Two weeks ago today the Egyptian guards refused to let me pass through the Rafah border into Gaza, Palestine. They gave me multiple, ambiguous reasons. That particular tale is here.
So I returned to Cairo to find some answers.
I pressed and pressed and pressed to meet with President Morsi’s new Ombudsman. Surely he would help me. The Presidential staff, although friendly-enough, were very good at deflecting me. Finally, I received a call from the Deputy Minister of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is also an Ambassador.
Ambassador El-Adawy wanted to hear my story. Although his responsibility is typically focused on helping Egyptian citizens with their issues overseas, the office of the President had called him and asked him to help me.
I explained that I live and work in Gaza and was not allowed to return, despite having all the paperwork and approvals I thought I needed. While I sat in his office, the Ambassador called the Palestinian Ambassador in Cairo and explained my situation. The Palestinian Ambassador said that Gaza approved my travel, so there was no hang-up on the Palestinian side of the border, maybe it was the American Embassy.
I asked, “What authority does the United States have over the border between Gaza and Egypt?” He smiled and said “Gaza might be a special case. Go to the U.S. Embassy and talk with them. Then please come back and tell me what they said so my office is informed about the border crossing procedure.”
As luck would have it, the second anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution intervened. Protests, demonstrations and violence in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt broke out on Friday, January 25.
I walked to the US Embassy one day and found it was closed because of the unrest. I called the Embassy to make an appointment and learned the first available appointment was two weeks away. I called the emergency line and told them I needed to speak with someone right away. My name was put on a list for the following day. Called the next morning to learn the Embassy was closed again.
One delay after another, my patience was wearing thin.
But today I finally stood across the counter from a US Embassy staff person. (I’m going to share the whole saga of this morning’s visit in another post.)
We were divided by bullet-proof plexi-glass as she spoke through a headset with speakers blaring our conversation out to everyone. Don’t expect any privacy if you have an appointment at the US Embassy in Cairo.
I explained my business, she passed a form through the slot to me and said, “You need a notarized affidavit to present to the border guards. Go pay $50 USD and when you return, I will give it to you.” I was expecting that routine because I had paid the $50 USD in August 2011 when I first attempted to travel to Gaza.
I pressed her for more information. “I didn’t need an affidavit when I traveled across the border in September 2012, what has changed?” “I’d like to see the border crossing procedures in writing.” “Why does the US get involved in the border crossing of another country?” I peppered her with many questions. She deflected most of them with non-answers.
Finally, I was about to pay the $50 USD when someone behind the clerk mumbled, “We aren’t doing that anymore.”
Turns out that the US Embassy sent a notice to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on January 29 (LAST WEEK!) informing them that the US Embassy is no longer providing affidavits to their citizens for crossing into Gaza. I asked for a copy of this notice but after consulting with her supervisor, she told me that it is “government-to-government communication” and so she couldn’t share it with me.
Her supervisor came out to talk with me, and I peppered her with more questions.
“No, we don’t have any agreements with the Egyptians or Israel about the Rafah border crossing.”
“No, we don’t keep tabs on who is crossing; we have no way to monitor that border.” (Yeah, right!)
“We decided unilaterally to discontinue the practice of giving our citizens affidavits because neither Canada nor the UK do it for their citizens, so we didn’t think it was fair that Americans had to go through that process.” (Implying that it was not a process the US had originally concocted.)
“The Rafah border is an issue for Egypt to deal with; it’s a sovereignty issue that we won’t get involved in.”
She couldn’t give me anything in writing, and advised me to return to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss the border-crossing procedures with them. (It only took 2 weeks and 3+ hours in a line today to learn that information.)
I walked across the street to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ambassador and his assistant are very friendly and very accessible. We talked about the next step, and that’s when all hell broke loose.
Yelling, shouting, explosions, tear gas outside the window. The demonstrators had returned and were protesting the killing of one of their groups whose funeral was today.
We watched all of the action on the street below from the second story window until the blasts occurred. Then we were warned to stand away from the window. Someone brought us masks for our faces. And the Ambassador said he would take me and three other women in the office away from the turmoil in his official vehicle.
I’ve met a lot of official bureacrats in the past, but Ambassador Maher El-Adawy gets my vote for being the most thoughtful, intelligent, sincerely caring diplomat in the world. Egyptians are very lucky.