NEW YORK—The prison sentence handed down to Galal El-Behairy is unacceptable and a clear violation of his right to free expression, PEN America said in a statement today.

Poet and lyricist Galal El-Behairy was sentenced to 3 years in prison for his lyrics to the song Balaha, released by exiled musician and activist Ramy Essam, and for his latest book of poetry, The Finest Women on Earth (خير نسوان الأرض), which El-Behairy had planned to release this year. El-Behairy was was sentenced to 3 years in prison and fined 10,000 L.E. in the Military Court in Cairo for insulting the military and spreading false news, because of his poetry.

On February 26, 2018, a month prior to Egypt’s presidential election, Ramy Essam released the song Balaha, featuring El-Behairy’s lyrics criticizing corruption and the current state of Egypt’s economy. Two days after the release of Balaha, Egyptian Minister of Culture Enas Abdel Dayem publicly denounced El-Behairy on live television, specifically referencing book of poetry, The Finest Women on Earth. On March 3, 2018, the poet disappeared and his whereabouts were unknown to his family and attorneys, until he appeared one week later before the High State Security Prosecution, exhibiting signs of severe beatings and torture. El-Behairy was told he was facing charges by the Military Court involving both the content of his yet to be released book and the lyrics of Balaha. Since his arrest, El-Behairy has been held in Cairo’s Tora Prison.  

On May 8, 2018, PEN America joined several PEN Centers, the Perpetuum Mobile Artists at Risk program, Safemuse, and Freemuse in signing an open letter demanding that the Egyptian government drop all charges against El-Behairy and protect the right to freedom of expression in Egypt. The coalition also published “A Letter from Tora Prison,” a poem written by El-Behairy during his detention.

“To criminalize poetry and songs is to denigrate the most universal forms of human expression,” said Julie Trébault, PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) Director. “Galal El-Behairy’s artistic work is no crime, and imprisoning him for it sends a clear signal that there is no freedom of expression in Egypt today. We call for El-Behairy’s immediate release and for an end to the persecution of artistic voices in Egypt.”

El-Behairy’s case is part of a continued pattern of increasingly severe attacks on free expression under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rule. The government has curtailed freedom of expression by, among other methods, instating a harsh anti-protest law, leveling falsified charges to quash media outlets that confront the established national narrative, introducing a law that fines journalists for reporting “false news,” and prosecuting individuals who express different religious or political viewpoints through fines, harsh prison sentences, or even death sentences. PEN America has advocated on behalf of other journalists and creative artists prosecuted for their work, including writer Ahmed Naji, PEN America’s 2016 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award honoree, and the photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as Shawkan, currently facing a possible death sentence for his work.

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC here.


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.


Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Manager: