Following the as yet unresolved crash of a Russian airliner over the Sinai, concerns have been raised about lax security at Egypt’s airports. Although the jury is out on what actually happened, I can report that there is one area of border security in which Egypt excels: policing the minds of its own citizens.
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I got a taste of this during a recent trip to Sinai. Given my Arab and journalistic background, entering and leaving Israel is sometimes akin to playing the lottery, with the winning ticket being a simple, straightforward, untroubled passage.
As we approached the Eilat-Taba crossing between Israel and Egypt, I felt a sense of trepidation, like a gambler watching the roulette wheel spin. On the Israeli side, everything went so smoothly — with the women working in the small terminal so charmed by our son that they tried to tempt him behind the counter — that I allowed myself the luxury of hoping the same would happen on the Egyptian side.
Alas, it was not to prove so. Fortunately, after a while, they stamped the passports of my wife and son and let them leave.
Alone in the dusty, rundown terminal, I watched the Israeli and other tourists — many of whom were heading for Taba’s casinos — swan through the terminal with barely a cursory glance at their travel documents.
In fact, with the passport control booth regularly unmanned, confused tourists actually had to search around for an official to check their documents.
Security is a well-documented concern at smaller Egyptian airports and crossings, though it is pretty tight in Cairo's main international airport.
This was symbolically driven home to me on the way back. At the point where the Egyptian and Israeli crossings meet, two bored and unfit-looking Egyptian guards sat chewing the fat. On the Israeli side, a mean-looking body-builder type with an automatic weapon marched regimentally up and down, eyes camouflaged by his mirror sunglasses.
This hit-or-miss attitude to citizen security made me feel all the more offended by the long wait that was being forced upon me by the guardians of the security of the regime. I reflected to myself that being an Egyptian is not worth much, even in Egypt.
With time on my hands, I began to wonder what was going on and my mind began to wander, in light of the increasingly arbitrary exercising of emergency powers in Egypt, between likely and more fanciful possibilities.
After a couple of hours, I was finally taken upstairs and led into the office of a senior officer. The air-conditioning in the spartan room was set to "arctic" and the AC unit, as if mimicking some ancient form of torture, was dripping loudly into a bucket at the back.
Unlike my recent interrogation at Ben Gurion airport, my interrogator was far friendlier and exceedingly polite, regularly remarking on how “talking to you is really enjoyable” in an ambiguous tone of voice. In a way, I felt like I was the special guest on a surreal, Kafkaesque talk show.
The idealist in me was screaming to tell my interrogator that he was intruding on my privacy, while the realist counselled patience. Fearful of escalating the situation at a time when Egypt is undergoing one of the largest crackdowns in its modern history, with hundreds literally vanishing into thin air and thousands behind bars, I listened to the voice of caution.
After satisfying the officer’s curiosity about what I was doing living in Jerusalem, he wanted to know what I’d produced recently about the Israeli-Palestinian context.
Our exchange got even more philosophical when he switched his line of questioning to my beliefs. When he asked me whether I was still a Muslim, I tried to deflect his question by arguing that it was an issue of private conviction. When he persisted, we got into an exchange about the difference between being a-religious, agnostic and atheistic, and where I stood on that spectrum.
But all this turned out to be the appetizer. What most concerned the state security officer seemed to be my journalism about Egypt and my views on the situation there, including in the troubled Sinai.
As I expressed my honest views of Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and the absence of democracy in Egypt, I wondered what my interrogator was making of what he was hearing. However, he was giving nothing away. Showing the kind of balanced interviewing style absent from the pro-regime media, he simply probed my opinions, without passing judgement.
I don’t know how much of my interrogation was based on information the authorities already had and how much was a fishing expedition. Though I’m certainly on state security’s radar — as demonstrated by the fact that they knew I was a journalist at Cairo airport when I passed through there last summer, without me have declared myself as such — a lot of it was fishing, since the officer confiscated my computer and phone, and called me back for a number of rounds of questioning. However, I’m unlikely to find out, short of another revolution throwing up my file, as the previous one had done with my father’s.
However, as I sat waiting, I realized that the information I had already volunteered could be used to concoct a “compelling” case against me, especially with all the show trials that have occurred over the past couple of years.
Based in Israel/Palestine, I am highly critical of the regime, write for the Israeli media and, even worse from the regime’s perspective, Al Jazeera, and have photos of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Raba’a al-Adawiya protest camp on my computer. In addition, though many Egyptians have become more open and tolerant towards atheists in recent times, the regime has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approach to non-believers, which has depended largely on the personal convictions and whims of individual judges and officials.
I could not resist a wry smile at the dizzying array of charges or suspicions that could be directed my way: “Zionist agent,” “Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer,” “insulting the president,” “defaming religion,” to mention but a few.
After nearly eight hours in custody, I was released and was not bothered again during my stay, except for one brief visit to my hotel. Having a foreign passport, writing in English, living abroad and perhaps encountering a relatively open-minded officer meant that I am far more fortunate than the thousands of courageous prisoners of conscience filling Egypt’s prisons.
I fear that the crash of the Russian airplane, if it proves to be terrorism, will result in another, severe round of repression in which the regime will use the so-called “war on terror” to muzzle and imprison its critics.
An early sign of this is the shocking summons, on Sunday, by military intelligence of one of Egypt’s foremost journalists and human rights defenders, Hossam Bahgat, who early reports indicated is on the verge of being charged with an unknown “crime.”
In Egypt, it would seem, critical journalists too often wind up behind bars, while hypocritical ones tend to get their own TV shows.
Of course, Egypt is not alone. To varying degrees, most of the Middle East treats journalists and freethinkers with an enormous dose of suspicion and paranoia. But they are fighting a losing battle, especially in the information age, as ideas cannot be silenced, arrested or detained at the border. Indeed, Bahgat's articles are now enjoying an online renaissance with a global wave of readers triggered by concern about his arrest.
Egypt needs to stop searching people’s political and intellectual baggage and focus its attentions on the actual luggage moving through its airports. It’s the insecurity of the state that has to be shed before there can be true state security in Egypt.
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer living in Jerusalem. He is the author of “Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.” Follow him on Twitter: @DiabolicalIdea