Free, Tarek and John

Tarek Loubani and John Greyson are free, while hundreds of others who were arrested with them are still in jail. The prosecutor had pledged repeatedly that the “two Canadians” would be treated no differently than the 600 others detained at the same time. But eventually he released the same Canadians while the others remain detained. We do not know what exactly made the difference in their case, but there are many things that Tarek and John had going for them that others do not. This article will discuss some of these things, provide some of the political context of their arrest, and explain some of the decisions that were made by those who were trying to get them released.

The campaign to free Tarek and John required Western pressure on Egypt. Not a policy of purely declaratory diplomacy, which can easily ring hollow, but credible signals that trade and diplomatic consequences were on the horizon. This would play out not only in the Canadian-Egyptian bilateral relationship, but also in broader relations between Egypt and the West (above all, the US).

The international political context constrained the campaign to free Tarek and John. Most important is the relationship between the West and Egypt on two key issues: 1) the Israel-Palestine conflict and the siege of Gaza, and 2) the suppression of human rights and democracy within Egypt’s borders.

Egypt, the West, Israel, and the Palestinians

Tarek and John were arrested in Egypt, but they were not in Egypt because they had a position on Egyptian politics. They were on their way to Gaza, a besieged and occupied Palestinian territory.[1] In the early days after their arrest, some people asked why, if they were going to Gaza, did they not simply fly into the Gaza airport? But Israel destroyed the Gaza airport in 2001, three years after its 1998 opening, by bombing it from the air, and demolished it with bulldozers the following year. Now Israel maintains a tight siege on Gaza, trapping Palestinians and restricting the movement of supplies and visitors, including doctors, filmmakers, and everyone else. Gaza also borders Egypt, whose government could offer relief from the siege, but has instead embraced a role as secondary partner to Israel in maintaining it. Still, Tarek had led medical missions to Gaza from Egypt before, obtaining all the necessary permits from Egypt to do so as in this case, and Tarek and John had a better chance getting into Gaza from Egypt than they would have from Israel.

The Egyptian military is a crucial ally of the West in the Middle East, and the alliance earns Egypt $1.3 billion in annual US aid. This level of aid is second only to US aid to Israel, and it is no coincidence: Egypt’s share hinges on its cooperation with Israel. The aid flows directly from the Camp David Accords and the “separate peace” of 1978-9, enacted under Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat. These agreements have shaped the Israel-Palestine conflict ever since. By removing Egypt from the conflict, the US cleared the way for Israel to attack the Palestinians in Lebanon, culminating in the invasion of 1982, and eased Israel’s task of maintaining the military occupation of Palestinian territory (against Palestinian protest and international condemnation). It also found a valuable regional ally to bolster US control of diplomacy on Palestine.

For Israel and many of its allies in the West, the logic is barely concealed: Egyptian democracy is incompatible with the politics of the Camp David alliance. The occupation and siege of Palestine is unpopular in Egypt, and a democratic Egypt would never support it. For Israel and the West, an Egyptian dictatorship yields a better Egyptian position on the Israeli occupation and siege.

The Israeli leadership is publicly protective of authoritarian rule in Egypt, and not without reason. As the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations of the 1990s became more and more clearly a cover for Israel's continued occupation, Egypt’s Mubarak government, a veteran client of US “peace process” politics, played a critical part in the US-orchestrated show. When the “Israeli-Palestinian track” collapsed in 2000 and the Second Intifada began, it was Egypt, with Jordan, that worked from the Cairo Summit to keep Palestinians isolated from real regional support.[2] And over the last several years, Egypt has directly partnered with Israel in the siege of Gaza, which Egypt ruthlessly enforced even during the 23-day Israeli assault of 2008-9 (“Operation Cast Lead”).

It’s not only the case that ever since the rule of Anwar Sadat, Egyptian military authoritarianism has derived the major part of its official prestige in the West from its approach to Israel. It’s also that in the practical politics of Egyptian-Israeli alignment, the front lines for public advocacy on Egypt’s behalf in the West are mostly taken care of by advocates for Israel.

This has been especially obvious during the past few months. Many observers were horrified by the repression of August 2013, including the mass killings which Tarek and John witnessed and the mass arrests in which they were swept up. The democratic space that had been opened up by the 2011 uprising that ousted Mubarak was, it seemed, being violently closed. For much the same reason, Israel, which watched Mubarak’s ouster in 2011 with public concern,[3] has since August been playing diplomatic advocate for Egypt’s new junta.

In talks with US officials in August, Israel pressed the case for the junta, urging the US to maintain the military and other aid structured by the Camp David order.[4] And this line of advocacy continues to the present. The New York Times for October 10 quotes an Israeli official as saying that if the US tries to disassociate itself from the junta’s embarrassing repression by reducing military aid, “people will see it as the United States dropping a friend.” Prime Minister Netanyahu adds that Egypt’s cooperation with Israel has been “premised on American aid to Egypt, and I think that for us is the main consideration”.[5] Thus Israel is publicly fighting even cosmetic cuts in US military assistance.

Tarek and John wished to get to Gaza, unwilling to go along with the isolation and suffocation of the territory. Under conditions of the current siege, people trying to get to Gaza need to navigate Egypt. Unfortunately, they were travelling during a volatile time, when Egyptian participation in the siege was surging back to its peak in the final years of Mubarak’s rule. It is in this context that they found themselves unable to travel to Gaza on August 15, and stayed in Cairo until August 16, when they went to Ramses Square.

The West and Egypt's dictatorship

The international politics of Egypt and Israel/Palestine prevented Tarek and John from getting to Gaza. The domestic politics of Egypt's revolution saw them witness a massacre.

The US publicly states that it promotes democracy in Egypt, but the pattern since the earliest days of US involvement in the region has been one of support for dictatorship. In July 1952, the “Free Officers” overturned Egypt’s monarchy. When the Free Officers hanged the leaders of an August strike of textile workers at Kafr el-Dawwar, the US welcomed this as a signal that the new regime would not allow workers and peasants to transform the overthrow of the monarchy into a general social revolution.[6] The hangings “sealed US approval of the Free Officers,” as one British academic recently wrote.[7] US embassy officials were enthusiastic, and Secretary of State Dean Acheson soon promised Egypt “the active friendship of the United States.”[8]

But before long, Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser began to resist the West’s economic dictates and Cold War military pacts, and Egypt found itself at odds with the West. Nasser's armies were defeated by Israel in 1967, and he died in 1970, to be succeeded by Anwar Sadat. After the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel, the United States brokered a peace that put massive support behind the Egyptian military. The unspoken condition of that support was that the army was henceforth to be used only within Egypt's borders, and only against the Egyptian population. Since the 1970s, both the US and Egypt have fulfilled their ends of the bargain. Army intervention against the “bread riots” of early 1977, which had been sparked by Sadat’s implementation of IMF recommendations to slash subsidies for basic consumer commodities, set the basic pattern.[9]

After Sadat's assassination, the dictatorship was refined by Hosni Mubarak, who ruled the country for 30 years. He was ousted by popular uprising in 2011, but the structures of the dictatorship, in bureaucracy, industry, foreign relations, and culture, were not uprooted. Instead, a constitutional process and election took place under the supervision of the Army. The only organized force, the Muslim Brotherhood, managed to win a tenuous grip on power in a kind of alliance with the Army, but proved exceedingly unpopular. The Muslim Brotherhood, too, was overthrown on June 30th, with huge demonstrations against its rule, and the Army returned to direct control.[10]

Many who observed from the outside thought that in this moment, the demonstrators who took the initiative to overthrow Mubarak in 2011 would keep the initiative after overthrowing Morsi in 2013.

Instead, a bloody coup ensued, with most social-democratic elements silenced, some social-democratic leaders joining the military government, and those who opposed the coup (including the Muslim Brotherhood, but others as well) facing some of the worst massacres and human rights violations in Egypt's history. The worst massacre of all was on August 14, while Tarek and John were en route to Egypt, and its toll, we now know, was around 1000 people dead.

A public massacre is a technique for terrorizing a population into submission, but Mubarak's dictatorship, many of whose personnel are now back in charge, developed other techniques over the years, which they proceeded to apply – and which Tarek and John were also caught up in.

The dictatorship's techniques

Over the decades – and as we learned for ourselves these past two months – the dictatorship has developed a wide range of psychological warfare techniques for controlling the population. It uses these techniques to terrorize, to manipulate, and to instill fear and obedience. The most obvious technique, the one that Tarek and John witnessed, is the massacre, already discussed. In addition, there are several others.

The mass roundup. Tarek and John met many other detainees who, like them, were arrested after the demonstration, at checkpoints or in their homes. Gathering large numbers of detainees together and throwing a wide range of accusations at the entire group, the dictatorship is able to sow public doubt about the detained, to defame them, to destroy their reputations, and to make it difficult for them to find legal representation. Mass roundups have two additional uses. First, they provide sustained headlines about 'terrorists' and the military's struggle against this domestic enemy. Second, swathes of the population are absorbed in trying to cope with having loved ones behind bars, making it more difficult to organize or even imagine opposition to the regime.

The “welcoming committee”. Tarek and John describe their beating in considerable detail. Those who beat them were well-trained. They avoided areas of the face that would leave visible injuries and targeted kidneys and the back in order to inflict maximum pain without visible damage. When Tarek and John first tried to see a doctor, they were sent a military doctor, and only after protest did they manage to get an independent doctor to prepare a medical report of their abuse at the hands of Egyptian authorities. That report is now in the hands of Canada's Foreign Affairs Department, DFATD. This was a luxury not afforded to most Egyptians. The initial beating, humiliation, hot-boxing, etc., are techniques to establish dominance, to win and ensure compliance among prisoners. It is a short leap indeed to treating the entire population this way.