Languishing in Cairo’s Tora prison, two Canadian Palestine solidarity activists, who are now on hunger strike, have come to exemplify the impact of the repression and isolationism that has gripped Egypt since the July 3 military-supported coup that resulted in Mohammed Morsi's ouster from the presidency.
Canadian film maker John Greyson and ER doctor Tarek Loubani were trying to make their way to Gaza when they were arrested in Cairo on August 16 as the army's violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood's anti-coup sit ins spread throughout Egypt. Over a month later they are still behind bars, facing absurd accusations of supporting attacks on police stations and helping fuel the street violence.
While their arrest is partly the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, it is also an illustration of how the situation in Egypt has evolved over the past two-and-a-half years from a struggling revolution to a forceful counter revolution.
The two men, both long time activists for Palestinian rights, traveled to Egypt in order to reach Gaza. Following the 2011 revolution and especially during the 2012 war between Israel and Gaza, Egypt’s Rafah crossing become an entry point to the coastal Palestinian territory, which is under Israeli closure.
Loubani had already traveled to Gaza via Egypt for his work in training Palestinian ER doctors at Gaza City’s Al Shafiq hospital. When Greyson and I first met he was a participant in the failed 2011 flotilla attempt to reach Gaza from Greece, which I covered as a journalist. This time he was traveling with Loubani to make a film about his work.
In an email exchange just before his trip to Egypt, Greyson wrote that he was well aware of the army's expanding repression. But since the Israeli authorities would almost certainly deny him access to Gaza via Erez Crossing, traveling through Egypt was the only choice.
An activist committed to the Palestinian cause, Greyson caused a stir in Canada when he withdrew his film from the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival because it was hosting a side event of films set in Tel Aviv. The event was sponsored by the Israeli foreign ministry.
After the Greek coast guard commandeered and impounded the Gaza-bound flotilla in 2011, most of the international activists returned home. But Greyson, like many who participated in the failed flotilla, remained committed to reaching Gaza and to raising international awareness of the situation for Palestinians living under closure.
When Greek authorities prevented the second Gaza flotilla from entering international waters, amidst intense Israeli and US pressure, Egyptian dailies published blistering editorials calling upon the activists to try again from Egypt. But by the time Greyson and Loubani attempted their most recent trip, sympathies in Egypt had shifted.
After the revolution, the Egyptian authorities lifted some restrictions on crossing the Rafah border crossing in what many saw as a symbolic gesture. But since the July 3 coup that removed Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing from power, the military regime has frequently closed the Rafah border and destroyed many smuggling tunnels, while ratcheting up anti-Hamas rhetoric. Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, now anathema to Cairo's military regime. The regime claims Hamas conspired with Mohammed Morsi, the ousted president.
As ante-revolutionary authoritarianism has returned to the streets of Cairo, so have the old policies of supporting Israel in maintaining its blockade of Gaza. While Greyson and Loubani continue to refuse food, anti Palestinian rhetoric andconspiracy theories about foreigners helping the Muslim Brotherhood are rolled out on Egyptian streets to help justify the continuation of a bloody coup.