Sarah Leah Whitson
Sarah Hegazy’s suicide on June 14 shook the Arab exile community to its core. The 30-year-old queer Egyptian feminist had recently obtained asylum in Canada after being detained, tortured, electrocuted, and sexually assaulted for three months by Egyptian security forces. Her crime? Joyfully displaying a “rainbow” flag at a concert of Mashrou’ Leila in Cairo in 2017.
Her punishment at the hands of the Egyptian government may have started in a Cairo prison cell, but it did not end there. Like so many of the Middle East’s political exiles, her government’s oppression hounded her out of her homeland, separated her from her family, cast her to distant, lonely shores, and left her with trauma and emotional pain too deep to endure.
Just a month before Sarah’s suicide, a 37-year-old Iranian activist, Ali Ajami, was found dead of an apparent suicide in the US city of Houston. He had been a law student at Tehran University before the Iranian government imprisoned him in 2009 for his activism during the protests against the country’s disputed presidential elections.
He spent two years in prison, unable to complete the few months he had remaining to graduate from the university. A few years later, he obtained political asylum in the United States but suffered from extreme depression and anxiety, what he described to his friends as “intolerable pain”.
The tragedy is not just theirs, but ours. These exiles are the best and bravest of the region; they are often students, artists, doctors, scientists, lawyers, academics and journalists who, despite the personal costs, chose to demand change. Forced to flee for their lives, it is not only that they lose what they leave behind, but the region too is deprived of their vital contributions.
Once abroad, they must deal not only with the trauma of the persecution they survived and the depression and survivor’s guilt that routinely follows their “lucky” escape, but also with the persistent threat of violent retaliation by governments that have extended the long arms of their oppression far beyond their borders.
The 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government is perhaps the best-known case demonstrating the lengths a tyrannical state will go to silence the voice of citizens who dare to speak out, even after they have fled the country.
Khashoggi’s case is in no way unique, though. In 2018, Saudi officials tried and failed to kidnap Abdulrahman Almutairi, a Saudi citizen residing in the US who has repeatedly criticised the Saudi government on social media. The same year, they succeeded in dragging feminist activist Loujain al-Hathloul from the UAE, as well as a number of women who had fled their abusive families, forcibly returning them to the country.
Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz reported that Canadian police had formally warned him about ongoing threats to his life by the Saudi government, though he lives in exile in Canada. Many exiled activists have told me death threats by phone and messages have persisted, no matter how often they would change their numbers and emails. True security and freedom remain elusive, even after the escape.
When Arab governments cannot get away with outright violence and kidnappings, they resort to bureaucratic persecution with insatiable vindictiveness, like refusing to renew the passports of exiles, or confiscating their property and assets at home.
Thousands of Egyptians who fled the coup to Turkey now have expired passports and live in limbo, without secure residency. Though he faced no charges or allegations of wrongdoing, Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, a former Egyptian member of parliament, described to me how Egyptian authorities confiscated the property he left behind, even his car. Khaled el-Qazzaz, a former adviser to the late President Mohamed Morsi, has had not only his own, but his entire family’s business and assets in the country, confiscated.
Most recently, Egyptian officials have sought to interfere with asylum claims of exiles in the US. As one asylum immigration lawyer told me the Egyptian government is covertly flooding Homeland Security agents with false accusations that asylum seekers are violent and dangerous because they were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, while it also seeks to lobby for legislation in Congress that would officially designate the Brotherhood as a “terrorist” group.
In one case in which I was involved, Egyptian asylum seeker Ahmed Abdelbasit was detained and placed in a deportation centre after the US authorities acted on Egyptian claims that he was linked to “terrorism”. Under the Egyptian military coup government, a court had sentenced him to death in absentia for his political activism in a sham trial against perceived political opponents. Fortunately, in August 2018, a New Jersey judge granted him asylum.
These spurious allegations compliment Arab governments’ rampant abuse of “red notices” to Interpol, alleging that exiled political opponents are wanted and dangerous, without a shred of evidence to support their claims.
Far worse, abusive governments now frequently target family members of political exiles in a form of state hostage-taking. In June, the Saudi government detained the two children of a former Saudi official, Saad al-Jabri, who had fled to Canada. His daughter, Sarah, 20, and son, Omar, 21, have been disappeared without charge since March.
Meanwhile, Egypt detained the cousins and uncles of US citizen and former political prisoner in Egypt, Mohammed Soltan, after he brought a lawsuit in a federal district court against former Prime Minister Hazem Beblawy, who is accused of overseeing the massacre of protesters in Rabaa Square in August 2013.
Survival and persistence in these awful circumstances are heroic, but not guaranteed. The vital work of most human rights and humanitarian organisations is rightly focused on exposing ongoing killings, torture, and massacres inside these Arab countries; the persecution of exiles rarely rises to the same level of emergency attention and coverage.
But as Sarah’s case illustrates, they too need our help and support, and there is a lot more we can do to support those who managed to escape. Social service and humanitarian relief organisations should establish dedicated funding for the unique psychosocial needs of exiles to help them heal and restart their lives.
Rights organisations, universities, UN agencies, socially-responsible employers, and news publications should dedicate resources to incorporate these exiles into their staff and provide them with opportunities to continue their activism.
Democracy for the Arab World Now, a new organisation of which I am a board member, plans to create an online space where exiles can publish their vision for the future. Many of these exiles could have a profound and positive impact on their home countries if provided with a platform to speak out.
Most recently, the Arab Diaspora Conference took an important step to gather Arab political exiles and create a support network for them. I met Sarah Hegazy at the conference in February; it was her first foray into a group event since she received asylum, and she told me that she had barely spoken to anyone for months. We tried to provide her with help and encouragement, but we did not do enough. We can and must do more for those still struggling.