The government clampdown on anti-war activists is widening the gap between official policy and the view from the street. Amira Howeidy reports
Kamal Khalil woke up early last Wednesday 19 February and took a cab from his home in Murad Street, Giza to his workplace at 11.30am, as he does everyday. He never arrived, though, because a few kilometres into his daily journey, two cars cut off his cab, forcing it to an abrupt halt. As later recounted by Khalil and related by his wife, twelve men dressed in civilian clothes, including a State Security Investigation (SSI) officer, stepped out of the cars and "politely" asked him to get out of the taxi. The 53-year-old activist and engineer, who had just undergone surgery for a hernia, complied and got in one of the two cars. He was blindfolded and taken to SSI headquarters in Lazoghli near Tahrir Square where an officer briefly questioned him about the Socialist Studies Centre that he had recently founded. Khalil was then transferred to Mazra'et Tora prison where he was handed over as a "detainee".
Khalil demanded a medical examination to ensure there was a record of the condition of his health. As soon as admission procedures were completed, Khalil who is also asthmatic, was immediately placed in solitary confinement and forced to don a white prison uniform that was too small for him.
Meanwhile, his wife, family, friends, colleagues and comrades who were searching for him, began to face up to their fears that Khalil, a political activist since the 1970s student movement, who has been arrested approximately 20 times over the past 30 years, was "kidnapped" by the police.
"Where is Kamal Khalil?" demanded a statement issued by representatives of several political forces, civic groups and syndicates on 21 February. "What did they do with Kamal Khalil who was kidnapped five days ago?" asked the statement.
Enquiries by the secretary-general of the left- wing Tagammu Party, Refa'at El-Said, and several MPs at the SSI proved in vain as the security body would not reveal any information about Khalil or confirm his detention.
The ambiguity surrounding his disappearance suddenly evaporated on Sunday 23 February, according to his wife Faten Fadda. The SSI revealed his whereabouts, as she told Al-Ahram Weekly, "and informed us that we could visit him and bring him the medicine he needs because of his operation and for his asthma." Fadda visited her husband for the first time since his detention on Monday 24 February. "He was in good shape, shaved and in good health because he had been transferred just the day before from solitary confinement to a spacious and comfortable prison cell with two other anti-war activists who had been detained earlier." Fadda explained that her husband told her "in great detail" about his arrest and incarceration. Khalil wasn't charged with anything, nor is there an official record of his interrogation.
Demonstrations come to life
"If I wasn't Egyptian I would have wanted to be Korean!" cried the thin young student leading a demonstration in front of Cairo University last Saturday, 22 February. About 700 protesters surrounding him chanted the original slogan, "if I wasn't Egyptian, I would have wanted to be Egyptian," coined by Mustafa Kamel, leader of the National Party who fought against British occupation in Egypt in 1910...
His lawyer, Samir El-Bagouri of the Legal Aid Centre, said he didn't know why Khalil was detained, but guessed that it was "for the obvious reason of arresting seasoned activists as a preemptive measure ahead of demonstrations". Fadda agrees, "The government is very worried, so it's arresting political activists. And although it wants the people to demonstrate against the war, it doesn't want us to think that just because we're allowed to demonstrate that we have a real democracy."
Its "odd, though," she remarked, "How Kamal's treatment suddenly changed for the better." She observed that there has been considerable local and international criticism about his arrest.
Indeed, the news of Khalil's disappearance swiftly spread across the globe. On Monday 24 February, the UK wing of the Stop the War Coalition organised a demonstration in front of the Egyptian Embassy in London, which called for the release of all detained anti-war activists in Egypt. "International pressure works," read the coalition's call for action. Similar actions took place in front of Egypt's embassies in Paris and Beirut.
Eleven people have been in detention since January in connection with their role in organising anti-war and Palestine solidarity demonstrations. The only legal recourse that Khalil has is to appeal his detention 30 days following his arrest.
Although many would take issue with labelling Egypt's feeble demonstrations against a war on Iraq as an anti-war movement, there is a consensus that the huge impact made by the global anti-war movement has helped to put Egypt under the limelight to the benefit of civil society. While millions marched on 15 February in countries whose governments clearly support a war on Iraq, only a few hundred people in Cairo took to the streets, facing armies of riot police. Despite the weak public response, activists here feel it won them the support and sympathy of the global anti-war movement.
Says Hafez Abu-Se'eda, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), "a major shift in popular movements is underway worldwide. The anti-war, anti-globalisation movements, and those who oppose the new world order, as well as environmental and feminist activists and so on, are working together better, and are doing so with a shared sense of responsibility." The interaction and networking between these groups, whose members include Egyptians as well, was given a huge boost at last month's Porto Alegre Social Forum in Brazil which brought together thousands of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and interested individuals. The global 15 February anti- war marches also evidence this shift, he said.
"The international community has changed," Abu- Se'eda argued, "Kamal Khalil was arrested numerous times in the past, but they always went unnoticed. Today the situation is different."
The London-based Amnesty International (AI), the Geneva-based World Committee Against Torture and the Stop the War Coalition are just a few of the organisations that took issue with the latest wave of arrests.
The government's extension of the 23-year-old Emergency Law this week, ironically comes at a time when international rights-groups are focussing on Egypt. The extension of the unpopular law has also raised the ire of political parties and human rights organisations. "The problem with the Egyptian government," argued Abu-Se'eda, "is that it thinks it can continue to use the same means and commit the same violations [as it has in the past] and there won't be any consequences. Not anymore."
The EOHR secretary-general was himself detained in 1998 for allegedly accepting a check from the British Embassy in Cairo and thus violating a military order which prohibits accepting donations without prior government approval. But Egypt's most famous activist to be persecuted to date is sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim, whose three-year-long case is still before the courts, also for violating the same military order.
Last year's massive solidarity demonstrations with the Palestinians resulted in the arrest of at least eight activists. Police intolerance of public protests, which the Emergency Law strictly prohibits, led to the killing of one student last April and serious injuries to the eyesight of six others at Alexandria University.
Although Abu-Se'eda's words imply that Khalil and the other detainees might benefit from international support, many are worried that the government will become increasingly nervous should anti- war demonstrations grow in size and possibly, out of control when US missiles kill Iraqi citizens.