Monday, January 18, 2010

The Nag Hammadi story: arresting citizenship

The Nag Hammadi story: arresting citizenship
By: Dalia Ziada

Last Friday, January 15th, was “negatively” a special one for Egyptian blogsphere and civil society. But who says that the whole month of January and probably the whole year is not!

By the end of the first week of January, Egyptian Christians were celebrating Christmas in Catholic churches all over Egypt as usual. Hamam, a blood thirsty murderer, who apparently was paid by fanatics, was waiting at the doors of the Nag Hammadi Archbishopric with a hidden gun, which he started using in cold blood as soon as people came out of the Archbishopric after finishing their celebration. He killed six people before he ran away.

Handling the reactions to the horrible incident varied greatly between state representatives, opposition leaders, civil society organizations, bloggers and religious scholars. Yet, every one agreed on the importance of emphasizing citizenship.

Over the following week, representatives of reputable religious institutions such as the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and Minister of Awqaf; TV and Cinema stars; respectable public figures, and government officials traveled to Nag Hammadi to console the families of the victims and help in cooling down the anger of the Coptic community there. Bloggers, civil rights and political young activists wanted to do something too.

Mostafa al-Naggar, a dentist, blogger and dedicated human rights activist took the initiative of inviting fellow bloggers and activists to making a trip to Nag Hammadi on the following Friday, Janaury 15. He contacted the mayor of the city and some officials at the Archbishopric and took their permission. They were very responsive and cooperative. They organized meetings and a reception for the activists with the families of victims and were ready to receive them.

In a private thread on Facebook the activists agreed on everything, starting from booking tickets on a Thursday night train up to the schedule of their trip, the cost of their lunch, the style of their dress, etc. Everyone involved was very excited that they would have an opportunity to show solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Nag Hammadi. The group, which included about 20 Egyptian young people from different religious backgrounds and political affiliations (e.g. Wael Abbass, Basem Fathi, Esraa Abdel Fattah, and Ismael El-Iskandrany in addition to a French female activist) came together for one purpose: emphasizing religious freedom and citizenship rights in a practical on-the-ground action. I was one of the group, but unfortunately – or maybe luckily, I had to apologize on Wednesday for some personal reasons and excuse myself from the journey!

On Friday morning at 8 am, I first opened my eyes to an SMS from Naggar saying “We arrested now in Nag Hammadi!” I tried to call him in vain. His mobile was off. According to the private thread for organizing the trip on Facebook, I expected that they were taken once they arrived. I sent a group SMS to everyone I know, I posted the news on Twitter and Facebook to spread the word in an attempt to get them some help. One hour later, I called the governor, but it seemed that he was not even aware of the issue. “I will check it out and reply back to you,” he said. As expected, I did not hear him at all after that.

The reaction of civil society was great. Hisham Mubarak Law Center, Elgabha Party, el-Ghad Party, among others, sent their lawyers to support the arrested activists. Osama Elghazaly Harb, head of el-Gabha Party, and George Ishaq, from Kefaya Movement traveled to Nag Hammadi and contacted top officials there to pressure the security forces to release the activists.

Later on, we learned that the activists were put in two police trucks, boys and girls separately, after forcibly giving away their ID Cards and mobile phones to policemen. Then, they were taken to First Police Station of Nag Hammadi. Then, they were taken to the Security Directorate of Qena. There, the activists spent their whole day.

A colleague and blogger, Mohamed Atef, who lives in Upper Egypt – close to the arrested activists – called the head of security in Qena, who threatened him “If you do not shut up, I will let you go with them!” Two hours later, Mohamed Atef got arrested at Sohag Train Station! They released him a few hours later, though.

The security told the lawyers that they would release the activists after Friday Prayer, i.e. around 1:00 pm. Then, they said the activists would be released at 6:00pm to catch the 7:00 pm train returning to Cairo. Late at night, around 10:30 pm, the lawyers knew that the activists were sent to the Prosecutor’s Office to interrogate them about claims of “rioting and illegal assembly!” Ironically, they did not even have chance to get into the city, because they were arrested as soon as they stepped out of the train!

The interrogations continued into the next morning. Then, at around 3:20 pm on Saturday, I received a phone call from Naggar saying that they were released. “They released all of us. They gave us our mobile phones and we are waiting to know how we will be transported to Cairo.” Naggar, who sounded very exhausted and tired told me on phone. “We did not sleep in two days. Some of the girls were taken to hospital yesterday. But thanks God, we’re all fine now,” he added.

No one can explain this contradiction in the actions of security forces in Nag Hammadi. They have already allowed state figures and officials to visit the city. Why they should worry about a dozen of young Egyptian activists, who believed the daily claims of equality and citizenship by the government, and decided to show solidarity to their homeland partners! Security forces should have accompanied them during their trip to facilitate it for them and ensure their security rather than arresting them and keeping them in custody without food or blankets for more than 34 hours!