It’s a story that could have been written by Lewis Carroll. Or Franz Kafka.
Five months after spending 558 punishing days in detention in Egypt, Canadian resident Khaled Al-Qazzaz is still in Cairo awaiting return to Canada with his wife, Sarah Attia, and their four young children.
“Our lawyers are trying to figure out why we’re being held here,” said Canadian-born Attia. “Khaled’s health isn’t good and he’s living on painkillers. Nobody has given us any explanation.”
The family was abruptly stopped at the Cairo airport in April as they tried to board a plane for Toronto. Al-Qazzaz, who was swept up in a wave of arrests following the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, had been detained without charge. After release he was told that he was not under a travel ban.
But the airport security officials who held the family overnight for seven hours without explanation, took apart their luggage and confiscated Al-Qazzaz’s Egyptian passport and the money that was to be used for his surgery and hospital expenses in Toronto. He suffers from serious and painful neck and back injuries aggravated by his time in jail.
Before the ill-fated attempt to leave, the couple got clearance from Egyptian officials in ministries involved in his case. All gave the green light for his departure. But at the airport he was told that he had no permission to leave.
In Egypt, a virtual police state under President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, Al-Qazzaz cannot go out on the streets without his passport for fear of being detained at a checkpoint and rearrested.
“He has to stay indoors, but he’s working on finishing his PhD,” said Attia in a phone interview. Her husband walks with difficulty, but it is risky for him even to attend medical appointments.
Since Al-Qazzaz’s release, Morsi was handed a widely decried death sentence by the Egyptian court. Human rights groups have protested Egypt’s growing authoritarianism, including lengthy detentions, draconian sentences, abuse of prisoners and unfair mass trials.
While awaiting return to Canada, Attia, a former principal of an international school, cannot look for a job and the children, aged 4 to 8, can’t go to school. With the money still missing, and no certain date for departure, they are staying with relatives and their finances are running low. Meanwhile the surgery and hospital stay that had been booked for Al-Qazzaz in Toronto in mid-April, is also on hold.
“We are just in limbo,” said Attia. “Nobody has given us any answers.”