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Abducted in Egypt

Last Friday night, after a peaceful, small-scale march north of Cairo in solidarity with the besieged Palestinians of Gaza, Egyptian secret police kidnapped one of the event organisers, Philip Rizk. Philip is an Egyptian-German blogger, film-maker and activist, who had previously lived in Gaza for two years. As I write this, no one has yet received confirmation of his location or had any communication with him.

There are more detailed accounts of what happened on Friday and events since then on various blogs. The family, while desperately worried, have been working with local activists and friends abroad to mobilise a campaign for Philip’s release (the Facebook group attracted more than 2,500 members in the first two days).

However, Phil would be the first to point to the fact that what has happened to him is all too common in Mubarak’s Egypt. In fact, this “Mafia-style” abduction, and the Palestine focus of Philip’s work that made him a target for Egypt’s mukhabarat, draws attention to some larger developments in Egypt and the region.

Firstly, it is no coincidence that the Egyptian police chose to clamp down on a display (however modest) of both support for the Palestinians and opposition to Egypt’s policies towards the Gaza Strip and Israel. Even before Israel launched its assault on the Palestinians in Gaza, Mubarak was under pressure for helping to maintain the blockade on Gaza as Israel’s “siege” ground on. But Egypt became the target of particularly fierce anger once Operation Cast Lead had begun, as reports emerged of possible Egyptian collusion.

Egyptian embassies were attacked and Mubarak denounced as a “collaborator”; protests at home and abroad were fuelled by the Egyptian foreign minister blaming Hamas for Israel’s attacks and the “sight of Egyptian police shooting in the air to scare desperate Gazans away from the border”.

But while Mubarak’s dictatorship took most of the heat, the region’s governments as a whole responded symbolically and tamely to the destruction in Gaza. For all the talk of Israel having set back its “acceptance” in the region, at the official level, it was largely empty rhetoric. Even the Qatari government, deemed to have expressed its displeasure most harshly, restricted its response to closing a trade mission.

More recently, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan caused a minor stir when he stormed off stage at Davos after a verbal attack on Israeli President Shimon Peres. Yet the Israeli ambassador in Turkey said “relations would soon be back to business as usual” – an apt choice of phrase, given that “Turkey still has billions of dollars of arms deals with Israel” as well as “a military training arrangement”. In fact, the huge trade volume between Israel and Turkey has significantly increased under the current Justice and Development party government.

It is commonplace to accuse Middle East governments of using the question of Palestine to distract attention from their own domestic failings. There is a bit of truth in this, but this kind of analysis is limited. In fact, it is far more accurate to describe the region’s dictators, autocrats and monarchs as happy to perform symbolic acts and indulge in hollow rhetoric, while brutally repressing genuine solidarity and protest. The limited amount of permitted anti-Israel protest is swiftly crushed when it threatens to become a vehicle for domestic dissent.

The second point worthy of note in Philip Rizk’s abduction is the fact that under Mubarak, Egyptian citizens are subject to harassment, kidnap, detention without trial, and torture, for speaking their mind. Whether Islamist, socialist, western-style democratic reformist or Copt, Egyptians live in fear of Mubarak’s thugs. In fact, on the same day as Philip was “disappeared”, dozens of Muslim Brotherhood members were also arrested as a result of a protest for Gaza.

Philip is also not the first blogger to be targeted in Egypt. Some four years ago, the role of bloggers in resisting Mubarak’s regime was already a story – an opposition front that continues to expand in scale (with a corresponding reaction from the government).

In the UK, the extent of the British government’s responsibility for the torture and seven-year nightmare of Binyam Mohamad is starting to emerge. The Moroccan government, the torturer-for-hire in Binyam’s case, is, like the Egyptian regime, considered a “moderate” ally of the UK and US in the war against “extremism”, a category that also includes the repressive bigots in Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy. It is unacceptable for our own governments’ support and complicity in such abuses to be tolerated as “sensible” foreign policy.

Finally, and more encouragingly, the response to Philip’s abduction from friends, colleagues and fellow-activists hints at the potential of the growing opposition in Egypt. Taking advantage of technology such as microblogging, Egyptian activists are able to alert friends and comrades within seconds of a knock on the door in the night, or send out details for a protest at short notice.

Opposition to Mubarak in Egypt is diverse – and at its worst, fragmented and divided – but it has expanded to include concerns such as democratisation, labour rights and opposition to neo-liberalism, as well as Palestine and Iraq. The disparate resistance may not yet have coalesced fully, but protests are increasing in intensity. Between 1998 and 2004, there were more than 1,000 workers’ protests, but an estimated 800 strikes and demonstrations in 2006-07 alone.

Hossam al-Hamalawy, a socialist journalist and blogger, believes that increasingly, Egyptians are connecting issues such as education and workers’ rights at home with their government’s failure to support the Palestinians. In 2000, he notes, a slogan of the radical left was “The road to Jerusalem passes through the Arab capitals”, while in 2002 angry protests against Israeli attacks in the West Bank resounded with the cry “Hosni Mubarak is like Sharon, same shape, same colour”.

A popular analysis of the Middle East says that Israeli-Palestinian peace will be a huge gift to the whole region, dealing a blow to “extremism” and “terrorism”. However, this approach misses the fact that a realistic settlement to the question of Palestine may well only be realised when the corridors of power in the Middle East are no longer filled with dictatorial autocrats, intelligence chiefs, and grovelling foreign ministers.

Middle East policy and analysis can be dominated by a focus on Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iran. Yet it is the future of Egypt that is perhaps the most important factor in the future direction of the region. A democratic Egyptian government genuinely reflecting public opinion in domestic and foreign policy would be a shock of seismic proportions for western interests in the Middle East, and could help pave the way for similar change in its neighbours.

Published int the Guardian’s Comment is free.

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