A year of departures
 
 
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“I had dinner with the revolution last night,” a journalist says of a recent trip to New York. At the table were a graduate student, three human rights defenders, two journalists and an analyst who were all once at the forefront of political mobilizations in Cairo.

They were reunited that day: those who had fled for fear of arrest, those returning to study, and those opting to work abroad.

“In my mind, Egypt is becoming more and more this place where one is at the mercy of a rabid cyborg state and the citizens that cheer it,” says Motaz Atalla, writer, comedian and education activist. Atalla worked at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) before leaving to the United States in December 2013.

The crackdown on those associated with, or even suspected of sympathy with, the Muslim Brotherhood, the jailing of oppositional figures and journalists, restrictive legislation and threats to human rights organizations and NGOs, have driven many to leave or consider leaving.

Not all those who depart, however, isolate themselves and choose silence. This is one of the accusations levied against those leaving, just as practicing dissent from overseas is sometimes seen as an act of fear.

For some of those leaving, their decision holds permanence, with commitments to work or study overseas, or in a clear stance against the regime that would render their return impossible. For others, their departure is an “interim, precautionary measure,” as a recently departed human rights worker said. She wasn’t ready to publicly talk about her experience of leaving yet and hopes to return as soon as possible.

This wave of departures has touched activists, journalists, human rights workers, academics, students and artists, although those who are actually able to leave are mostly those with contacts, opportunities abroad, notoriety or wealth.

There has been a backlash against some decisions by individuals to depart. A number of voices in Egyptian media and state security have attempted to defame their reputations, with a barrage of accusations and moral slurs, from espionage and stories of foreign conspiracies, to perceived debauchery and immoral behavior.

Even among the shrinking community of dissidents, there is some criticism of those who have left, for choosing to “run away” from the hardship of an oppositional stance in Egypt today.

Singer-songwriter Ramy Essam, who was once dubbed “the singer of the revolution,” and who was denied permission to leave Egypt several times over the last year, eventually left in September to take up an offer from the city of Malmö, Sweden, as a musician in residence for two years. Essam has been trying to counter media rumors that he is seeking asylum in Europe.

“During my last days in Egypt, it was very hard for me as an artist,” he says. He adds that he was banned from gigging, forbidden from speaking to the media, arrested from a checkpoint in June in Suez and interrogated for hours.

“It wasn’t easy to leave,” he says, adding, “This is a good chance to be stronger, and then I will come back.”

There have been mixed reactions to his departure. Most comments online have commended his courage, but a few have labeled him a “coward,” speculating as to why he left and whether or not he will return. Essam states firmly that he is “not escaping.”

Salma, another human rights worker who has chosen to stay in Cairo and prefers to go by a different name, finds this critique strange. For her, the choice between leaving and staying is a personal choice, involving an assessment of risk and negotiation.

“Some of my friends have thanked me for choosing to stay and continue working,” she says, adding that she also finds this reaction hard to respond to.

She doesn’t hide her own anxiety and experience of depression.

“People have to make the decision that is right for them … I want to stay, at least for now, as I haven’t received any direct threats. But, I have made a decision to be less vocal,” she adds.

In her recent piece for Al-Shorouk, Basma Abdel Aziz asked which is heavier: physical threat — prison and imposed restricted activity, or moral threat — slander and a destroyed reputation. The alternative, she said, is isolation and silence.

Not all those who depart, however, isolate themselves and choose silence. This is one of the accusations levied against those leaving, just as practicing dissent from overseas is sometimes seen as an act of fear.

Those lamenting the departures from amongst communities of activists speak of their dwindling collectives and increasing solitude. In several conversations, phrases such as “the brain drain,” have been bandied around, referring to the loss of some of Egypt’s brightest and most creative scholars, rights workers and artists.

This is not the first time in Egypt’s history that there has been a collective departure of oppositional figures. In the 1970s, under former President Anwar Sadat, before the 1981 rounding up and imprisoning of over a thousand intellectuals, journalists and politicians, many chose to leave under threat, as a precautionary measure, or for better opportunities overseas.

Banned from writing and publishing in 1975, novelist Bahaa Taher left Egypt. Although he found a good job as a translator for the United Nations in Switzerland, Taher, who was active in the left wing literary circles of the 1960s, was forced to find work that wasn’t connected to literature. His ban was lifted in 1983, and he returned to Egypt later.

Yet, in an interview with Majalla magazine in July 2012, Taher blamed intellectuals today for pursuing “self interest,” saying the “ideas of sacrifice died in the 1960s.”

“My own mother, who cries every time my brother and I leave the country for any significant period, told me a short time before I left that it was probably a good idea for me to leave. It was the first time she ever said such a thing.”

This concept of sacrifice for the nation is one that weighs heavily on both those who leave and those who stay. But, what is this sacrifice, who or what is it for, and who should bear it?

In an article for Al-Fanar Media in October, Belal Fadl, who left to New York himself, and has since written strong critique about the regime for several outlets, including Mada Masr, blamed the Egyptian state and society for not believing strongly enough that the country needs everyone, regardless of their political views. He said that those who want to get rid of their opponents tell them, “if you’re not happy, just leave,” but says this is a loss to society as a whole, not just at the level of the family.

Fadl asks how we can possibly blame people for seeking an alternative life in a country that respects and protects the dignity of one’s humanity and offers a better life for their children.

He then tells the story of a woman whose son left for Canada 11 months ago in search of a better future. She recounts her sadness at being parted from him, but says she would rather miss him than lose him to martyrdom, imprisonment, depression, or see him working in Egypt for nothing. “God give us revenge for those who are responsible,” she concludes.

This is a story Motaz Atalla also recounts: “My own mother, who cries every time my brother and I leave the country for any significant period, told me a short time before I left that it was probably a good idea for me to leave. It was the first time she ever said such a thing.”

Atalla describes many advantages to building a new home for himself and his family in the United States. He says that he isn’t waiting for something to happen before he returns to Egypt. However, he would like to see changes in terms of greater accountability, less violence and corruption, and a degree of safety. “It’s not that I am expecting corruption and harm to be the default, but more that I have no sense that there is any recourse to any kind of real justice in the face of harm when it does rear its head.”

He continues, “For me this aspect of Egypt was always there, amid those other aspects that I loved, but that I also always had to fight for, to continuously be excavating, invoking, nurturing, even constructing and inventing. The Egypt that I love and miss was always half-imagined and near extinct anyway. So it’s not like that’s changed for me. I missed it even when I was living there.”

Atalla speaks of the dynamics of global migration. “I’m finding a lot of solace in the internationalism of this whole diaspora/exile thing. It’s its own culture. It has its own literary canon, its cultural memes, its particular brand of cultural hybridity and nostalgia. It’s almost a culture unto itself. I’m not the first to have left in circumstances like these, nor is my generation, nor are my compatriots.”

“We are part of a broader, older tradition, now. That tradition, that culture is its own third space. It’s not Egypt and it’s not America. Egypt and America are both as much imagined and constructed places as they are real land and people and culture. This diaspora is similarly as much an authentic and real and coherent experience, as it is a concept.”

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