Before Jamal Khashoggi, There Was My Uncle

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This past week marked 29 years since my uncle, Izzat Al-Magariaf, disappeared in Cairo, in circumstances tragically reminiscent of the Jamal Khashoggi case.
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A Libyan dissident, Uncle Izzat resided with his family in Cairo in the 1980’s, as my family and many others seeking refuge from Gaddafi’s persecution did. Sanctuary was afforded to them in Egypt thanks to tenuous relations between the regime of Hosni Mubarak and his hostile neighbor to the west, who Ronald Reagan called the “mad dog of Africa”.  Like many Arab regimes irked by Gaddafi’s regional destabilizing antics, Mubarak initially welcomed Libyan opposition figures. But as relations between the Egyptian and Libyan regimes slowly realigned in the late 1980’s, none of us expected what was to come.

On the evening of March 13th, 1990, Colonel Mohammad Hassan from Egyptian General Intelligence showed up at Uncle Izzat’s flat requesting that he accompanies him for routine questioning.  Uncle Izzat was not alarmed.  He assured his wife and children that he would join them later for dinner at my parents’ home as previously planned.  Earlier in the day, my grandmother had reminded my mother of Uncle Izzat’s favorite meal, fasoolia belkarsha.  Food was cooked, the table was set and we waited. But Uncle Izzat never showed up.

For months, the Egyptian government denied knowledge of my uncle’s whereabouts. In fact, Mubarak’s regime attempted to lure more Libyan dissidents to meet with high-ranking Egyptian officials to “discuss” the matter, but Libyan dissidents recognized the invitation for what it was – a trap to hand them over to Gaddafi’s regime.

Gaddafi with Mubarak, 1990, Tahrir Square, Cairo.
Farouk Ibrahim / AP Photo

From that point on, things changed for diaspora Libyans in Egypt. It was clear that Gaddafi was seeking rapprochement with his neighbors in an effort to insulate his regime – after all, the regime could not withstand both international and regional isolation.  Egypt was a perfect candidate for such rapprochement, as both a regional heavyweight and a hub of Libyan opposition activity.

Mubarak’s regime was happy to oblige. It too sought to put the hostility with Gaddafi to rest, in return for a rewarding collaboration with oil-rich Libya. Libyan opposition members were to be the price. With the stakes so high, many families – including my own – decided to leave Egypt. 

Three years later in 1993, Mubarak’s authorities facilitated the kidnapping of Mansur Al-Kikhia[, another prominent Libyan dissident. Shortly after, letters from my uncle were smuggled out of Gaddafi’s notorious Abu Selim Prison in Tripoli.  The letters didn’t find their way to my family until 2009 though, because the released prisoner who was entrusted with the letters was too afraid to share them with us.  Gaddafi was still ruling Libya with an iron fist, and any communication with diaspora Libyans was looked upon with suspicion by the police state. 

Letters from Behind the Sun

My younger cousins asked me to translate into English for them the newly-received letters from their father.  I sat in my home in Virginia looking at the only remaining written words from Uncle Izzat, words that were intended to reach and comfort us in 1993.  Nothing had changed in the sixteen years between; we still lived in limbo uncertain of what had happened to him. Our unanswered questions remained so.

It was Uncle Izzat’s handwriting. I tried not to think of the difficult circumstances he must have endured as he wrote the letters. His words were brave, hopeful, and even poetic – declaring at the end of one letter to his wife and children: “As for me, I will never forget any of you.  You are of me, and how can I forget myself?” He repeatedly assures us he was in good health and asks that we not be consumed with worry about him. 

In his letters, Uncle Izzat detailed his kidnapping at the hands of Mubarak’s authorities, who promptly handed him over to their Libyan counterparts within hours of taking him – contrary to their assertions to us at the time.

At the time he wrote these letters, Uncle Izzat was detained in one of the most notorious prions in the world. We were on the outside, enjoying freedoms and liberties that he was deprived of.  But reading his letters, we seemed to have switched roles: He was the one providing words of hope, reminding us not to despair. And we were the ones trying not to fall apart thinking of the worst befalling him.  In one letter, he says: “Do not worry about us, for we are in the protection of the Almighty, who never sleeps, and who is closer to us than the blink of an eye.”

Years later, a former guard at Abu Selim Prison told me what befell Uncle Izzat. In April 1996, prison guards informed him that the warden wanted to see him in his office.  My uncle never returned to his cell, and was never seen alive again.   

The uncertainty surrounding the whereabouts of Uncle Izzat haunted my family for nearly three decades.  His youngest son – who was only six weeks old at the time of his father’s kidnapping – is now a twenty nine year old man who has no memories with his father.  Those of us who knew him hold on dearly to what we remember of him.  I remember a tall, impeccably-dressed, kind and good-humored man who filled the room with his presence.

It hurts every time I use the past tense in reference to Uncle Izzat, even as I know that the chances of his survival were next to impossible.  It pains me that there is no grave to visit to recite a few verses of the Quran in remembrance. We were robbed of any sense of closure.

Time but Little Change

It’s 2019, and I wish I can say that things have changed in the Arab world. The brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi reminded us all of what autocrats are capable of doing to eliminate dissidents.  Both Uncle Izzat and Jamal Khashoggi were men born in the Arab world in 1950’s, during a time when post-colonial euphoria was dashed by realities of authoritarian rule and military dictatorships. Both men believed in democratic reforms, accountability, and rule of law.  And both men were targeted and killed.

Had the killing of Khashoggi not been so horribly botched, or had social media not existed, Khashoggi’s case would have been just another case of forced disappearance in the Arab world.  Like Gaddafi, Mohammad bin Salman believes his victims deserve no due process, no mercy, and no dignity in death.  Both regimes expected blind obedience, and punished disobedience with unrelenting brutality. 

For many years, Gaddafi got away with his crimes against Libyans – in fact, after 2003 he was declared fully rehabilitated in the eyes of his western partners. He paid compensation for victims of his terror attacks abroad, but nobody compensated his victims at home. The world didn’t seem to be bothered that Libyans received no justice or closure.

Tony Blair with Gaddafi

Today, human rights continue to be sacrificed for the sake of fragile “stability” under dictatorships. The outrage which accompanied the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi was warranted, but his murder is not an isolated incident.  The avalanche of revelations about Saudi Arabia’s horrendous treatment of reformers and activists in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder put a spotlight on the unpleasant reality characterizing Western foreign policy in the region: That autocrats in the region existed for years because their crimes were normalized by Western enablers eager to solidify business contracts and achieve geopolitical goals, while victims languished in their prison cells. 

So long as this continues, there will be more cases like Izzat al-Magariaf and Jamal Khashoggi.

Asma Yousef is a Libyan American human rights advocate. She earned a master degree from Georgetown university and works as a communications consultant in Washington, DC.