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Diaspora stories: Prisoners of our guilty consciences The crackdown on media and civil society leaves many Egyptians overseas feeling powerless to help and guilty about the freedoms we enjoy

Egypt’s war on dissent, opposition and the media shows no sign of abating. Worse still, it appears to have intensified in recent months, ever since the run-up to the presidential “election.” Even the recent Ramadan pardons issued by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will barely make a dent, because what the regime giveth, in its caprice, it taketh away.

Last month alone, several prominent activists and bloggers were arrested. The recent spate has included Wael Abbas, the prominent journalist and blogger who has been shedding light on police brutality and other abuses since the Mubarak years; Walid al-Shobaky, a PhD student who works at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression; labor lawyer and veteran activist Haytham Mohamadeen; former actor Amal Fathy, who was arrested on terrorism charges for posting a profane video condemning the dire socioeconomic state of the country and sexual harassment; satirist Shady Abu Zeid, who is despised by the security services for mocking the police, and Shady al-Ghazaly Harb, a surgeon and activist who allegedly posted tweets that “insulted” the president.

In addition, controversial and daring atheist Sherif Gaber was prevented from leaving the country, detained for several days and then disappeared into the ether, his whereabouts unknown. That is not to mention all those who have been arrested or disappeared that we do not know about, or who are not prominent enough to be reported on by media, or the banal and everyday intimidations, threats and harassment from a security apparatus that has reached the threatening levels of excess that only the threatened can muster up.

It is difficult to watch what is going on in Egypt and not feel saddened for the millions of people who, set free by a dream, rebelled against their jailers, only to be imprisoned in a nightmare. Rarely have so many sacrificed so much for no visible gain and such an abundance of extra pain. Yes, the situation in Egypt is not (yet) as bad as in Syria, Libya or Yemen, but you know a country is in serious trouble when it builds new prisons at a frantic pace, while shutting down libraries, where jails have become repositories of squandered human talent and potential, and where prisons are home to more freethinkers than the country’s academies.

The situation appears all the more depressing when you consider that it need not have been so, that the Egyptian regime and military could have bowed to the inevitable, instead of attempting to reverse the irreversible. I am made painfully aware of this reality from my temporary base in Tunisia, which now stands where Egypt should and could have been, especially since the pre-revolutionary freedoms Egyptians were able to snatch from the jaws of the Mubarak regime outstripped anything Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his cohorts were willing to concede.

The situation here is far from perfect or ideal, and Tunisia faces enormous challenges, but people are largely free to speak their minds without fear of losing their freedom. Even unauthorized protests are left in peace, governments come and governments go peacefully, political parties try to cobble together compromises and build consensus, and no leader is above reproach or being unceremoniously dumped by the electorate.

Although “bread” is still very much an issue in Tunisia, people are free to take to the streets and to the airwaves to criticize and oppose everyone from the president, down. - Courtesy: Khaled Diab

Tunisia’s newfound freedom has made it a magnet for activists, dissidents and journalists from across the region. This includes a burgeoning Egyptian community of civil society activists and NGO workers, some of whom gather together to watch Egypt play in the FIFA World Cup, their downsized hopes of a modicum of national success disappointed. One Egyptian who cannot return to Egypt has adopted the FIFA World Cup as a kind of substitute for home, every fleeting hope causing his spirits to soar; every let down knocking him down. “I wish we could take pride in something,” one Tunis-based Egyptian remarked following Egypt’s mediocre performance against Russia. This is, of course, only football, as I am well aware, not being a great lover of the game. But for a traumatized nation with its revolutionary pride shredded and mangled, and its dignity crushed under the boot of junta rule and growing poverty, it is also a lot more than just football.

“Tunisia is an Arab country that was on pretty much the same path as Egypt after the revolution, and so comparing the two was inevitable,” observes Ahmed ElGohary, who works at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, which moved its headquarters from Cairo following a campaign of harassment from the state. “Our presence in Tunis is easier for some of us than Europe … but it also accentuates the sense of failure. Any small news item on the radio or the internet about Tunisian politics or human rights reminds you that we could have also had the same space to work and engage in Egypt.”

When confronted with the levels of injustice plaguing Egypt, I feel compelled to use the freedom I enjoy to write about it and to do my bit to confront it. Beyond questions of duty, I have a strong interest in and desire to write about developments in Egypt, even if my years outside the country outnumber my years living in it, but I do try to keep up with regular visits. And I believe I have every right to do so. In fact, I am convinced that everyone has the right to write and speak on any topic they choose, and that they should be judged on their knowledge and abilities, not on their background or situation, and that is why I write about many contexts in many countries. In reality, the only times I have ever heard complaints that my absence disqualifies me from commentary is from some supporters of the regime, for my criticism of it, and some Islamists, for my criticism of their project and my outspoken support of secularism.

That said, writing about Egypt from afar presents certain practical challenges. An important one for someone like me, who likes to write about the human angle, not just the aggregate geopolitical, economic and social picture, is keeping abreast of what is happening on the ground and what people are thinking as individuals. Getting a sense of the mood on the streets is challenging when you rely on occasional visits and secondary sources, yet acquiring the perspectives of individuals is much easier from afar than it once was. This is not ideal, but writers in the country also face challenges, albeit different ones, such as the distortions created by Egypt’s highly polarized political and social scenes, with the heightened levels of propaganda they contain.

“Whenever I write from abroad about Egypt, I’m always afraid that this distance might have made me lose touch with the pulse of the street,” observes Maher Hamoud, the former editor at Daily News Egypt who is currently based in Brussels. “I always cared in my writing (both in Egypt and Europe) about ordinary people and their real-life experiences.”

This distance has led Hamoud toward an increased focus on analysis. “I find myself compensating for this insecurity in writing about Egypt by being more theoretical and analytical (also historical) in my work,” he points out. I have also noticed this trend in my own journalism, though this is also partly a function of becoming more experienced, with editors seeking out my perspective, and being more interested in the connections between various parts of the world and various periods of history.

There is also the drive to contextualize, to highlight that what is occurring in Egypt is tragic, but it is not unprecedented or a uniquely Arab malaise. “I make sure to relate to the ‘developed’ countries and their problems while talking about Egypt,” notes Jehad (Jeje) Mohamed, an Egyptian freelance journalist who is currently based in Washington, DC. “It helps eliminate the ‘othering’ of Egypt and eliminate the white saviour complex that we are less and need saving, and so on.”

Covering Egypt from afar also presents certain moral and ethical challenges. One is the haunting sense of powerlessness and futility. As a journalist and writer, one can attempt to speak truth to power, but what if power does not care to listen? One can attempt to tell the world, but what if the world is preoccupied with other things, or some of it is applauding what is going on? Writing articles and posting tweets appears barely to make a shred of difference against the tide of brutality sweeping the country, the region and other parts of the globe. Does this apparent futility mean you should give up, or continue with greater gusto? Is it enough just to write and speak, or is there more one should be doing? The Sisi regime, like many in the region, may fear the pen more than the sword, and so it prefers to silence or discredit its holder, rather than heed its words.

Then there is the question of guilt. In Egypt, we say those with their hands in the water are unlike those with their hands in the fire. “I get the feeling I am talking from a privileged position, even though I was kind of forced to leave the country and was harassed, investigated and threatened all the time. People sometimes call it survivor’s guilt or something like that,” explains Mohamed.

“I feel guilty because I was luckier than others and was able to leave Egypt at a suitable moment and to continue my work with the same organization. Most of the others were not so fortunate,” says Gohary. “And this feeling is renewed and grows every time an activist or human rights defender is arrested or banned from traveling.” Carrying around a guilty conscience for simply having got away is a common emotion I have noticed among Egyptian activists and journalists who have left the country or been forced out.

Even though I am not an activist, I also often experience an involuntary surge of guilt when I learn of the latest miscarriage of justice, or manifestation of injustice, in Egypt, and think of the courage exhibited by the dwindling rank of colleagues who still manage, against increasingly draconian odds, to report independently and honestly from within Egypt. While journalists and activists are being intimidated, stripped of their freedom and robbed of their dignity, I lead a comfortable and remarkably unthreatening life in a picturesque seaside suburb of Tunis, for the most part. My days are generally spent writing and reading in peace, interspersed with looking after and caring for our son, without having to fear a midnight knock on my door. This affords me the luxury (and it is a huge luxury) to think and express myself, without the stifling shadow of fear and repression to cloud my mind, and perhaps also to see certain things that are not as visible from close up, or which may be distorted by the constant barrage of propaganda.

With everything that is going on in Egypt and the wider region, about which I also write (among many other things), as well as the violent intolerance of dissent exhibited by numerous state and non-state actors across the Middle East, the dissonance caused makes me sometimes feels like I am floating in the tranquil eye of a storm, close enough to observe but not be consumed by the surrounding cyclone.

This distance protects me from the tempest, and my foreign passport offers me a measure of protection from the vengeful whims of the regime when I visit Egypt, albeit much less than in the past. This causes me occasional mild anxiety, as I am aware that the unruly winds could shift and the storm could sweep me up in its destructive, increasingly indiscriminate path. And if someone were to decide to bring me down, they have a wealth of material to twist against me. When I hear some of the far-fetched and ludicrous cases made against dissidents and critics, I occasionally wonder what kind of alleged allegiance(s) they may one day concoct for me, a writer who has always prided myself on my independence.

This anxiety is at it most pronounced whenever I am entering or leaving Egypt. Part of the apprehension is irrational, perhaps founded on the number of times my family was banned from leaving the country when I was a young child. More rationally, I have been detained or delayed a number of times upon arrival or departure, including one marathon interrogation session of several hours, which, along with the random exercising of arbitrary power, makes me wonder whether next time will be “the time,” and whether my fate might be a short stretch of indignity in an overcrowded cell or the long-term deprivation of freedom.

My low-level anxiety is nothing compared to the undoubted fear and pain endured by those on the frontlines, despite all the risks, who were stripped of their freedom, often in degrading and violent ways, for their pains. How must it feel for someone like photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (Shawkan) to have survived the hell on earth of reporting on the lethal dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya encampment (which I had visited a couple of weeks beforehand to see what it was like for myself) and, instead of receiving treatment for the trauma all this death and destruction caused, to wait in purgatory for a potential death sentence?

I admire all those who stood up for their principles, even if it meant years in the slammer. The iconic representation of this is Alaa Abd El Fattah, who has been imprisoned by every leader since Mubarak, and is currently serving a five-year sentence. I sometimes wonder what it is like to live the monotony of incarceration, to be deprived not just of your freedom but also of your freedom of choice, to miss out on the milestones your family and friends reach in your absence, and the undoubted heartache you cause them, and the gap you leave in your child’s or children’s lives.

“The day that they broke into my house and arrested me, Khaled was sick and unable to sleep. I took him in my arms for an hour until he slept,” Abd El Fattah wrote in a letter during one of his shorter incarcerations, in 2014, in which he expressed profound longing for Khaled, his son, and Manal, his wife. “We may be handed down sentences, in which case time stops for me and continues to go on for you for years, which means that Khaled grows up without me. This means that he will undergo many colds and will sleep away from my hugs for long.”

The letter betrays Abd El Fattah’s sense of disillusionment at the direction Egypt had taken, and reveals how he was motivated mostly by guilt. “The previous imprisonments had meaning because I felt that I was in jail by choice and it was for positive gain,” he confessed. “Right now, I feel that I can’t bear people or this country and there is no meaning for my imprisonment other than freeing me from the guilt I would feel being unable to combat the immense oppression and injustice that is ongoing.”

Abd El Fattah is not just a prisoner of conscience but a prisoner of his own conscience. “It is true that I am still powerless, but at least I have become oppressed among the many oppressed and I no longer owe a duty or feel guilt,” he wrote.

Guilt is a surprisingly common reaction among survivors of torture and political imprisonment, especially once they return to their “normal” lives, their trauma untreated and often undiagnosed, even though it makes little rational sense. Despite the genuine and profound suffering they have experienced, they often feel bad for the continuing suffering of others and cope by externalizing and contextualizing their own situations in comparison with those who are perhaps worse off than they are. This causes many to suppress their own emotions, with potentially catastrophic consequences, both for the individual and for society, as the collective, cumulative trauma builds up, unresolved and unprocessed.

“I never thought of saying or sharing my feelings because there were bigger stories and deeper feelings, which I thought are more important or bigger than my own. Other people had more than that happening to them,” one former prisoner of conscience was quoted as saying in a rare study of trauma among political activists in post-revolutionary Egypt, carried out by Vivienne Matthies-Boon of the University of Amsterdam. Other effects of the trauma caused by the state’s brutal handling of dissent include polarization, dehumanization, demonization and the normalization of violence in the community.

Perhaps this desperate effort to contextualize is a last-ditch attempt to cling on to one’s sense of common humanity, which imprisonment and torture seek to destroy, by expressing empathy with others, by resisting the ‘selfish’ allure of personal pain for the solidarity of shared suffering. The alternative is the abyss of desensitization, despondency and anchorless apathy. “Now my problem is that I don’t feel at all, I don’t fear death, I am not afraid. Right now I am not afraid to lose anybody,” confessed one of the traumatized activists interviewed in the study mentioned above.

Those pushed beyond their breaking points often become desensitized not only to their own suffering but also to the suffering of others. “When I see someone dying or I lose a friend, I am supposed to be really sad,” reflected another activist. “For me now, I am very okay with it … which is dangerous, because I think humans need to be sad about it.”

This provides some insight into how the state’s extreme crackdown on dissent and the mindless violence it has unleashed is not as mindless as it first appears. In a variation of the classic divide and rule mentality, it seems to be aimed at killing solidarity and obliterating hope. The regime also erodes an individual’s sense of certainty and security, and the trust of others in them, through more prosaic but highly punitive measures such as travel bans, the freezing of assets or open-ended legal action that drags on for years and years. By corroding people’s trust in and sympathy for one another and their sense of solidarity, the regime hopes to avert a repeat of the millions who took to the streets in 2011 to 2013.

When I was younger, my mother often criticized fellow Egyptians for their apparent apathy, arguing that those in power do not just give rights on a silver platter, that people must demand and seize their rights. The idea is that, eventually, the cost of opposing the popular will becomes higher than the benefits of oppressing and exploiting the people.

But what happens when a regime, like in Syria or Libya, behaves totally irrationally and finds no price is too high to pay, or makes others pay for its survival, even if it ends up governing a smouldering ruin? Or what happens when the dear leader, or king of kings, or surgeon of surgeons, or philosopher of philosophers, believes that he and the nation are one and the same thing, or, more frighteningly, that the nation is a part of him or subservient to him, and cannot or should not survive without him?

In Egypt, the regime seems bent on turning this logic of protest, dissent and revolution on its head. If there is method to its madness, it is that the cost of opposition should be set so excruciatingly and painfully high that people will desist and no longer resist, believing that resistance is not only futile but will make their situation much worse. Some ex-revolutionaries got that message loud and clear, with quite a few becoming depoliticized. “I just want to be alone … You feel this meaningless feeling,” confessed one participant in the study cited earlier. “You just want to stay at home or to hug someone you love, that is it.”

I do not wish to succumb to apathy and indifference. Although I accept that my writings could land me in trouble and have made reasonable sacrifices for my principles, I have little interest in becoming a martyr without a cause. I do not want to become a prisoner, not in a jail cell nor of my fears. I most certainly do not wish to be broken. And I suspect I can be broken. I do not know whether I possess the physical, mental and emotional strength to withstand torture or the humiliation of political imprisonment, and I am cowardly or courageous enough to admit that I do not wish to find out how strong my mettle is I prefer that this question remains academic and unanswered.

As much as I dream of and desire freedom for everyone, I am not ready to sacrifice my own freedom to the machinations of the Egyptian regime at least that is how I feel now, at this moment, when the individual price in Egypt is so high and the collective rewards so negligible.

Better, or at least more effective for me, in my humble, unheroic view, is to be free and to advocate and agitate for the freedom of others, to live to fight, or at least to struggle, another day. In fact, that is one of the motivating factors that led me to move away. I left Mubarak’s Egypt not out of any material need; I had a good career as a journalist, and before that as a teacher. I left to expand my margin of freedom as a journalist and writer and to enlarge my horizons as a human being, as well as to think and write outside the box about back home. This has not just expanded my horizons but also my mission as a journalist, which now includes challenging the false assumption, misconceptions and biases toward Egypt and the wider region, to show it in a human and humane light, to flesh out its ambiguities, because it is in the ambiguities that the human resides.

Those of us on the outside can use our liberty not only to campaign for the freedom of those who have been deprived of theirs, but to play our modest role in keeping hope alive in the wastelands of hopelessness through which so many are wandering and wondering, to help people dream of a tomorrow that is beyond the nightmares of today.

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