The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I fled Egypt and became an influencer. My family stayed — and became hostages.

Aly Mahdy. (Courtesy of Aly Mahdy)

Aly Hussin Mahdy is an engineer and social media influencer who focuses on politics in Egypt.

On the night of Feb. 2, I was up late messaging with my father in Egypt from my bedroom in a suburb of Chicago. He was worried about me: In the preceding days, I had publicly called for protests in the diaspora to commemorate the anniversary of Egypt’s 2011 revolution and the ideals that unite all Egyptians who stood together in solidarity against the forces of dictatorship and oppression 10 years ago: bread, freedom and social justice.

I knew that this would trigger a reaction from Egyptian authorities. Dissenting voices, at home or abroad, are consistently denied oxygen in President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s Egypt. In what has become a cruel hallmark of the regime, Egypt targets activists in the United States by detaining their innocent family members at home.

Read this piece in Arabic.

My uncle, cousin and father are now held as hostages by Egyptian authorities. I have received word that they were forcibly disappeared for 40 days, before they resurfaced at Borg al-Arab prison. My father was reportedly tortured so severely he lost functionality in his right leg, and newly sustained wounds from beatings put him at risk for further infections. Authorities continue to deny him medical attention.

This thuggery is designed not only to silence dissidents abroad, but to spread fear among anyone who mistakenly assumes that distance places them out of reach of the tentacles of the dictatorship.

I came to the United States as an asylum seeker in 2019, hoping to find safety in its democracy and respect for human rights. In Egypt, when I was 17, in the midst of nationwide protests against the military coup that began in 2013, I was arrested and held in pretrial detention for two months. In detention, I was tortured, intimidated and harassed. My crime was speaking out on social media about human rights conditions in the aftermath of Sissi’s rise to power.

Following my release, it became clear that the die had been cast. The authorities considered me, and anyone associated with me, a threat to the regime. I was expelled from my engineering course because of my political activism and, fearing for my life and the safety of my family, I fled the country.

Yet Egypt’s repression found me in the United States. Like many exiles and asylees, the conditions I escaped did not escape me. Egyptian media outlets began harassing me online. I received death threats on social media, where any criticism or comment deemed “offensive” to the regime is cause for attack from an army of state-sponsored bot accounts — thousands of which have been removed by Twitter and Facebook in recent years, yet incessantly spring up again.

When these efforts failed to silence me, the dictatorship employed other tools at its disposal. Egyptian news anchors in state-owned outlets attacked me as a threat to national security. My family members were then taken hostage. Days after their detention and my public outcry for their safety and release, the same news anchor who attacked me made a mockery of their ordeal by denying they had ever been detained.

The Egyptian authorities refuse to confirm how many people languish in their jails, but estimates from human rights organizations suggest that there are tens of thousands of prisoners locked up in denial of their fundamental human rights. I live in constant fear for the rest of my family. I am choosing to speak publicly not because I believe that my voice alone can save my family, but because I know that my silence will do nothing to help them. My only hope is that my testimony can facilitate the release of my family and draw attention to the plight of other Egyptians wrongfully detained by the regime — and those living in constant fear of arrest for speaking out or loving someone who does.

I believe that this is not a forlorn hope. In a recent call with Egypt’s foreign minister, Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized the centrality of human rights to U.S. interests. I have seen members of Congress pen letters condemning Egypt’s detention practices, and have been willing to use the power of the purse to back up these words.

This is a critical moment for our elected officials to send a strong message to Egypt that its efforts to harass and intimidate within the United States are not the actions of an ally. I hope that Congress and the Biden administration will stay true to their words and stand up for freedom, democracy and human rights everywhere, and in so doing, guarantee my freedom to enjoy the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness I seek here in the United States.

Read more:

Ezzedine C. Fishere: Egypt’s republic of fear has detained tens of thousands. It’s cruel — and counterproductive.

The Post’s View: Biden continues business as usual with Trump’s ‘favorite dictator’

Mohamed Soltan: Don’t forget our loved ones, trapped in Egyptian prisons during this pandemic

Nancy Okail: Sissi unleashes another crackdown in Egypt

Elisa Massimino and Neil Hicks: It’s official: In Egypt, you can now get 15 years in jail for a tweet

Samuel Tadros: ‘Egypt has found a cure for covid-19’ — and other outlandish tales from Cairo’s propaganda machine