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‘False news’ charges put this Egyptian poet in prison

Since Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s re-election in April, regular crackdowns on political dissidents and artistic expression have continued. Well-known Egyptian singer Sherine was sentenced to six months in prison for joking that drinking from the Nile would give you parasites. The government accused her spreading “false news” when she told her audience to “drink Evian instead.”

Poet Galal El-Behairy is another target of the Egyptian government, arrested in March for penning “The Finest Women on Earth,” his latest collection that is supposedly critical of the Egyptian military. But it was his lyrics for singer Ramy Essam’s “Balaha” that incited the ire of the president after reaching more than 4 million views on YouTube.

In addition to the lyrics condemning government corruption, the song’s title is also the name of a satirical movie character — a patient in an insane asylum — that is used as a disparaging nickname for el-Sissi.

El-Behairy has been held in Cairo’s Tora Prison for the last five months on charges of “insulting security forces” and “disseminating false news.” The prison gained the moniker “the Scorpion” for its violent reputation, and houses thousands of political prisoners. When El-Behairy made his first court appearance after his arrest, he showed signs of physical torture and beatings, according to human rights organizations advocating for his release. In late July, he was sentenced by the Egyptian military court to three years in prison, according to attorney Mokhtar Mounir.

Known for his writings on women’s rights, self-determination and freedom of expression, El-Behairy is the author of two other books of poetry, “Chairs Factory” (2015), and “Colorful Prison” (2017), which shares the title of a hit song (“Segn Bel Alwan”) that El-Behairy wrote for the now-exiled Essam, who is known as “the singer of Tahrir Square.”

The UN released a statement last month urging the Egyptian government to release the imprisoned poet, citing concern over government arrests of artists for “dubious charges.”

“We have received allegations that it is increasingly common for artists, activists and journalists to be arrested and detained on charges such as ‘publishing false news’,” UN experts are quoted in the statement.

Since his arrest, Dar Da’ad Publishing and Distribution terminated their contract with El-Behairy, despite his claims his newest book is actually a testament to “the value of women and of their good deeds in this world.”

El-Behairy wrote a statement in defense of his work, asserting that there was never any criticism of the military in the piece. He also defended his rights to express anger over the state of Egyptian politics.

“Being against the events that are happening in the country does not disgrace me….each one of us has a personal vision that does not contradict the country’s interest,” he wrote. “I am like you, all of you: an Egyptian young man who tries to live and build for himself and for the next generation something real and secure that guarantees them a decent life.”

Several international organizations dedicated to literary freedoms, including Arablit and the PEN Centers, released a poem El-Behairy wrote from Tora Prison. Reflecting his eternally forward-looking perspective, the poem “sees” a renewed, free Egypt: “We saw a country/a country/ rise from sleep/ to trample a pharaoh/ and cleanse the age/ of the cane and cudgel…. a country/where no one is oppressed.”

Read a poem written by El-Behairy from prison below, originally written in Arabic. The translator wished to remain anonymous for fear of potential repercussions for himself or his family.

A Letter from Tora Prison

You, something
in the heart, unspoken,
in the throat, the last wish
of a man on the gallows
when the hour of hanging comes,
the great need
for oblivion; you, prison
and death, free of charge;
you, the truest meaning of man,
the word “no”—
I kiss your hand
and, preparing for the trial,
put on a suit and pray
for your Eid to come.
I’m the one
who escaped from the Mamluks,
I’m the child
whose father’s name is Zahran,
and I swim in your name, addiction.
I’m the companion of outlawed poets.
O my oblivion, I’m the clay
that precedes the law of concrete.

In the heart of this night
I own nothing
but my smile.
I take my country in my arms
and talk to her
about all the prisoners’ lives… out there
beyond the prison’s borders,
beyond the jailer’s grasp,
and about man’s need… for his fellow man,
about a dream
that was licit
and possible,
about a burden
that could be borne
if everyone took part in it.

I laugh at a song
they call “criminal,”
which provoked them
to erect a hundred barricades.
On our account, they block out the sun
and the thoughts in the head.
They want to hide the past
behind locks and bolts,
preventing him from whispering
about how things once were.
They want to hide him
by appointing guards—
weak-minded foreigners
estranged from the people.
But what wonder is this?
His fate is written
in all the prison cells.
His cell has neither bricks
nor steel,
and he was not defeated
within it.
Outside… a squadron of slaves.
Inside… a crucified messiah.
The thorns above his brow
are witnesses: You betrayed his revolution
with your own hands.
With shame in your eyes, you
are the Judases of the past,
whatever your religion, whatever
miniscule vision you have.
We’ve come back
and we see you.

You who imprisoned
the light, that naked groaning.
The light doesn’t care
how tall the fence is;
it’s not hemmed in
by steel bars
or officers’ uniforms.
It cannot be forgotten.
You can take a public square away from us,
but there are thousands and thousands of others,
and I’ll be there, waiting for you.
Our land will not betray us.
With each olive branch
we’re weaving your shrouds.
And the young man you killed
has come back, awake now
and angry.
He’s got a bone to pick
with his killer.
He’s got a bone to pick
with the one who betrayed him,
the one who, on that night of hope,
acquiesced, fell silent, and slept.
His wound has healed; he’s come back,
a knight
without a bridle;
he’s setting up the trial
while an imam prays among us
and illumines the one who was blind;
he’s rolling up his sleeves, preparing
for a fight;
he was killed—yes, it’s true—and yet
he has his role in this epic;
he stands there now
and holds his ground.

We’ve returned
to call on God
and proclaim it: “We’ve come back,
come back
hand in hand.”
Again we proclaim it: “We’ve come back,
and we vow
to spread the light,
the new dawn,
the keen-sighted conscience.”
We’ve come back, and we can smell
the fear in in your veins;
and our cheers tonight
are the sweetest of all:
“We are not afraid.
We are not afraid.”

We saw a country
rise from sleep
to trample a pharaoh
and cleanse the age
of the cane and cudgel.
We saw a country sing:
those were no slave songs,
no harbingers of doom, rather
songs fitting
for a new kind of steel.
We saw it.
We saw a country
where no one is oppressed.

written by Galal El-Behairy (2018), published by Artists at Risk Connection