It was with joy that I received the news of my nomination for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the same joy any act of solidarity inspires.
Since my release from prison in Egypt on bail, with my fate still bound to the Special Terrorism Courts and the draconian Protest Law, I’ve been facing constant harassment from official and unofficial representatives of the regime. New trumped-up criminal charges pop up every few days. A horde of political talk show hosts on supposedly independent TV stations discusses old and out-of-context tweets, twisting my words and assigning sinister implications to them. There’s an insistent tarnish campaign meant to prepare the general public for my eventual return to prison. Needless to say, I’m banned from appearing on local TV stations, and I’m forbidden to travel outside Egypt.
So it is solidarity such as that of European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) that creates the pressure to keep me out of jail and out of harm. It was also a comfort to find comrades in unexpected places; GUE/NGL’s stance against neoliberal policies and against the distortion of European democracy seemed in line with the aspirations of persecuted revolutionaries in Egypt and the broader Arab context.
I was proud to be nominated along with Tunisian rapper, Ala Yaacoubi, and Moroccan rapper, Mouad Belghouate, both imprisoned for insulting the police in their popular songs. I was relieved that the European Parliament members (MEP) who nominated us understood the point of doing symbolic/verbal violence to the image of the powerful who consistently commit systemic actual violence to the bodies, souls and livelihood of the powerless; relieved that the MEPs understood the meaning of questioning the humanity of those who derive their power from dehumanizing their opponents.
I was not surprised when a new tarnish campaign was launched in reaction against my nomination. My family has faced such campaigns before by supporters of the Israeli occupation and Israeli apartheid. The latest when my sister, Mona Seif, was shortlisted for the Martin Ennals Award. But I was surprised when the president of the GUE/NGL decided to withdraw my nomination based on a two-year-old tweet taken out of context. And I was surprised that this was done without an attempt to contact me for clarification, and without any regard for how such public condemnation affects my safety and liberty. The president of the GUE/NGL has now sent a clear message to the Egyptian authorities that whatever international solidarity and support I have is fragile — easily destroyed with a tweet.
The GUE/NGL are of course free to form their opinion based on whatever sources of information they choose — including well-known neocons writing for the Wall Street Journal about an out-of-context tweet. However, since they made the nomination and made it publicly, it was their responsibility to ascertain how the manner of retreating from it would affect my safety. Other options were available to them; they could have asked me to withdraw, or they could have quietly dropped my name from the short-list.
The GUE/NGL’s president’s statement claims that I “called for the murder of a critical number of Israelis.” For what it’s worth, here is what I would have said if anyone from GUE/NGL or any other MEPs had asked me to clarify.
The tweet in question is certainly shocking if taken out of context, but even then it cannot be framed as “a call” for anything. It was a “mention” to two friends, part of a private conversation — a thread spanning multiple tweets — that took place over a public medium (limited to 140 characters) on the first night of Israel’s 2012 attack on Gaza. A conversation between friends who already knew enough about each others’ views to make it unnecessary to clarify and elaborate, for instance, the distinction between civilians and combatants — as one would if one were making a public statement. As this was not a public statement, only those who follow all three of us on Twitter would have had this tweet appear on their timeline at 2 am on November 15, 2012. And even after the tarnish campaign, it has only been retweeted four times.
To pretend that you can interpret this tweet two years later without consulting the people involved in the conversation, and to claim that it constitutes a call to action, is simply ridiculous. That I should now feel the need to explain and clarify what wasn’t intended for a general public in the first place, and to be condemned for my thoughts, not my actions, in such a manner is clearly an attack on my personal liberty. The chilling effect of having to adapt to such harassment and condemnation should be perfectly clear for those honoring Andrei Sakharov’s legacy.
The conversation relating to the war on Gaza started with a friend expressing her doubt that the conflict would ever be resolved by local actors. The other friend in the conversation and I replied, insisting that like most such conflicts, it would be resolved locally. The tweet stated what seems to be the basic strategy of most national liberation movements, especially those that opt for armed resistance: To make the price of occupation/colonization/apartheid too expensive for the society that supports it. The strategy of the Palestinians is exactly that — via both violent and nonviolent means (boycott, divestments and sanctions, and armed resistance, for example). Since this was during a time of war, I had armed resistance in mind. Think of Vietnam or Algeria; many would say this is exactly what happened: After a critical number of casualties in asymmetric wars, the civilian population supporting the occupier refused to continue its support — despite the fact that the casualties suffered by the society resisting colonization were massively higher.
My tweet was not a call for anything; it was not even a statement of opinion. It was a statement of one of the facts of the conflict. If GUE/NGL had asked me about my views I would have directed them to my March 2012 debate on Deutsche Welle.
It should perhaps be remembered that the first laureate of the Sakharov Prize was Nelson Mandela back in 1988, when he and the African National Congress (ANC) were considered terrorists by many democratic governments. At the time, his views on the necessity of violence for resisting apartheid must have required and inspired complex debates on appropriate tactics and strategies, the rules of engagement, the moral, political and social limitations that should be put on revolutionary violence, etc. There would have been plenty of statements attributable to him or his comrades — including the famous Rivonia Trial speech in which he admits to planning sabotage — that would have looked pretty scary out of context.
Finally, I hardly ever call for any solution or action on my own. As an individual, I have always expressed my opinions and positions in the clearest and strongest language. But as an activist, I have always worked for any given cause with and through the largest united front possible. When it comes to calls for solutions or actions, and for the sake of consensus, I would make the very compromises I refuse to make when speaking only for myself.
More importantly, I do not call for anything when it is not a cause that I’m directly engaged with. I stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people, but I never presume to tell them what to do.
If my views on violence — specifically against civilians — are what is in question, the answers can be found in my actions and my published views in my local context and my own struggle in Egypt.
Alaa Abd El Fattah