Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2012, Pages 14-15

Gaza on the Ground

Mubarak May Be Gone, But in Egypt's Jails His Legacy Lingers On

By Mohammed Omer

The author’s brother Mahmoud. (Photo M. Omer)

Arriving in Egypt June 24, I reveled in the euphoria and joy of Egyptians celebrating the country's first contested election after decades of one-party oppression—and the announcement that the Muslim Brotherhood's Dr. Mohamed Morsi was the victor over former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, the candidate associated with ousted President Hosni Mubarak and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Standing in Tahrir Square among the jubilant throngs, it seemed as if the sins of the past had been completely erased. So it would seem to the outside world, and I believed it, too—until my brother found himself trapped in an all-too-real present.

Mahmoud is 20 years old. In March, fed up with the bleak future facing him in Gaza, he decided to seek work in Libya. As he traveled through Egypt on the first leg of his clandestine journey, he was arrested by Egyptian security and sent to the remote prison in Al Qanatir al Khayriyah. Because what happened to him is not unique, Mahmoud's story needs to be told.

Like many Palestinians, Mahmoud is forced to travel abroad—whether to Egypt, Libya or beyond—to find decent work and earn a living wage. Gaza's once-thriving society of entrepreneurs, farmers and tradespeople no longer can offer employment to its citizens. With no electricity for up to 18 hours a day, no jobs, no construction materials, no income, Gaza has little to offer its youth, and a productive, dignified life is a fading memory. The situation has been steadily worsening since 1967, when Israel occupied Gaza during the Six-Day War, but it has escalated exponentially since Israel imposed its siege in 2006, when voters in both Gaza and the West Bank elected a Hamas-majority parliament.

A year ago, Mahmoud described the situation succinctly: "We are counted among the dead already."

Dead already? To be 19 with his whole life ahead of him and yet mired in such despair? A personal tragedy, of course—but when an entire generation of young Gazans see nothing but emptiness ahead, Israel's Draconian siege can perhaps better be described as emotional genocide.

The older generation once considered Sweden, Norway and Denmark havens of gainful employment, but problems obtaining visas have put an end to this option. Egypt and Libya, on the other hand, are rebuilding. Jobs exist…if one can only escape Gaza and find them.

My brother's crisis started out innocently enough. Traveling with two friends also seeking employment, Mahmoud got lost in the desert for several nights. It was here he was apprehended by Egyptian security for the offense of not having his papers. He had applied for documents allowing him to travel through Egypt, but received no reply.

For the next two months we, his family, heard nothing. All we knew was that he had disappeared in Egypt on his way to Libya. The Palestinian Embassy in Cairo worked to find him, but, once we learned of his arrest and ultimate location, failed to facilitate a single visit.

Even using my contacts and investigative journalism skills, it took me a week to find out where my brother was being held. Thanks to my new Dutch passport, I was able to gain access to the prison. After a long wait, I was allowed in. What I learned shocked me.

Messages from the detainees covered the prison walls, each conveying a desperate agony. I examined them as we waited inside the prison hallway for Mahmoud. Sitting next to the colonel who ran the prison, I watched as the guards brought my brother from his cell. He was wearing a white uniform with blue letters spelling "Investigation."

A Living Hell

The colonel was kind enough to let me sit next to my brother to reassure him, although two uniformed guards and another in civilian clothes stood nearby. What Mahmoud told me made it difficult to maintain my composure. Speaking in a near whisper, he had trouble getting the words out. He was terrified of repercussions, fearing he would be mistreated after I left. Although he was happy to feel the fresh air on his face—it had been 29 days since he last saw daylight from the small cell he described as "stinking and sweltering"—Mahmoud could not overcome his sadness.

"Brother," he pleaded, "don't leave me alone with these people. Get me out of here before Ramadan begins. All I wanted was work and a decent life, but once again I am so miserable."

Indeed, who would not be miserable after being fed only beans and potatoes? Or forced to stand up and not utter a single word—or even breathe out loud—when an officer passed by? Mahmoud was frequently taunted and beaten by the guards, he said, shifting nervously. He was incarcerated in a tiny room with 25 other prisoners, their beds piled on top of one another.

Mahmoud told me the names of the other five prisoners from Gaza sharing his cell. A Swedish-Palestinian with an expired visa had been held for a day, he said, but his embassy intervened and he was out within 24 hours.

Another Palestinian being held there was a renowned doctor. "But they [the guards] don't care," Mahmoud complained bitterly, "so he may as well talk to himself. His Egyptian residency expired and he was sent here."

Needless to say, my brother knew little of the momentous events taking place on the streets of Egypt. One day he saw a newspaper headline announcing that Morsi had won the presidential elections. The prisoners were overjoyed, shaking the bars in celebration and shouting: "Justice Dr. Morsi! Justice Dr. Morsi!"

Perhaps not surprisingly, the guards' reaction was just the opposite.

As my brother described his humiliating treatment in prison, one of the guards in the room goaded him, telling him to "forget the past and look forward to the future and the new"—and laughing to give his words extra sting.

My patience dwindling, I shot back: "I thought the Egyptian Revolution had changed things. But alas, it appears not."

To which the guard replied, "What did you expect—a 5-star prison?"

Growing up in Gaza, one learns to hold one's tongue. But the lessons of my youth were not enough to contain the anger building up inside me. I told the guard that I would be reporting this shameful behavior to the authorities. As a result of my outburst, both my iPhones were confiscated for the duration of my visit.

But I kept my promise to report the prison conditions, raising my concerns with a senior member of the transition team for the new Muslim Brotherhood administration. He apologized on behalf of Egypt for what had happened to Mahmoud, and promised to secure his release. It was my turn to be reassured, for this man had played a key role in the release of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for the initial freeing of 477 Palestinian prisoners.

While the Egyptian official kept his promise to release Mahmoud, the police escorting him and other prisoners from Al Qanatir al Khayriyah to Ismaila prison, where they would be transferred to the Gaza border, had their own agenda—blackmail (euphemistically known as baksheesh, or a tip). As Mahmoud had run out of cash, the policeman on duty demanded that I give him 300 Egyptian pounds if I wanted him to let my brother go home. I had no other option but to pay him—of course, I also informed the Egyptian official in Cairo, who wrote back to say how "outraged" he was.

A Meaningful Future

The fact is that Mahmoud is only one of thousands held in Egyptian prisons under the same conditions, abused and scared. In the words of the Egyptian official, the guards who mistreat them are "animals."

Yet Gaza remains a no-man's-land where the future of any young Palestinian is in the hands of Israel and Egypt. It is they who hold the keys to border crossings—and thus to not only food and freedom, but to a man's most basic ability to provide for his family. Their collaboration is only reinforced by the Israeli siege. But if that is not lifted, the desperation and tension building day after day in Gaza are sure to explode—and its borders with Egypt and Israel may be unable to contain the result.

Award-winning journalist Mohammed Omer reports on the Gaza Strip, and maintains the Web site <www.rafahtoday.org>. He can be reached at <[email protected]>;. Follow him on Twitter: @MoGaza.