A State of Emergency has existed in Egypt since 1981 following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, but these days the greatest emergency in Egypt is the state of civil society. Writers, scholars, intellectuals, political opponents and a range of non-governmental organizations are all under attack by the government.
But novelist Musaad Suliman Hassan Hussein, known by his pen name Musaad Abu Fagr, refuses to be muzzled. His courage in face of government oppression offers American activists an answer as to how to promote human rights in the Middle East at a time of declining American influence.
Musaad Abu Fagr was arrested in December 2007 following demonstrations in Sinai against government plans to demolish thousands of homes near the border with the Gaza Strip. A movement founded by Musaad Abu Fagr and other political activists in Sinai, Wedna Na’ish (We Want to Live), led the demonstrations. He was accused of “inciting others to protest,” “resisting the authorities,” and “assaulting public officers during the exercise of their duties.” During the July and December 2007 demonstrations, several thousand protesters clashed with the security forces.
Egyptian courts have intervened on several occasions ordering for Musaad Abu Fagr’s release, but the government has used its administrative detention powers under the State of Emergency to keep him detained. He remains in jail more than 18 months after courts ordered his release. He is one of a number of writers, bloggers, scholars and intellectuals who have been detained for their writings.
Like other countries in the region and around the world, Egypt has used the war on terrorism as an excuse to strip human rights away from civil society. If there has been reason for optimism there it is because people like Musaad Abu Fagr have stepped forward to oppose this effort, and people have followed him and others. What progress that has been made – and there have been small but important steps that have slowed the muzzling of civil society – it is because the government reacts to pushback from its people.
Our job in the current environment is to help those activists create space in which they can work to bring change to Egypt. By letting the Egyptian government know that they are being watched in how they treat Musaad Abu Fagr, we allow his impressive voice to be heard. Others will follow.
We can start by participating in Amnesty International’s campaign for his immediate release in our Global Write-a-thon.