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“Why Do Israel’s Bidding?”: Human Rights Advocate Hossam Bahgat Blasts Egypt Policy at Rafah Crossing

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Israel’s seizure of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt has sparked anger from the Egyptian government, which has warned that Israel is endangering the landmark 1978 Camp David Accords that normalized relations between the two countries. Despite the increasingly critical tone about Israel’s war on Gaza, however, Egyptian authorities have closely coordinated with Israel in decisions around allowing humanitarian aid in through the Rafah crossing and allowing Palestinians out of Gaza. Egyptian security forces have also locked up over 120 people in Egypt, placing them in pretrial detention on terrorism charges for expressing solidarity with Palestine. “There is a fear within the system that allowing people to voice support and solidarity with Palestinians’ opposition to Israel will extend not just to criticism of the Egyptians’ official position vis-à-vis the war … but also extend to the domestic situation, the human rights situation, the unprecedented economic crisis the country is going through,” says Egyptian journalist and human rights advocate Hossam Bahgat. He is executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and was banned from traveling outside of Egypt for the past eight years, with his assets frozen, as part of an Egyptian government crackdown on human rights NGOs. In March, Egyptian authorities finally closed the case against EIPR and other human rights groups and lifted the travel ban, allowing Bahgat to join us now in our New York studio.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As we talk about student uprisings here in the United States on university campuses in solidarity with Palestine and against Israel’s war on Gaza, in Egypt, which borders Gaza, students are being imprisoned for being in solidarity with Palestine. Earlier this month, two students were jailed on terrorism charges after they were forcibly disappeared following expressions of solidarity with Palestinians. The two students are just the latest in a wave of arrests targeting protesters and activists in Egypt organizing to show support for Palestine.

We’re now joined by Hossam Bahgat, one of Egypt’s leading human rights advocates, the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, also worked as an investigative journalist for the independent media outlet Mada Masr. He was banned from traveling outside Egypt for the past eight years, his assets were also frozen, as part of an Egyptian government crackdown on human rights NGOs. In March, Egyptian authorities finally closed the case against his group and other human rights groups and lifted the travel ban. Hossam Bahgat joins us now in our New York studio.

It’s great to see you here in the United States. I last saw you in Sharm el-Sheikh at the U.N. climate summit. You could go there, because Sharm el-Sheikh is in Egypt, but you couldn’t travel outside. Can you talk about the latest news? Now Israel has taken over the Rafah border with Egypt, but the students, Egyptian students who were protesting, being disappeared by the Egyptian government.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Thank you, Amy. It’s good to be back here. It’s good to see you again.

We see, of course, the arrests of these two students in a broader context of a crackdown that started, really, as early as October, the first month of the war, on pro-Palestinian voices. My organization has documented since then over 120 arrests in a number of different governorates throughout the country. All of them were presented to state security prosecution, were charged under the terrorism law of belonging to illegal organizations and spreading false information, the vast majority of them for having participated in spontaneous or preplanned protests to really stand, to chant for Palestine, against the war.

But some of them were arrested even for perfectly legal acts, even by the standards of Egypt’s very repressive laws, like hanging banners, for instance, or writing social media posts, because the broader context, even beyond this war, of course, is one where, you know, for the last 10 years — as you know, one of President Sisi’s first acts upon coming to power was to pass a very repressive anti-protest law that brought the number of demonstrations in Egypt down to zero. And, of course, there is a fear within the system that allowing people to voice support and solidarity with Palestinians, opposition to Israel, will extend not just to criticism of the Egyptians’ official position vis-à-vis the war, that many Egyptians feel has been inadequate, to put it very mildly, but also extend to the domestic situation, the human rights situation, the unprecedented economic crisis the country is going through. And that volatility, that fragility, of course, is what has led to these arrests.

And of the 120, we know of at least 93 individuals that are currently sitting in prison, in pretrial detention, of course, in perpetuity, for joining pro-Palestinian protests in Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about Egypt’s role in the siege of Gaza since October 7th?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Since October 7th, Egypt has done one thing right, which is, of course, to speak out and stand against the ideas, the plans, the very real possibilities of the forced displacement of the people of Gaza into Sinai, into Egypt. And we and many others supported this Egyptian position. However, at the same time, we felt that, you know, you can do that and at the same time fulfill Egypt’s legal obligations under international law, but also as a neighboring country, but also as Egypt — you know, this is Palestine, right? — but, more importantly, in the interest of Egypt’s national security concerns, that Egypt should have done so much more.

So, what we saw from the very beginning is that in order for the Egyptian government to preserve this red line of no displacement of Gazans into Sinai and prevent the reoccupation of Gaza, Egypt has basically accepted every term that Israel imposed on it, and to a degree, really, of actual collusion. I don’t want to say “complicity.” And that included, of course, giving Israelis complete control on the vetting of who comes out of Gaza, even the humanitarian cases, even the foreign citizens, the binationals, the international organization staff. Even Egyptians stranded in Gaza trying to come home, run away from the war, the Egyptians still sent their names to COGAT, the Israeli military occupation forces, for prior vetting.

Egypt has denied access into Gaza to the international media, to Egyptian media, to human rights investigators. They have not been allowed by the Egyptian side. And when I say this, of course, I know that Egypt is only in charge of the Egyptian side of the border. But, you know, why do Israel’s bidding by denying them, you know, at the Egyptian side? I mean, let them go in, and let Israel deal with them or turn them back or block access, or maybe they would be allowed. Our participation in the mechanism of the so-called inspection of humanitarian aid, accepting the entire Israeli operation, that has really led to this man-made famine situation we are in right now.

All of this, I mean, if you add to it, of course, the very muted, reserved statements and tone of the Egyptian government, and then confining Egypt to a role of a mediator between the parties, everyone — and we launched a petition, you know, again, as early as October 19th — Egyptian activists, political opponents, journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, political parties — all calling on Egypt, not just on human rights, humanitarian, basic humanity tenets, but also in Egypt’s national interest, to really scale up its response; lead a global coalition to isolate Israel if it refuses to abide by international law and accept a ceasefire; you know, recall the Egyptian ambassador to Israel, which hasn’t happened yet; end not the peace treaty, but at least the unprecedented levels of not just the security and defense cooperation, but trade and investment, the natural gas imports that we get from Gaza. There are so many things that the Egyptian regime could and should have done as early on.

I mean, right now, of course, because after seven months and after Egypt, official Egypt, has done everything to please Israel and the United States, in the naive hope that this would make them too embarrassed to — you know, the Israelis, to come into Rafah and to threaten the displacement, now the one thing that Egypt asked for in return is not guaranteed, which is why we see now, finally, Egypt taking moves like refusing to cooperate with Israel on access of humanitarian aid and coordination, and deciding — or, announcing its intention to join South Africa’s genocide case at the ICJ when it comes to the merits phase.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about that before we end. As a leading human rights advocate, what do these cases at the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court mean to you, with Egypt saying they’re joining South Africa in its genocide case against Israel at the ICJ?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Egypt’s decision is welcome, but these cases are about much more than this. These cases are about, really, you know, our movement refusing to just take this hit to the project of human rights, the ideal of human rights, that is caused by the complicity of governments like the United States and Germany and the utter and public disregard for international law and accountability. We need to make sure that we reclaim these institutions, that we don’t just give up on this and say, you know, international law, international justice, accountability don’t exist.

And, you know, all of us are involved in this effort. It’s not just South Africa in the ICJ. It is the students here in this country, that were just on this show, and what they’re doing. Our organization joined the Center for Constitutional Rights here in the United States in a lawsuit charging Biden, Blinken and Austin with aiding and abetting genocide, before a federal court on behalf of Palestinian organizations and Palestinian American citizens. What Jewish Voices for Peace are doing, what the Palestinian, of course, organizations and groups like Law for Palestine are doing.

We cannot really take this lying down and say, “OK, human rights was a lie. You know, hypocrisy wins. You know, there is no room for international law and international justice.” We rise, we fight, and we reclaim these institutions and reclaim these ideals and occupy these spaces.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have Egypt saying they’re joining the genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, and yet they are participating in blocking the aid that’s leading to what is called a full-blown famine.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: I want to be clear that Egypt is not blocking the aid, but by accepting the Israeli conditions for at least the first seven months on the access of aid on the so-called inspection of the aid, when people, including — you know, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen went to Rafah with Senator Merkley and saw what happened, and came back and said these are not inspections, and Egypt is not inclusion.

But what I’m saying is, right now since, Netanyahu broke his promise and went into Rafah and is now threatening to really reoccupy the border area, Egypt has finally decided to stop cooperation, collaboration, really, with these Israeli measures and restrictions that have led to the famine. We are saying that this is too late, too little, and not nearly enough, but, more importantly, it should have happened seven months ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Hossam Bahgat, I want to let people know that just as we’re ending this broadcast, the International Court of Justice is going to announce their decision on emergency case around South Africa’s case against genocide against Israel. We will post online your response at Hossam Bahgat is Egyptian human rights activist, founder and executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, EIPR, in Cairo, just out of Egypt after an eight-year travel ban on him. That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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