Egypt Has a Right to Lash Out at Saudi Arabia

A protester waves the Egyptian flag as others walk on a wall, built a few weeks ago to stop clashes between security forces and protesters, near Tahrir square in Cairo 13 April 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Asmaa Waguih)

By: Joseph Mayton

Published Friday, April 27, 2012

Egyptian activists and social networking sites are ablaze with anger toward Saudi Arabia after the jailing of Egyptian human rights lawyer Ahmed el-Gizawi. And they have a right to be. After years of frustration, ill-will, and constant reports of abuse directed at Egyptian workers in the oil-rich kingdom, activists have said enough is enough.

Gizawi, who flew to Saudi Arabia to take part in the Umrah pilgrimage, was arrested upon arrival on April 17. Officials allegedly found more than 20,000 Xanax – anti-anxiety pills – hidden in his luggage, according to a statement from the Saudi Embassy.

Gizawi was fighting for Egyptian workers in Saudi Arabia, and had recently filed cases against the Saudi government over its refusal to take action to end the horrific conditions of Egyptian workers in the ultra-conservative kingdom. That topic has engendered anger among human rights workers, labor activists, and social commentators in Egypt for the past few years.

About 1.7 million Egyptians work in Saudi Arabia, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). The global labor monitoring organization has repeatedly reported on the abuse of workers in the country.

One of the most well-known cases involved an Egyptian doctor in 2010, who was accused of causing the death of a Saudi citizen while on the job. Fady Samuel Bannon Bishay’s case sparked major concerns over workers in the Gulf country and the plight of Egyptians there. Bishay denied the charges, saying he was wrongfully charged by a Saudi royal, but was still sentenced to jail for his alleged crimes.

Gizawi case is now the one that has got the ball rolling. Many Egyptians, especially activists, are even further enraged by the blatant lies being spread by the country’s officials – supported by the Egyptian ambassador to Saudi Arabia – accusing Gizawi of being a drug smuggler.

Any reasonable observer can see the holes in this argument. The weight of a bag carrying that much medicine would be enormous. Activists even calculated the expected weight of 20,000 pills to be much higher than the allotted weight permitted on a flight.

On top of this, Gizawi’s wife has publicly stated on Egyptian national television that her husband was arrested before his bag had even been searched. If Saudi officials are not lying, then she must be.

The incident has sparked protests at the Saudi Arabian Embassy, where on Wednesday hundreds poured into the street out front, demanding Gizawi’s release. “We know him. He’s a respectable lawyer, his wife’s a successful doctor. He would never do something like this. It’s crazy!” roared a friend of Gizawi in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy.

“Our revolution is like an infection. The monarchy is afraid and it’s trying to prevent a revolution there by repressing any criticism against the regime,” uttered another activist asserting they will continue to protest.

In many ways, the outrage, which has also been directed at Saudi citizens through Twitter hashtags such as “the fascist kingdom”, may have been a surprise to many who are not familiar with the dislike a lot Egyptians feel toward their Saudi neighbors.

Egyptian activists wrote on social websites that Gizawi’s arrest is an obvious and “naive” attempt from Saudi Arabia to silence one of its opposition figures in Egypt.

While the anger is understandable, attacking Saudi citizens for the ills of their government is counterproductive. Activists should focus their outrage toward the government and the powers who have arrested Gizawi and permitted the abuse of Egyptian workers to continue. This would allow for allies among the Saudi people to emerge that could assist in releasing Gizawi and help to reduce, and ultimately end, the dangers associated with working in the kingdom.

Adding to the frustration is the abuse of money that often arrives with the plane loads of Saudi tourists who come to Egypt in the summer months. Many Egyptians I have spoken with over the past decade have complained that wealthy Saudi visitors to Cairo drive flat prices up and use their wealth to get “special treatment”. They also claim rich Saudi men are actively driving sex work in the country.

According to a tourism operator, nightclubs will hire young women and girls and then often force them to work as prostitutes for their Gulfi clients. He said that at the hotels, including five-star hotels in Cairo, “there are dozens of call girls waiting and prepared to be an escort for the night, or the entire time the Saudi men are here.”

The overall image of Saudis among many Egyptians has already been tainted due to the perceived ills Saudi tourists bring to their country. Add this into the current debacle and the arrest of Gizawi appears to have been the spark that enraged Egypt’s vibrant online community, so effective during the country’s uprising that toppled Mubarak in 2011. Activists have announced their refusal to accept anything less than the release of their new hero and the removal of the ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who has been referred to as corrupt and a Saudi puppet by Egyptian workers living in the country.

This is partly an extension of the 18-day uprising of January 2011. The Egyptian psyche has changed. Online Egyptians are fighting against corruption across borders, attempting to hold their own government responsible for the well-being of their citizens abroad, and more importantly, taking ownership over matters they perceive as infringing on Egyptian dignity. And it is no longer a one-off expression of frustration, but a concerted effort for change.

It is a development that should not be dismissed as a simple outburst. With thousands of Egyptian workers living in appalling conditions, the lying of Saudi officials, and the arrest of a lawyer who only recently filed cases against Riyadh for its abhorrent disregard for the concern of foreign workers – namely Egyptian – on its soil, Egyptians are taking their honor seriously.

It is in the defense of Egyptian honor that we see anger rise once again. Egyptians will continue to press for justice. The Saudi leadership should be aware that their continued dismissal of Egyptian discontent over its treatment of compatriots in the kingdom might in the near future come at a cost. Gizawi, while he may not have intended to, has changed how Egyptians deal with foreign governments in the region. The era where Arab despots entertained one another, oblivious to the masses, is over, at least in Egypt.

Joseph Mayton is the founder and Editor-in-Chief at Egypt's Bikyamasr.com and can be followed on Twitter @jmayton

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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