaim. Only reason to believe in the worst.”

Reports that have lost their meaning

As we enter the new year the U.S. State Department is finishing the touches on its annual human rights report. When I took over as Egypt country specialist for Amnesty back in the 1990s, Egyptian activists used to look forward to the report’s publication.  It was a rare occasion that any official body of influence called the Egyptian government on its human rights abuses.  It gave their work particularly against torture, legitimacy and moral support.

But this year, as in the past few years, the report will be ignored by my activist colleagues in Egypt.  Today’s New York Times has a story that explains why.

The story is about ex-Guantanamo detainee Muhammad Saad Iqbal.  After more than six years in American custody, Iqbal is now free, never having been charged with any crime, but he suffers from years of abuse.  Some of the worse came when the Americans rendered him to Egyptian authorities, whom, Iqbal says, tortured him.  You can read his story here.

This year’s State Department report will criticize the Egyptians for torture.  It will echo Amnesty’s own language accusing the Egyptians of systemmatic torture and impunity for the torturers.  But as the evidence mounts that American officials are complicit in the same abuses that they criticize, this year those words just don’t mean as much.

Interview with a hero

One of Amnesty International’s most important responsibilities is to support the human rights activists doing the difficult work on the ground in the countries around the world.  Increasingly, particularly in the Middle East, it’s become the opinion of Amnesty International country specialists that our ability to change the world depends on our ability to create space for these grass-root activists to exist.

Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad

Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad

One such activist is Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad, a 57 year old Egyptian lawyer and one of the founders of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, named after another Egyptian human rights lawyer.  He has been an engine driving legal attacks against torture, arbitrary detention, mass and arbitrary arrests and other human rights abuses.

In an interview with Amnesty International posted this week, Ahmed Seil El-Islam Hamad says working on human rights in Egypt and the Middle East is easier now than two decades ago because the Arab public has come to recognize that these rights are part of their own culture.

“In the 1980s, the political elite and society at large used to see the Egyptian rights movement as representatives of Western values within Egyptian society, so they treated it with caution, preferring to stay away from it,” he tells Amnesty. “The government manipulated this skeptical attitude in an attempt to isolate the rights movement from its natural environment. Things have changed since 2000, and that barrier has now ceased to exist.”

His work is a story that we have to tell and American policymakers should listen to.  It is the voice of the people who know speak of human rights and democracy in a language that speaks to Egypt’s tradition, history and culture.  It’s a reminder that we don’t have to import these ideas — they’ve been there all along.

To read the full interview with him, please click here.