Everybody knows the man by the name of Gilad Shalit. He was a corporal in the Israeli Defense Forces who was abducted by Hamas in June 2006 and was not released until October 2011. During those five years seemingly endless negotiations, frequently permeated with threats by Israeli authorities, lobbying by the International Community, and the mediation of third parties, went on relentlessly in an attempt to reach a deal that would secure Shalit’s safe release.
My political stance on Israel aside, I have to admit that I was impressed by the Israeli government’s persistence in rescuing Shalit and its willingness to offer a few hefty concessions to see this materialize. Shalit was not just treated as a citizen whose natural right is to be protected by his country, but his situation was all the more critical because he was a soldier in the army, a man who would sacrifice his life for his country so his country, in turn, is required to do all what it takes to ensure his safety. Israel considered the abduction of one of its soldiers an attack on its army and, therefore, a direct affront to its dignity. That is why it was ready to take all the possible paths to have him released, for it would not accept to be looked upon as the country that abandons its “boys” even if this costs a drastic change of policy towards groups it has since time immemorial, considered terrorist. What also impressed me, even though it was in a sad way, was the fact that Shalit was exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, some of whom are, according to Israeli authorities, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israeli civilians. There would have never been a more explicit message regarding what an Israeli soldier is worth for his country.
Terrorism and Kebab
Not everybody knows an Egyptian movie by the name Terrorism and Kebab. It tells the story of an average citizen who, fed up with endless bureaucracy and feeling humiliated at his inability to obtain his basic rights as a citizen, seizes a government building and takes some of its employees hostage, thus immediately becoming a terrorist and creating a crisis that necessitates the intervention of security forces who first try negotiations then decide to use force. In one of the scenes, the interior minister holds a microphone and calls upon the hostages not to worry if they are killed while his forces storm the building, for they would become martyrs and their families would get proper compensation. In a scathing critique that the regime, by some miracle, overlooked at the time, the Interior Ministry, presumably in charge of protecting the people, is seen to have a totally a different set of priorities. The police are mainly concerned about its image in front of the public which, it believes, will be severely damaged if it agrees to hold negotiations with the terrorists they are expected to ruthlessly crush. That is why it would give precedence to saving face over saving human lives.
The recent abduction of seven Egyptian officers in the Sinai Peninsula was bound to raise all kinds of questions about the value of the citizen in a regime that is quite similar to its predecessor as far as prioritizing prestige over people is concerned. The only difference this time is that the case involves two parties that do not seem to agree on the way the situation should be handled, even though they both share a conviction that the reputation of the institution is far more important than the life of the citizens. The presidency and the army might not have the same approach, with one opting for almost total inaction and the other threatening too much action, but both mainly aimed to preserve the status they allegedly hold amongst the Egyptian people or in front of the world, God knows what else they were trying to preserve!
Israel considered the abduction of one of its soldiers an attack on its army and, therefore, a direct affront to its dignitySonia Farid
While the president announces he is not to be blackmailed by the kidnappers, which gives the impression the he is not going to respond to their demands, he goes back to say that all options are open and expressed his keenness to protect the lives of both the culprits and the victims, which gives the totally opposite impression; that he is ready to negotiate. He then calls upon opposition factions to join him in a “national dialogue” to discuss ways to deal with the situation, which gives the impression that he is trying to give the impression that he is unable to figure out what to do.
All those impressions aside, the president took no actual steps towards solving the problem whether in favor of the kidnappers or the kidnapped, or both, or neither. Apart from the indifference he has displayed in dealing with Egyptian citizens who can lose their lives any minute and who actually pleaded with him in a video to save them, the president’s reaction raised question marks about his own role in the state of lawlessness that currently prevails in the Sinai where Jihadists are on their way to establishing a state within the state. Questions are being raised over his reluctance to engage in any kind of standoff that would portray militant groups in the peninsula as terrorists in order to avoid antagonizing his ultra-conservative Islamist supporters. In short, by neither negotiating nor taking firm action, the president is leaving the matter entirely to the kidnappers who can choose to kill the hostages or singlehandedly attempt to release their detained fellow-militants, or both. He is indirectly creating the ideal training camp for a thriving paramilitary. Where the safety of Egyptian citizens figure on his agenda and how much of a national disaster he sees in the abduction of police and army officers remain to be known or is, in fact, quite known!
The army is busy settling scores
The army, on the other hand, seems to be too busy settling scores and attempting to prove who the boss is in a country that is for the first time not only ruled by a non-military president, but also by a group that makes no secret of detesting each and every remnant of the former regime’s institutions. Sending officers and armored vehicles into the Sinai portends an escalation that would most likely be detrimental to the hostages without even succeeding in prevailing over the militants. The army is, therefore, embarking on such a quixotic adventure to restore its long-established, yet recently jeopardized, image as the guardian of sovereignty and the protector of the land and to underscore the contrast between its prompt decision to reclaim control over the Sinai and the lackluster response of the Egyptian president, who, together with the Muslim Brotherhood, has been engaged in constant attempts at sidelining military leaders and is even rumored to be gladly watching the generals trapping themselves in a rugged terrain, the nooks and crannies of which they are, unlike their target militants, quite unfamiliar with. Some regime loyalists went as far as hinting that in an attempt to flex its muscles and embarrass the president, the army did orchestrate or at least facilitate the abductions. Regardless of who is swallowing whose bait, it would be quite naïve to assume that the outcome would be in favor of the victims who are now turning into cannon fodder and whose safety has become of minimal significance even for the institutions to which they belong and which are busy tipping the scales in the balance of power.
They say that the degree of a state’s success is measured by the value it bestows on its citizens and the effort it exerts to preserve their lives and dignity. Success is also measured by the citizens’ confidence that the state will never let them down in situations where they require its assistance and/or protection. You don’t have to be taken hostage to decide where you stand as a citizen and/or have your life threatened to understand what kind of a state you pledge allegiance to.
Sonia Farid, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Cairo University. Her writing focuses on politics and security in Egypt, she also has an interest in the social feild. She can be contacted at email@example.com.SHOW MORE