Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 19:07 pm (KSA) 16:07 pm (GMT)

Egypt errs in playing rough at the Rafah border

Daanish Faruqi

Abdullah al-Ghoul was assured a safe voyage into Gaza, his homeland, from Egypt's Rafah border crossing. In order to see his family after three years of involuntarily exile in Egypt, where he is currently completing a degree in film studies, on March 6 Abdullah joined a 60-person delegation into Gaza sponsored by Codepink, in solidarity with Gazan women on International Women's Day. Miraculously, Egyptian authorities deviated from standard protocol and opened the border crossing to our delegates. Abdullah was casually allowed passage into Gaza, after paying an additional 250 Egyptian pounds, with a promise that he'd be granted a safe return to Egypt after completing his visit.

Unfortunately, upon Abdullah's return Egyptian authorities had reneged on their agreement, citing issues with his paperwork. Instructed to seek assistance from Ramallah to straighten out his file, Abdullah was flatly denied entry back into Egypt. His ability to complete his studies, consequently, is currently on hold.

Abdullah's case is frustrating and heart-breaking. After all, it seems spectacularly unfair to be forced to choose between completing one's studies and seeing one's loved ones after years of separation based on border policies. But his denial of entry into Egypt is far more than an isolated personal anecdote. Indeed, it elucidates the utter arbitrariness of Egypt's policy at the Rafah border, and ultimately Egypt's complicity in the humanitarian disaster in Gaza.

The official policy of the Egyptian government at present is that Rafah must remain hermetically sealed, for reasons beyond Egypt's control - notably, the threat of "insurrectionary spillover" from Palestinians pouring into Egypt and radicalizing the Muslim Brotherhood there. But if this were a legitimate concern, and if the Egyptian regime's hands are genuinely tied, then why was our delegation allowed free entry through Rafah without so much as an official peep from the authorities? Sadly, our entrance was allowed primarily in the name of public relations.

Upon learning of our mission to show support for Gazan women, Suzanne Mubarak's Egyptian Red Crescent relief organization quickly facilitated our arrival and safe passage through Rafah. While we certainly appreciate Mrs. Mubarak's identification with our cause, one can't help but wonder whether our alternate plan of staging protests at the border had we been denied entry was factored into her decision. A cadre of protestors at Rafah decrying Egypt's refusal to facilitate support for Gazan women on International Women's Day would have constituted bad PR.

Our admission into Gaza is testament to the fact that the Egyptian authorities have full jurisdiction to open the Rafah border, despite their insistence to the contrary. As such, Egypt is fully complicit in the bottlenecking of humanitarian supplies into Gaza. In Egyptian custody is a stadium full of humanitarian and medical supplies donated from abroad for the people of Gaza, which at present are merely baking in the sun, of no use to anyone. Consequently, undersupplied hospitals in Gaza struggling to care for dying patients, ill-prepared construction outfits lacking the concrete needed to repair damaged structures, and everyday Gazans unable to secure basic cooking gas, indeed have the Egyptian government to blame for their predicament.

What makes the situation particularly frustrating is that the Egyptian government's policy toward Rafah utterly contradicts popular attitudes in Egypt. Upon learning of our mission to support Gazan women, everyday Egyptians fully supported our cause. Merchants insisted on charging us wholesale prices for supplies we purchased, as a token gesture of goodwill. After hearing our press conference in Cairo, the bus company we had commissioned refused to charge us for our journey into Gaza - not even for fuel costs. Egyptians are deeply sympathetic to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which makes the closure of the Rafah border all the more vexing.

Recently, the Egyptian authorities declared a two-day opening at the Rafah crossing to allow students and the sick, currently stuck in Egypt, to make their way back to Gaza. Absent in this announcement was the fate of those like Abdullah who remain stuck on the Gaza side of the crossing. We certainly hope this two-day armistice can allow Abdullah safe passage back into Egypt, but even then, this token gesture does nothing to ensure safe passage of humanitarian supplies under Egyptian stewardship, which is in fact at the heart of the Gazan - and Egyptian - people's present discontents.

For all its gestures in securing peace between Israel and Gaza, Egypt has failed in the one arena over which it has full jurisdiction: control over its own border. If Egypt expects to be taken the slightest bit seriously as an arbiter of justice in the region, it must open the Rafah border immediately.

Daanish Faruqi, senior Egypt liaison to the Washington-based Voices for a Democratic Egypt (www.democraticegypt.org), recently returned from a fact-finding delegation to the Gaza Strip sponsored by Code Pink: Women for Peace. He wrote this commentary for Lebanon's THE DAILY STAR newspaper.

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