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Can Arabs Be Human Rights Defenders?

[10 October 2009, portrait of Andrei Sakharov by Dmitry Vrubel. East Side gallery, Berlin, Germany. Photo by Ana Raquel S. Hernandes via Flickr] [10 October 2009, portrait of Andrei Sakharov by Dmitry Vrubel. East Side gallery, Berlin, Germany. Photo by Ana Raquel S. Hernandes via Flickr]

In September the Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), a caucus of fifty-two members of the European parliament from nineteen political delegations and fourteen countries, nominated Mouad Belghouate, Ala Yaacoubi, and Alaa Abdel Fattah to receive the Sakharov Prize. The award, named after the late Soviet physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, was established by the European Parliament in 1988 to honor individuals and groups who strive to defend human rights and fundamental freedoms. 

Belghouate, who raps as “El Haked” or “The Angry,” is an activist in the Moroccan 20 February pro-democracy movement. He has been arrested three times and has spent at least sixteen months in jail since 2011 on dubious charges of insulting the police and assaulting a police officer. Yaacoubi, who raps as Weld El 15, is a Tunisian democracy activist. He was jailed for two years for having posted an online music video entitled “The Police Are Dogs.” He was released after the Ennahda-led interim government was removed from power in January 2014, giving Tunisia a better chance to establish a democratic regime than its neighbors. Abdel Fattah is an Egyptian blogger, software developer, and revolutionary. 

Abdel Fattah has the distinction of having been arrested by the Mubarak regime, the post-Mubarak interim regime of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and the regime installed by the military coup of 3 July 2013 led by current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He was also under investigation during Mohamed Morsi’s presidency on several trumped up charges. Most recently, he was arrested on 28 November 2013 for inciting a demonstration against the proposed constitution, which was adopted in January 2014. Policemen broke into Abdel Fattah’s home and confiscated his family’s electronic equipment. When he asked to see the warrant, they beat Abdel Fattah and his wife.

Only days earlier, the military-installed regime had issued a draconian law criminalizing public gatherings without obtaining prior government approval and giving security authorities the right to ban any public event deemed a threat to public order. On that basis, Abdel Fattah was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor, the harshest sentence given to any secular political activist since the crackdown on the Muslim Brothers following the military coup. After nearly ten months behind bars and a month-long hunger strike, he was released on bail on 15 September of this year pending a retrial.

The three Arabs nominated for the Sakharov Prize by the GUE/NGL were worthy nominees. They are youth with strong records advocating democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly, all of whom have been jailed for their convictions. They are emblematic representatives of the 2011 Arab popular uprisings and their repression in Egypt and Morocco.

Not so, wrote the online Wall Street Journal–a newspaper whose editorial qualifications to pass judgments on human rights include having vigorously advocated a criminal and costly war of aggression against Iraq in 2003, relying on repeated falsehoods and anti-Muslim incitement. This September, the diligent researchers of the WSJ discovered that Abdel Fattah had engaged in “tweets offensive to Israel”–a new variety of speech crime that has apparently been established in the wake of the Steven Salaita affair at the University of Illinois–Urbana Champaign.

According to the Online WSJ, in 2009, Abdel Fattah tweeted, “One should only debate human beings.  Zionists and other imperialists are not human beings.” In 2010 he tweeted “Dear zionists please do not ever talk to me, I am a violent person who advocated the killing of all zionists including civilians,” and, “My heroes have always killed colonialists." In 2012, he tweeted, “Assassinating Sadat is not something that should shame a man, but instead honor him.”

Responding precipitously to the decontextualized publication of these tweets, the GUE/NGL promptly withdrew its nomination of Abdel Fattah and his two colleagues, who have not been accused of “tweets offensive to Israel” or any similar transgression. Abdel Fattah responded to the news on his Facebook page:

… I *was* surprised when the president of the GUE/NGL decided to withdraw my nomination based on a mention in 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 WSJ about an-out of-context tweet. However, since they made the nomination … 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.

Abdel Fattah offers a detailed contextualization of the offending tweets. He believed he was communicating privately with a friend. We now know, thanks to Edward Snowden, that there is no privacy on the Internet. We also now know, thanks to the cases of Alaa Abdel Fattah and Steven Salaita, that communicating in 140 character snippets, especially if they include disparaging comments on Israel, can have serious unintended consequences.

If not Alaa Abdel Fattah, who is a worthy nominee for the Sakharov prize?  Ayaan Hirsi Ali, of course. In April of this year, students at Brandeis University forced their president to withdraw her proposed honorary degree because of her hate speech against Islam. Yet five months later, she was nominated for the Sakharov Prize by the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) parliamentary group–a collection of libertarian and conservative Euroskeptic parties whose constituent members embrace such democratic principles as limiting immigration, opposing multiculturalism, questioning the science of climate change, and opposing same-sex marriage.

Ali did not make the list of finalists for the Sakharov Prize, although she was not subjected to the public denunciation that Alaa Abdel Fattah experienced. The finalists are the Ukrainian Euromaidan movement, the Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege and Azerbaijani human rights activist Leyla Yunus. European parliamentarians are apparently not discomfited by Euromaidan, even though ultra-nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-fascists participated in it.

The reason that EFDD is not embarrassed to nominate Ali, while the GUE/NGL is embarrassed to nominate Abdel Fattah, is that most European discussions of the Middle East–left, right, and center–take place under the shadow of the Holocaust. Of course, Europeans should remember that dark era and its murderous anti-Semitism. But the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has only indirect links to Europe of the 1930s and 1940s. The most important connection, as Edward Said repeatedly wrote, is that the Palestinians are “the victims of the victims, the refugees of the refugees.” It is long past time that European political parties, especially those of the left, understand that this is the most fundamental context of much of what Arabs have said about Jews in the last sixty-six years.

[The piece is co-published by Mada Masr and Jadaliyya] 

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