February Featured Cases: Egyptians Determined In Spite of Immense Oppression
Thursday, February 11, marks the fifth anniversary of the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and a pivotal turning point in the Arab Spring uprising. The hope among Egyptians was palpable that day, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets to celebrate Mubarak’s resignation. Since then, Egypt has undergone a series of regime changes and tumultuous transfers of power that have resulted in a much worse situation for Egyptians and in particular, their right to freedom of expression.
In 2013, democratically elected Islamist president Morsi was toppled by a military coup and replaced by the chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Immediately following the coup, Sisi implemented a brutal crackdown that left over 1,400 dead and anywhere from over 16,000 to 40,000 detained or indicted. Since then, the government has curtailed freedom of expression in a multitude of ways: by instating a harsh anti-protest law, leveling falsified charges to quash media that confronts the established national narrative, introducing a law that fines journalists for reporting “false news,” outlawing association with what the government deems “terrorist groups” like the Muslim Brotherhood, and persecuting individuals who express different religious or political viewpoints through fines, harsh prison sentences, or even death. Recent and worrying examples of this curtailment include Egypt’s shutdown of Facebook’s program to provide free basic internet services to more than 3 million Egyptians on December 30, 2015. On the same day, government authorities raided two prominent cultural venues—a popular art gallery and a publishing house—in a crackdown on freedom of expression ahead of the government’s anxieties about the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring that reaches far beyond writers and reporters. This month, PEN America highlights three Egyptian writers who represent how Egyptians continue to hope and fight for their rights by fearlessly exercising them, even in the face of immense oppression.
Alaa Abd El Fattah is an Egyptian activist, software developer, and blogger. His activism and use of technology made him a key voice during the Arab Spring, during which he began to develop Arabic-language versions of important software and platforms. Abd El Fattah has been detained under every Egyptian head of state during his lifetime. In June 2014, Abd El Fattah was convicted of violating Egypt’s restrictive Protest Law, which prohibits unauthorized public demonstrations, in connection with a peaceful protest against military trials held outside of the Shoura Council in November 2013. He was able to appeal, and his sentence was reduced to five years in prison in February 2015.
Mahmoud Abou Zeid (Shawkan) is a journalist and photographer who often depicts daily cultural life and produces street portraits. He is a contributor to publications such as Time, Die Zeit, BILD, Media Group, and online photo agency Demotix. Various human rights organizations, such as Index on Censorship, Amnesty International, Open Democracy, IFEX, and Global Voices, have also utilized his images. Shawkan has covered political protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. He was arrested on August 14, 2013, while covering the dispersal by Sisi’s forces of the Rab’a Al Adweya sit-in as a photojournalist. Shawkan was one of the 40,000 individuals arrested during Sisi’s brutal crackdown on protestors in 2013. He has been detained for over two years pending proceedings in a mass trial along with at least 700 other defendants. He will stand trial for unjust and unfounded charges, including attempting murder and belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Fatima Naoot is a celebrated poet and former candidate last year for parliament who has published 19 books to date. Naoot was charged in late January 2016 with contempt of religion and could face up to three years in jail for a comment she made on Facebook in October 2015. In the Facebook post, she criticized the sacrifice of animals at Eid al-Adha, also known as the Feast of Sacrifice. The festival honors Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his first-born son as an act of submission to God. Naoot, in describing her opinion about the sacrifice, had posted: “Millions of innocent creatures will be driven to the most horrible massacre committed by humans for ten-and-half centuries. A massacre which is repeated every year because of the nightmare of a righteous man about his good son.”