After moving to a new, more modern campus (plastered with USAID stickers and heavily gated), the American University in Cairo (AUC) held its inauguration ceremony last Saturday. In keeping with the grandeur expected of such Egyptian ceremonies, the First Lady made an appearance. â€˜Mama Suzanne,â€™ as she is fondly called, lathered on the requisite public praise for education and progress.
Meanwhile, professors whom had been invited to this extra-exclusive ceremony stood not with the Mother of the Nation on this glorious day, but rather in front of riot police at the General Prosecutorâ€™s Headquarters. They were protesting for the release of one of AUCâ€™s own, arrested only the day before. Philip Rizk is a graduate student here, a German-Egyptian, a Christian, an activist for the people of Gaza, a filmmaker, a blogger, a freelance journalist. For four days he was also a political detainee held without charge, as is customary in this country of â€œprogress.â€
The AUC strategy for recovering its kidnapped minds, however, is making progress.
In January 2007, another graduate student and Arabic language instructor, Ihab Atta was taken by the State Security and held without a trail. Atta is a soft-spoken man, one with a genuine smile. Itâ€™s hard to believe anyone like him could be suspected of activities against the government, even one as frustrating as this one. Perhaps it was because no one could even comprehend why Atta was taken that the resistance to his imprisonment was slow to mobilize. It took nearly two years to accumulate enough momentum, to determine the right amount â€“ and the right kindâ€”of pressure against the Interior Minister. Finally, Atta was released in the end of last November after local newspapers announced the coming of a media-saturated demonstration to be held at the shiny, new, and progressive campus.
These two cases illustrate the power of media and awareness. For Ihab, a cautious campaign that tried first to use wusta (political connections, the language of Egyptian bureaucracy), and succeeded years later only after finally turning to the papers. For Philip, a pointed and publicized operation that claimed success in less than a week.
Itâ€™s effectiveness is precisely why the freedom of expression is recurrently under attack by State Security. The 2005 presidential election, the first multiparty contest ever, sparked an explosion of blogs in particular to meet the demand for alternative reporting left unfulfilled by state and official media. Of course after the fact, Mubarakâ€™s leading opponent Aymen Nour is still in jail, and authorities now keep tabs on blogs with political and religious content.
The weakness of the Egyptian government is in its appearance, and state authorities know this. This is why criticizing the President and his family is a punishable offense; why state police are camped out on every corner of downtown Cairo; why the country will have been living under â€œemergency lawâ€ for the past 30 years after its supposed expiration next May; and why the country fights Islamists with one hand and secularists with the other. Despite the stateâ€™s widespread incapacity, the game is maintaining the appearance of strength and to proactively squash any voice that suggests otherwise.
Philipâ€™s freedom is a small victory in the scheme of things, but a very meaningful one. People like him are the fountainhead of reform, the ones who make it their job to fight the big issues that still exist: Thousands of the political opposition are still behind bars, the state still remains impotent, Egyptâ€™s Rafah border with Gaza is still blocked, other pro-Palestinian bloggers are still in captivity.
And the fear still lingers that tomorrow someone else will be snatched up and taken away for merely speaking his mind. â€œI donâ€™t want there to be another Ihab or another Philip,â€ explained a member of the AUC faculty who was involved in campaigning for both of their releases. â€œNever again.â€
Kasia Rada, former MFI intern