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Céline Lebrun-Shaath: ‘Ramy’s arrest is an attack on solidarity with Palestine’

December 20, 2019 at 1:19 pm

Céline Lebrun-Shaath and Ramy Shaath [CelineLS/Twitter]

When former Egyptian MP Ziad Al-Alimi was arrested by security forces, Ramy Shaath told his wife that of the coalition of activists that organised the 2011 protests against Hosni Mubarak, he was one of the last remaining.

Ten days later it was his turn.

At 12.45am on 5 July 2019, Céline Lebrun-Shaath was returning home when she saw security forces had surrounded the building where she shared a flat with her husband.

Upstairs the door was wide open and she could hear her husband asking them for a warrant – Why are you here? What do you want? he asked, but they refused to answer.

“I asked for the right to call my consulate,” says Céline. “They replied, since you want to call your consulate, we have the right as a state to deport you, you have ten minutes to pack a bag and we will take you to the airport.”

They took us downstairs, put him in a van and me in another one. Since then I haven’t seen my husband. It’s been more than five months now.

As an Egyptian-Palestinian activist who has dedicated his life to fighting for Palestinian rights, it’s fitting that Céline met Ramy on a humanitarian convoy headed to Gaza during the 2014 Israeli bombardment on the Strip.

Ramy is a former consultant to the late Yasser Arafat and in the nineties was part of negotiations to secure an independent Palestinian state.

In 2015 he co-founded and co-ordinated the BDS movement in Egypt, which under his leadership secured a victory when its campaign for Orange to end its partnership with the Israeli telecommunications company Partners Communication was successful.

READ: Prominent anti-regime Egyptian journalist visits Palestine

His activism has long provoked the fury of Egyptian authorities – seven years ago they refused to renew his passport on the grounds that he was Palestinian and not Egyptian.

Ramy sued the Ministry of Interior, won the case and the judge ordered that his Egyptian passport be renewed. But the Interior Ministry appealed and are still trying to strip him of his nationality.

Ramy is the first to be targeted over his solidarity with Palestine, but not the last. In September one of his colleagues Mohamed El-Massry, a member of the boycott movement and the Strong Egypt Party, was arrested and forcibly disappeared for several weeks.

“Ninety per cent of [Mohamed’s] interrogation was about BDS,” Céline says.

When two months later a football fan was arrested for raising the Palestinian flag during a match at Cairo International Stadium it was clear that the authority’s patience with Palestinian solidarity had reached zero.

“We are seeing an attack on BDS through its general coordinator and another member, and also on solidarity with Palestine,” says Céline.

“To my knowledge, solidarity with Palestine was always something that was tolerated by all the different Egyptian governments, I mean even in times of repression. But it seems this is no longer the case.”

Military coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi in Egypt- Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

Military coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi in Egypt- Cartoon [Carlos Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

Since President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi came to power on the back of the 2013 coup, relations between Egypt and Israel have significantly warmed, symbolised by the Egyptian government’s decision to transfer the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, which opened up the Straits of Tiran to Israel.

Under a $15 billion deal, Egypt will begin importing gas from Israel imminently, whilst a joint air campaign carried out by the Egyptian and Israeli army in the Sinai Peninsula has become an open secret.

To justify increasing security cooperation between the traditional foes, the pro-regime press has ramped up animosity towards Palestinians, including peddling the charge that Ramy was using embezzled Palestinian money to finance terror groups.

Following the family’s statement denouncing Ramy’s arrest, state-run media started a smear campaign against him, alleging he was only Palestinian and that he allied with the Muslim Brotherhood after failing to obtain Egyptian nationality.

Ramy is currently accused of assisting a terror group as part of the Alliance of Hope, but his arrest is actually part of a wider geopolitical struggle between the Egyptian and the Palestinian governments who fell out over Egypt’s participation in a June conference in Bahrain.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said his government would boycott the Manama workshop and its promise to unveil the economic component of the US proposed, so-called “deal of the century”.

Amid calls across the region that Arab participation amounted to normalisation with Israel, Ramy openly criticised Egypt’s decision to send a delegation. He also vocally opposed US President Donald Trump’s peace plan.

Ramy is the son of the former acting Palestinian Prime Minister Nabil Shaath, who is now Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ adviser for foreign affairs and international relations.

The PA has been involved in negotiations to secure Ramy’s release and in July sent an envoy to Cairo to this end. Despite his father receiving promises Ramy would be released within days, he was not.

When they realised behind the scenes diplomatic efforts were not working, the family went public with his arrest. Nabil, now 82, even went himself to visit a month and a half ago after his daughter, Ramy’s sister, had a heart attack which doctors confirmed was from the high level of stress.

But when Nabil tried to return so he could attend his son’s pretrial hearing, his request was refused.

“It is an issue, and how big is it going to become I don’t know but it is an issue,” says Céline.

“You can’t jail the coordinator of the BDS movement in Egypt who advocates for Palestinian rights and expect your relations with the Palestinian authorities to be great. I mean this should come at a cost.”

Ramy is allowed visitors in a private room once a week for 20 minutes. For the duration of the visit, a member of the prison authorities sits and takes notes about what is being said.

Ramy shares his 25 square metre cell with 18 other prisoners who cook and sleep in the same small space. As winter approaches it’s becoming more and more difficult to sleep on the floor as they are not allowed blankets. If they want to shower, it’s with cold water.

As it stands, Ramy’s family is asking for his immediate and unconditional release. A number of political prisoners have been let out on probation, which means they have to spend a certain number of hours every day in the police station. Another fear is that he may be banned from travelling.

Céline has spoken to Ramy once since that night they were bundled into separate vans, a five-minute call on speakerphone from the prosecutor’s office.

“I haven’t seen him and obviously this is very tough on both of us,” says Céline. “So, it’s a way to some kind of torture or punishment for him and for me.”

In a meeting at the Egyptian embassy, with a representative of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs who was supporting her request, Céline asked if she can go back to Egypt, where she lived and worked as a researcher and teacher for seven years, so she can be close to and visit her husband.

READ: 10 women begin open-ended hunger strike in Egypt’s Qanater prison

“That was two months ago. So far we haven’t received any answer.”

Céline was told in July that she has been blacklisted from the country despite not being given an official legal reason as to why she was deported in the first place.

While she waits to hear back, Céline has dedicated her life to campaigning for her husband: “This has become my 24/7 job and I’m not going to stop until Ramy’s released.”

“I’m determined to continue and I have the chance to be surrounded by friends and supporters and I’m not alone and together we’re going to keep fighting for Ramy’s release, for Mohamed El-Massry, and the other human rights defenders that are being detained.”