Eyewitness in Gaza: An Egyptian Risks Death Beside the Palestinians

Abdelrahman Mansour struck the spark that ignited Egypt’s revolution. Now the wired activist is in Hamas territory, filming Israel’s air war from ground level. Sarah A. Topol reports.

Mohammed Huwais / Getty Images

Abdelrahman Mansour knows conflict firsthand. In May 2010 he struck the spark that would ignite the Egyptian revolution when he created a Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said.” The page, which took its name from a young Egyptian who was beaten to death by the police, eventually called for the protests that toppled the 30-year rule of then-president Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. When Mansour was drafted into Egyptian Army, the page’s administrator kept his identity a secret, shielding him from the risk of military interrogation. Having finished his military service and now working as a journalist, he’s in a house in Gaza City, listening to the incessant buzz of Israeli drones and the boom of intermittent airstrikes.

A few days ago the 25-year-old Mansour slipped into Gaza together with seven other activists via the network of smuggling tunnels that connect the strip with Egypt. Mansour and his friends stayed on the Egyptian side of the border for two days, awaiting a safe moment to attempt the crossing because Israeli routinely targets the tunnels. In the end, the underground leg of the trip took only 10 minutes. Having arrived in Gaza at last, the group spent two nights in Rafah city, visiting hospitals and the sites of Israeli bombardments. Now they have moved on to Gaza City armed with cameras and social-media accounts to document the attacks there.

As the deadly conflict enters its seventh day, Mansour is on a mission to express solidarity with the Palestinian cause and publicize the suffering of the strip’s civilians. “I came to visit my friends and show them moral support. I think moral solidarity is very valuable here for individuals,” he says. “The Egyptian revolution was about humanity at its core, so my presence here is trying to show that same feeling. It also reminds me of the resistance Egyptians had against Mubarak. In a way, it was similar, because there were no equal weapons to clash with and there is a real desire for change and victory in both places.”

Mansour regards himself as part of a broader movement of Arab youth across the Middle East and North Africa, newly emboldened to demand their rights and challenge longstanding regimes. On Sunday night, approximately 500 Egyptian activists entered Gaza to deliver medical supplies and show support for the embattled enclave. Some traveled through the night, making it all the way to Gaza City’s Al Shifah hospital before returning home to Egypt on Monday. “This is the change—the youth who crossed to Gaza, the youth who overcame [Egypt’s] military rule,” says Mansour. “This is what happened during the January 25th revolution. Change is made by the brave ones, not by everyone. In the end, the majority follows those people at the front lines, no matter what the outcome is.”

Under Mubarak, Egypt’s security forces abided by Israel’s blockade of the strip, routinely turning away Palestinian solidarity activists at the border. (In early 2009, shortly after Israel’s last armed confrontation with Hamas in the strip, Operation Cast Lead, a German-Egyptian blogger on a march to the crossing was detained and tortured for three days.) Since the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi have come to power, the Egyptian government has relaxed its border procedures for activists and delegations—a move seen as more sympathetic to Palestinian demands. But Mansour, a slender young man with bright brown eyes and close-cropped hair, deplores Morsi’s refusal to take an even tougher line against Israel. “Morsi’s stance has been largely symbolic,” says Mansour. “He seems unable to do anything more.”

In Gaza, Mansour has been staying with friends he’s met via Twitter. He says he intends to publish the footage he’s been filming on the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page, and he’s been talking to activists in Gaza about encouraging sympathetic outsiders to enter the strip and stay there as human shields in Palestinian families’ homes. So far, he says, he is being greeted with open arms.

Mansour’s Gaza visit is only his latest international advocacy effort. A month ago he contacted old friends from high school to smuggle him into Syria, where the civil war has now entered its 20th month. He spent two weeks there and says it was the most frightening experience of his life. During his six days in the besieged city of Aleppo, a government helicopter strafed his car. But despite the odds, Mansour remains optimistic. “There is a serious change ongoing in the entire region,” he says. “But the problem with politicians is that they look at things from very nearby. Just like a fish in the sea, it cannot see the butterfly above it. When you are above, you can see the entire sea.” Overhead, the Israeli drones continue to buzz.