My dad came to Cairo for a family holiday. Instead, he disappeared

My dad came to Cairo for a family holiday. Instead, he disappeared
6 min read
12 Apr, 2019
Comment: After being arbitrarily detained for 405 days, Hazem is home in Australia. But he is just one of many unjustly locked up by Sisi's repressive regime, writes Lamisse Hamouda.
After an eight-day search, Lamisse's father, Hazem surfaced in Tora prison [National Geographic]
On 25 January 2018, my father landed in Cairo for a family holiday. I was already living there, having arrived six months earlier to settle in and look forward to starting my Masters in Gender and Women's Studies at the American University in Cairo.

My younger sister and brother had come to visit a few weeks prior to dad's arrival. In a severe case of fear of missing out on the occasion of two of his kids being in Egypt for the first time, dad booked a ticket on a whim, and decided to join us.

We'd all grown up in Australia, didn't speak Arabic and hadn't met much of our extended family. Dad joining us was meant to bridge the language and culture gap that stood between us and our heritage.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, the Ministry of Emigration and Egyptian Expatriate Affairs had been engaged in an active campaign to appeal to diaspora communities across Australia, Europe and the Mediterranean to visit Egypt. Little did we know that the "going back to our roots" trip we had planned, would be so different to sort of trip promoted by by Minister for Emigration and Egyptian Expatriate Affairs, Nabila Makram.

Instead of meeting dad in Cairo, we were received a phone call from our cousin to say he was being held at the airport for questioning. Immediately, we saw our holiday crumble and a shadowy monster emerge from the rubble. We had no idea what this meant, but we knew it was bad.

The Australian Embassy told us to wait for a decision from Egyptian authorities.

Immediately, we saw our holiday crumble and a shadowy monster emerge from the rubble. We had no idea what this meant, but we knew it was bad

Instead, he disappeared.

After a desperate eight-day search, he surfaced in Tora prison.

Our father faced the dual accusation of sympathising with a "terrorist" organisation and spreading false news. This came as a shock to us, and I spiralled into a panic.

I had followed the Al Jazeera journalists case in 2013, involving Australian journalist Peter Greste. I had lived in Cairo in 2013, watched the protests from the balcony of my apartment overlooking the presidential palace, and quietly left when I realised that this was bigger than something I could grapple with.

After coming back home, I kept an interest in changing political landscape in Egypt since Sisi's emergence.

Then, with dad's arrest - instead of being a passive observer with loose links to Egypt - I was thrown right into the middle of it all.  

2018 was also an election year. And so dad found himself added into a mass trial with former political opposition members, online activists and students.

People tutted and said he should have never flown in on 25 January - the anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

Read more: Egypt blocks petition against Sisi’s presidential extension

One of the most confronting aspects of my father's arrest was the disorienting judicial system he was enmeshed in.

Navigating Egypt's convoluted and opaque legal apparatus was like trying to grasp for air; I knew it was there, but I couldn't make it into something tangible to hold, and understand. The opacity of the process left no clear exit route, no ability to look at the law and say "well, if we do this, this and this, we can achieve this…" Instead, it was all a guessing game.

Dad isn't the only dual national to have been taken by the Egyptian state; two young German men were returned to Germany after renouncing their citizenship, Canadian-Egyptian Yasser Albaz is currently in Tora prison, and Khaled Hassan was tortured and remains behind bars, to name just a few.

Arbitrary arrests and disappearances create an atmosphere of vulnerability and fear; you never know when, and if, you or your close ones could be taken. The "War on Terror", currently being perpetrated in Egypt as a means to crush dissent and "stabilise" the country, spreads a cloak behind which human rights abuses can occur in the name of national security.

The arrest of dual citizens sends a clear message to diaspora communities; you too, are vulnerable

The arrest of dual citizens sends a clear message to diaspora communities; you too, are vulnerable.

It also allows Egypt to extend its repression beyond its borders, serving to silence Egyptian communities - critical of the current regime - who may feel safe to express their opinion in their adopted countries.

The risk of arbitrary arrest, alongside the evidence that holding a passport of another nation state such as America, Canada or Australia serves as little protection, and instills the kind of fear that leads to self-censorship.

President Sisi's War on Terror has caused Egypt's prisons to swell, but has also laid the groundwork for the mostly delusional claim that Egypt is on its way to being stabilised, and that Sisi's ongoing rule is necessary to that recovery.

And if recovery looks like a deepening wealth gap, stagnating wages, rising inflation, overflowing prison population, a sprawling and abusive surveillance and security apparatus, and a withdrawal of the social welfare state while neoliberalism is welcomed to parasitically take over the country… then Egypt is a success.

Yet, the counter-argument is always the same; would you rather have had an Islamist government?

This false binary suffocates the civic space - one that was opened up in 2011 and has since been effectively restricted by Sisi's "reforms".

Yet by only allowing one answer, you only allow one option. Any response, apart from the one approved by the state, is labelled by default as terrorism, and fake news.

A week since dad's return to Australia, we're only just beginning to grapple with what we've been through.

On the surface, Egypt remains a country with a rich history and beautiful landscapes; you can still knock back a watery Stella beer at a crumbling bar in downtown, or find yourself on pristine beaches with the wealthy elite holidaying in the North coast.

But look a little closer, and everything is marred by the presence of the state. From security checkpoints, to petty cops, a growing list of blocked websites, to the fear of informants or secret police or "good citizens" who mill about cafés and restaurants listening in on conversations.

Look closer still, and there are the haunting activities of national security, the torture chambers, the bloated prisons serving as graveyards for the living, and the shuffling groups of worn-out women and children waiting to meet their men behind bars.

Thousands have paid the price for Sisi's claim to have secured Egypt. They have had their voices, civil liberties and sometimes lives snatched away.

Curtailing freedom of speech, demonising, or shutting down the press to avoid criticism, arbitrary arrests and enacting repressive policies in the name of security, must be challenged. In times of chaos, protection may seem enticing, but we must remember to ask ourselves, at what cost?

Lamisse Hamouda is a youth worker, writer and human rights advocate. She led the #BringHazemHome campaign for her father's freedom when he was wrongfully imprisoned in Egypt in 2018. After 405 days behind bars, he was released and rejoined his family in Australia. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Lamisse_H

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.