One of my colleagues has been named a terrorist by the Egyptian government. Authoritarian regimes, it turns out, don’t like it when human rights organizations criticize their efforts to quell dissent. For now, my colleague is safe, as he lives in the United States, yet in retaliation, Egypt has jailed and tortured his cousin and other members of his family.
Of course, I’m sickened, disgusted, worried for my friend. I can’t imagine being in his shoes: existentially threatened for having a voice and using it. I can’t imagine a scenario where I would have to watch my own family harmed because I refused to be quiet and continued to speak truth to power. Truth can be more burdensome than we like to realize or admit.
Yet, in the wake of watching these false allegations unfold thousands of miles away and as they so deeply impact my colleague, there are a few thoughts I haven’t been able to shake.
The first is that I don’t think “the powerful” are what we think they are. I think we have this tendency to view autocrats through a lens of their perceived power and deadly choices, and historically, we jump to labels that make the “bad” guys out to be some unstoppable force. When we do that, I think we make a grave mistake. We need to stop empowering autocrats with our own fear of them. I think that’s something my colleague and other dissidents and activists understand deeply when they choose to continue speaking out, to refuse to be silenced no matter the risks.
After all, there’s a reason autocrats act the way they do: it’s because they know the only difference between them and us is that they have something they are terrified to lose and that they will justify literally any behavior to keep it illustrates how flimsy and weak their actual power is. The ability to command an armed force, yes, is powerful and scary, but armed forces can turn on their leaders just as quickly as they can their people. Historically, Egypt is certainly a good example of that.
The other thought I haven’t been able to shake revolves around my own conviction that what is happening in Egypt is somehow safely distant and not a worry for more democratic societies. For what seems like forever, the United States has been a country that names and shames bad actors abroad, not one that has to look within to name and shame ourselves. That this is happening to my colleague brings it closer to home, yes, but I think what I’m trying to convey is that, despite our once-solid democratic institutions, the United States is by no means immune to becoming a society that seeks to quell dissent. We’re well on our way, in fact. If last year’s nearly 400 assaults on members of the press wasn’t proof of that, take a look at the words “murder the media” written on the doors of the Capitol on January 6 or the equipment that was destroyed not far from a gallows that was meant for our democratically-elected leaders.
We would be foolish to think those days are now behind us just because we have a new president. The Obama-Biden administration, after all, lead the charge on prosecuting leakers to quell dissent. And the Trump era unleashed something that will be with us for generations to come. Leaders like Al-Sisi were empowered by Trump’s fake news rhetoric, empowered even more by Trump’s denial of wrongdoing on the part of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in the wake of Khashoggi’s brutal murder. When Trump signaled to the world that you can murder a journalist and get away with it, is it any surprise that Egypt can so easily come after an employee of a human rights organization in the United States just a few years later? It doesn’t help that Biden doesn’t seem to be planning to sanction MBS.
Despite all this horrific news, all these things that keep me up at night, my colleague continues our courageous work. If he is a terrorist for speaking truth to power, then I guess so am I. I’ll stand with him as long as I can. And I’ll hold out hope that my own country never comes after dissenters the way Egypt and other countries have of late. Or if that day comes, I’ll try my damnedest to be the same person then I can be now while the threat isn’t at my front door. Until then, I’m just grateful for the freedoms I’ve still got, as long as I’ve still got them.