Five months in an Egyptian jail gives a person a lot of time to think. When you are not pacing or trying to catch an hour of afternoon sun through the barred window, there are thoughts of home, family, the freedoms Westerners take for granted, what exactly got you into the mess and even why you came to the country that locked you up. Two months after my release, as I watch news of the Egyptian military’s violent suppression of protests and raids on nongovernmental organizations, I still think of my first hours of arrest, when I was handcuffed and blindfolded.
When I went to Egypt to spend the summer working at a nongovernmental organization that provides legal assistance to asylum seekers from Sudan and Iraq, I was no stranger to the Middle East. I had studied Arabic in Cairo and spent more than two years in the Israel Defense Forces. I hoped that my summer would prove that my Zionist ideals could coexist with support for the right of human migration and sanctuary. I also hoped to convince the Arabs I met that my Zionism did not have to be antithetical to their interests and that we could work together for peace.
But in post-revolutionary Egypt, my attempts to educate and interact with the local population led to my arrest, to solitary confinement and eventually to the threat of five simultaneous life imprisonments for “espionage” and “incitement.”
On previous visits, the friendships I developed overpowered the omnipresent anti-Israel propaganda of the Arab world. Some former adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood actually wished me luck when I left to do reserve duty in Israel. Most Egyptians I met and chatted with over coffee ended our conversations by admitting to holding misconceptions about Israelis. This reinforced my hopes for common ground.
So during the summer I emphasized my Israeli background, even when I entered Egypt as an American. I identified as a Zionist Israeli to all of my Egyptian friends, taught them Hebrew and showed them Israeli movies. In return, I received lessons in Arabic, Islam and Egyptian culture.
Some who do not know me considered my actions peculiar or harmful. But that condemnation only underscores a particular abyss into which the Middle East conflict has descended since once-influential Zionists and Egyptians considered cooperation to be beneficial, as did the early Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and Dawood Barakat, the former editor of the Egyptian daily al-Ahram.
On June 12, two dozen state security officials barged into my hostel room, handcuffed and blindfolded me, and transported me to their general prosecutor.
People ask, “Were you scared?” I was terrified and confused. Over time I also became angry and lonely. The initial 14 days were the “best” part of my imprisonment because there was at least human interaction. The prosecutor and I bantered about politics, religion and the Middle East conflict. The conversations were jovial, mostly innocuous, save for some random accusations: “Security reports inform us that you were smuggling weapons from Libyan revolutionaries into Egypt,” or my favorite — but perhaps irrelevant — charge: “Ilan, you used your seductive powers to recruit Egyptian women and that is a crime.”
After these first two weeks, the interrogations ended, but my detention continued. Thus began my solitary confinement, which became the true ordeal — near-complete isolation, interrupted just twice a month by consular visits that lasted only 40 minutes. But thanks to the work of so many U.S. and Israeli government officials, I was not lost in the system. My parents and U.S. officials got me books, which I read slowly because I did not know whether I would get more or how long I would be jailed.
People ask, “Were you tortured?” I was not beaten — but consider what it’s like to spend nearly 150 days (3,600 hours) alone in a 10-by-10 room with a bed and chair, a small barred window and no idea what would come next.
People ask, “So what do you think of Egypt and your mission now?” My answer is constantly evolving. As my detention and recent events and repressions in Egypt make clear, the revolution brought only superficial change. The junta’s focus on external actors represents a desperate attempt to avoid culpability and abdication of power.
Hosni Mubarak’s notorious state security forces still arbitrarily arrest Egyptians without real charges or trials (as they did me), denying anything resembling due process. Prosecutors and judges go through the motions of court proceedings, but the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces really calls the shots.
Was my trip reckless or “wrong”? No. Despite the peril, the U.S. government sends Peace Corps volunteers to volatile regions because of the benefit of grass-roots diplomacy. Hasbara, the Hebrew term that refers to efforts to explain the Israeli viewpoint, has much to gain from such a strategy, given the pernicious myths about Israel and Jews prevalent in much of the Arab world.
My hasbara provided a viewpoint that changed the mentalities of former Muslim Brotherhood members, the prosecutor and my guards, whose last words were “Shalom, we hope you forgive us.” Israelis and Arabs can continue to maintain the status quo of mutual avoidance or they can dare to coexist. To those who wrongly held me, I say simply, I forgive you.
The writer is a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen and law student at Emory University. He was held in Egypt from June to late October on charges of spying.