Nancy Okail is the executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
Today is the anniversary of the day an Egyptian court sentenced me to five years in prison. My “crime”: working for an international organization that supports human rights and democracy.
It’s now been five years since I packed a small suitcase and left my country, thinking I would be back in a few weeks. Five years – almost the full term of my sentence – have gone by since I decided to live in exile in the United States, where I aimed to continue my work defending democracy and human rights. I cannot go back to the home I long for – although it has to be said that Egypt is no longer the same place I left. Today, under the harsh regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, its citizens confront unprecedented levels of repression and economic decline.
I wish I were writing this in commemoration of a distant memory. But it is not a memory at all. While I am lucky to have not spent the past five years in a prison cell, I have had to accept a life in exile, which is a struggle of its own. I left my family and my entire world behind when I came to Washington. When my mother, who had a stroke shortly after I left, passed away last summer, I was not able to see her or even attend the funeral for one last goodbye. I am separated from my 7-year-old twins, and I am missing out being able to watch them grow. My sole consolation is that they are at home.
But even exile is not always a safe haven for dissent. Egyptian authorities continue to threaten and intimidate us and our families. My case, which also resulted in the sentencing of 42 other activists, was reopened last year, this time focusing on prominent human rights defenders and groups who don’t benefit from the sort of international attention that we were lucky enough to have.
Last month I was attending a workshop on human rights in Rome when I spotted a man discreetly taking a picture of me in front of my hotel. When I confronted him, he pushed me and walked away. Hours later, Egyptian state-affiliated media outlets published articles with pictures of the other workshop participants, defaming us with claims that we were conspiring against Egypt at a secret meeting. Khaled Ali, a former presidential candidate who participated in the workshop, was summoned for interrogation while we were in Rome. When he returned to Egypt, he was detained for a day on fabricated charges and is now awaiting a court session on July 3. In a recent TV program, Mostafa Bakry, a member of parliament, went so far as to ask why we are being allowed to live abroad, saying that we should be brought home “in a coffin.”
Journalists, activists, and researchers have all been denied fair trials and unjustly jailed or prosecuted. Recently, Egyptian authorities blocked over 21 media outlets in Egypt, including Mada Masr, the country’s most professional independent news outlet. They have also passed a draconian law on non-governmental organizations that criminalizes a broad swath of civil society work. Such actions will inevitably lead to the scenario that we are all trying to avoid: the suffocation of every peaceful outlet for expressing grievances and engaging with the government.
The government claims that it is staging this crackdown as part of the war on terror and its efforts to restore stability and economic prosperity. In reality, this is a desperate attempt to conceal rapid economic decline, dismal governance, and deteriorating security. According a recent report, 795 terrorist incidents were reported in Egypt in 2016. Three new terror groups emerged last year, while both Islamic State affiliates in Egypt remain active. The recent IS attack on Coptic Christians last month brought the total number of victims of sectarian violence in 2017 alone to 90.
Meanwhile, the economy continues to worsen. Prices increased throughout 2016, with inflation reaching 24 percent by the end of the year. Many middle-class Egyptians are struggling to maintain their standard of living. Those with lower incomes can barely make ends meet.
None of us wants to see Egypt fall into chaos, but we also refuse to watch its continued deterioration under the current regime. Neither Egyptians nor the international community should buy into the conventional wisdom that justifies all forms of repression and failure in the name of counterterrorism. All serious analysis shows that this is the failed policy of a regime that has nothing to offer. We must continue to document violations, to push for accountability, and most importantly, to educate ourselves on alternative policies and better governance. Opposition is not an end unto itself. We must strive to find solutions to existing problems.
Five years ago, I felt alone and abandoned. As I see more and more friends and colleagues joining me in exile, driven away by our country’s growing authoritarianism, my reaction is bittersweet. I rejoice at the reunion with familiar faces I have missed – activists, scholars and artists who share the same goals and dreams for a better Egypt. While I am relieved to see them in safety, I also hold my breath for those who are trapped inside, awaiting a fate that recent developments signal will be dangerous. Over the past five years, exile has started to feel more like a final destination rather than a temporary stop on the way back home.
We have no choice but to work for a better Egypt. We did not give up under Mubarak when the entire world was backing his oppressive regime, and we will not give up to the current one. We hope that the world won’t give up on us either.