North Africa, West Asia: Feature

‘Always an outsider’: The Egyptians in exile both abroad and at home

The scars of suspicion and alienation on those affected can last a lifetime

Maged Mandour
17 March 2021, 12.00am
People standing at a memorial to honour and celebrate the life and bravery of Sarah Hegazi in Amsterdam in June 2020
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VWPics / Alamy Stock Photo . All rights reserved

“Exile is more than a geographical concept. You can be an exile in your homeland, in your own house, in a room.” – Mahmoud Darwish.

On 1 February, Ahmed Samir Santawy, an Egyptian anthropology Master’s student in the Central European University, entered the office of Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA) in Cairo. His father was waiting for him outside the building. A week earlier, Santawy’s home had been raided by masked men, but he was not there so they had requested that he hand himself into the NSA.

After presenting himself to the police station, Santawy disappeared for six days, and the NSA denied knowing his whereabouts. When he finally appeared in the Supreme State Security Prosecution, he was charged with belonging to a terrorist organisation and spreading false news, a blanket list of charges used by the Egyptian regime against its perceived opponents.

Santawy was questioned regularly by the security forces after he started his Master’s degree in September 2019. They asked him about his reasons for travelling abroad and the subject of his studies, in what appeared to be a ritual exercise of state power. His research revolves around women’s reproductive rights in Islam, nothing that would be perceived as overtly ‘political’ or threatening to the regime, nor did he have a history of political activism.

Santawy was beaten while in custody, and is now under pre-trial detention, which can effectively be prolonged indefinitely, as he awaits trial.

Soil of the homeland

A few weeks after the disappearance of Santawy, Gamaal el-Gamal, an Egyptian journalist in exile in Turkey, decided to return home. El-Gamal was initially supportive of the 2013 coup that brought Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to power, however, he later became critical of the new regime.

He was banned from writing in 2015, after he received a 20-minute call from Sisi, where the president admonished him for an article in which he criticised the inability of the regime to provide basic services to citizens. El-Gamal was forced to move to Turkey in 2017, where he launched a talk show and started to criticise the regime from this relative safety.

In 2019, Nashaat al-Dihi, a talk show host with close connections to security services, pleaded with El-Gamal to return and be part of the domestic opposition. Upon his return to Cairo on 22 February, El-Gamal was immediately arrested at the airport and charged with spreading false news. He has since joined Santawy in pre-trial detention.

The return of El-Gamal is rumoured to have been caused by his deteriorating health, and his inability to deal with the alienation of exile. The news of his arrest prompted the Nasserist politician Hamdeen Sabahi to tweet that “the soil of the homeland, even in a jail cell, is better than the freedom of exile”.

But not all stories of exile end with a return to a jail cell, some endings are, arguably more tragic.

Raising the rainbow flag

In June 2020, Sarah Hegazi, a leftist LGBTQ+ activist took her own life in exile in Canada. Hegazi had raised a rainbow flag during a concert of the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila in 2017. The band is seen as a symbol of the LGBTQ+ movement in the Middle East, with an openly gay frontman.

Hegazi was detained by the regime security forces for three months for raising the rainbow flag and charged with promoting “debauchery”. She was tortured and sexually assaulted while in detention, suffering from PTSD after her release.

In an interview with CBC after fleeing to Canada she said: "I want to get over it and I want to forget.

"But no, I'm still stuck in prison."

Her mother passed away while she was in exile, and she could not say goodbye

Her exile in Canada brought her physical safety but did not relieve her from physiological wounds.She said that "home is not land and borders. It's about people you love."

"Here in Canada, I haven't people, I haven't family, I haven't friends. So, I'm not happy here," Hegazi said.

Her mother had passed away while she was in exile, and she could not return to say goodbye. Hegazi’s death sparked a debate online, with her friends and sympathisers praying for mercy for her soul, in the traditional Muslim manner, while detractors argued that heavenly mercy does not apply to a queer woman. Her death did not end her exile, which seemed determined to follow her in the afterlife.

‘Alone and helpless’

Exile is not limited to those forced to flee the regime. There are also those who languish in internal exile, inside the regime’s dark, small cells, subjected to not only state violence but social ostracisation.

Egyptian journalist Solava Magdy was arrested in November 2019 with her husband. She has been held in pre-trial detention since. In January she reported being tortured, sexually assaulted and being subjected to a forced gynaecological examination, which led to bleeding. She claimed that this was an attempt to pressure her to act as an informant on behalf of the security forces, a task she refused. The interior ministry denied the allegations.

Exile was the only option for those who opposed the regime’s massacres

Exile is a state of alienation and marginalisation, a constant feeling of being an outsider, a person on the margins, alone and helpless. It is not connected to lands or borders, but to a social condition. A person can be an exile in their homeland, if they belong to what the anti-colonial thinker Franz Fanon rightly called “the wretched of the Earth”.

In Egypt it stems from the Rabaa massacre, where at least 817 protesters were massacred in a few hours, marking the start of the bloodletting that followed the coup of 2013. This event drew a line in the sand between the opponents of the regime and its supporters. There is not enough space for both.

Exile was the only option for those who opposed the regime’s massacres. Internal exile to the dark cells of the regime, or to the grave, or a social exile where they become a lesser version of themselves, hiding in plain sight.

Those who escaped to external exile found another type of dehumanisation awaiting them, living as marginalised and suspect communities in countries where they are often seen not as individuals but as one-dimensional villains; where they found themselves subjected to the whims of an increasingly right-wing political elite and used as scapegoats.

The true tragedy of exile, in all its forms, is that alienation and dehumanisation are not reversible. Those who suffer from them continue to carry its imprints for the rest of their lives.

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