On March 5, 2023, the Egyptian poet Galal El-Behairy hunkered down in his Cairo prison cell and penned one last note.
“Today marks the beginning of my sixth year, a life wasted in prison, weighed down by daunting charges. Of all these charges, I committed only one — poetry. Today, I choose to exercise my right to rebel against this inhumanity by announcing a hunger strike that includes refusing my heart medication and antidepressants. My strike will continue until I depart from this place — alive or dead.”
These words, which El-Behairy managed to smuggle out of his cell to mark five years of political incarceration, were no metaphor: His undoing was indeed because of poetry.
On Feb. 26, 2018, a month before Egypt’s most recent presidential election, Ramy Essam, an exiled Egyptian musician and activist, released the song “Balaha.” The word is a pejorative moniker used by Egyptians to refer to the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The song lyrics, written by El-Behairy, lambasted the state of the Egyptian economy and the pervasive political corruption:
Your four-year reign has ended,
Your charade dragged on for too long.
We’re fed up with your face;
May the heavens glare at your bald head,
And may our curses hit their mark.
Gather your cronies, take them all,
And check in together at Al-Mazraa prison.
The video’s release led to the arrest of seven individuals involved with the song, which had amassed over 7 million views on YouTube. El-Behairy, the songwriter, was among them.
The group members, in addition to the exiled singer, Ramy Essam, were part of the cohort of creatives that emerged during the surge of artistic expression in the wake of the Jan. 25, 2011, revolution in Egypt. However, this artistic renaissance was short-lived. Following the 2013 coup d’etat, the military rule that followed was marked by massacres, mass arrests and an eradication of dissent. The Balaha group constituted an absurd, yet symbolic, collection of arrestees representing that period. Among them was the video clip director, Shady Habash, who ended his life in May 2020 in Tora prison, reportedly by alcohol poisoning from consuming hand sanitizer, and left a final note urging people to remember him. Other creatives in the case renounced politics and were later released, rebranding themselves as regime-friendly artists.
The Balaha case has become an allegory for the zero-sum game that revolutionary Egyptian artists face in today’s Egypt: a choice between death, exile, incarceration or silence. Of the group, five were released, one died and only El-Behairy remains behind bars five years later.
The same year “Balaha” was launched, El-Behairy had been gearing up to release a poetry collection titled “The Finest Women on Earth,” a play on words referencing the famous phrase often attributed to Prophet Muhammad describing Egyptian soldiers as “the finest soldiers on Earth.” Just five days after the release of “Balaha,” El-Behairy was apprehended at Cairo International Airport. He was forcibly disappeared for a week, only to reappear showing evident marks of torture when presented before the High State Security Prosecution. His charges were numerous, based on both “Balaha” and his poetry collection, encompassing allegations of terrorist affiliation, dissemination of false news, misuse of social media, blasphemy, contempt of religion and defamation of the military.
On July 31, 2018, El-Behairy was sentenced to three years in prison for his poetry. However, when the time came for El-Behairy’s release, the state found another way to hold him. They recycled El-Behairy in a new case based on similar accusations, a tactic the Egyptian regime frequently employs to keep dissidents incarcerated. While the state never explicitly stated it, it seems that Galal’s poetry collection, which criticized the Egyptian military, has earned him prolonged and more severe targeting from the authorities.
“Galal has surpassed the two-year limit for pretrial detention according to the Egyptian law even for the new case,” said his lawyer, Mokhtar Mounir. “He should have been released last month. His hunger strike is a final cry of protest.”
Within Egyptian prisons, the law mandates that hunger strikes must be officially documented, the strikers provided medical care and their health status monitored. However, the reality often diverges from this protocol. For El-Behairy, as for many others, the authorities have denied the legal documentation of the strike and instead applied intense pressure to force him to break it. On June 1, 2023, three months after declaring his hunger strike, El-Behairy ceased intake of water as well. His health rapidly deteriorated, necessitating hospitalization and urgent medical care. Only then was he moved to the hospital and, fearing for his life, he suspended his hunger strike. However, on Sept. 5, 2023, El-Behairy resumed the strike to protest his ongoing unlawful detention. Days later, he attempted to take his own life.
Mounir, El-Behairy’s lawyer, said that he has taken all legal measures to document the hunger strike. El-Behairy had announced strikes three times and Mounir filed formal requests to the public prosecution office for investigations at each instance. Only the third prompted the prosecution to discuss the reasons for the strike, which yielded no results.
“I can very much feel the despair consuming Galal, the same one that led him to make an attempt on his own life,” said Mounir, who has represented El-Behairy from the beginning through pre-trial detention, hearings, sentencing and beyond. “There seems to be no foreseeable end for his incarceration. And for what? Merely words.”
Since his arrest in 2018, PEN America has also been amplifying El-Behairy’s case on an international level, bringing it to the forefront of public and policy discussions.
Justin Shilad, the Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Lead at PEN America, told New Lines: “Given the U.S. government’s continuous aid to the Egyptian administration, it’s essential to underscore cases like Galal’s and question the very essence of this support. Is the U.S. government inadvertently endorsing the incarceration of poets and artists?”
Shilad also stressed the urgency of advocating for imprisoned poets and writers, saying that it signifies a direct assault on humanity’s innate ability to envision, contemplate and vocalize hopes and dreams. “Anyone who’s ever been moved by words understands the true stakes here,” Shilad said.
And while poetry landed El-Behairy in prison, it has also been his only solace behind bars throughout the harrowing years.
El-Behairy read his work to fellow prisoners, smuggled out his lyrics on scraps and exchanged poetry with other incarcerated poets. One of them was Ahmed Douma, an Egyptian poet, revolutionary figure and recently pardoned 10-year political prisoner. El-Behairy dedicated the last line of one of his most renowned poems, “Sign Bil Alwan,” to him: “Revolution is the solution, and go ask Douma.”
Douma and El-Behairy spent years at Tora Pre-Trial Detention prison, albeit in separate blocks. In Egyptian prisons, the clinic often serves as a rendezvous point for political prisoners looking to connect with friends from other blocks. On one occasion, the stars aligned and Douma and El-Behairy bumped into each other. As El-Behairy was exiting the clinic, Douma happened to be escorted in, surrounded by guards. They saw each other and halted. During a previous chance encounter, El-Behairy had mentioned to Douma that he was working on a new poem. He had tried to recite it then, but they were forcibly separated by the guards. So, upon running into each other at the clinic’s entrance that time, they did not waste a moment on pleasantries.
“Quickly, recite the poem!” Douma urged El-Behairy. Eyes closed in concentration, El-Behairy began to recite. He had committed to memory all of his poems and even a draft of a novel, which he would narrate to fellow inmates. As El-Behairy spoke, an officer yanked him away, and Douma pulled El-Behairy back to him. A near-comical tug-of-war played out between Douma and the officer, with El-Behairy continuing to recite in between them, until more guards hurried in to tear the two poets apart. It took three meetings spanning several weeks for El-Behairy to convey that single poem to Douma.
Over a year later, both men were transferred to Al-Mazraa prison in Tora. For months, they tried in vain to plot another meeting. When they failed, they looked for an alternative. Through careful arrangements, another inmate carried a notebook filled with El-Behairy’s handwritten poems to Douma.
“On gloomy prison evenings, I’d recite Galal’s verses to my cellmates and even to other prisoners in the block through the cell door’s porthole,” Douma recalled.
Some of his poetry managed to make its way beyond the prison walls. When it did, the exiled Egyptian singer and revolutionary icon, Ramy Essam, was always prepared in his studio to breathe life into them.
In March 2023, just two weeks after his initial hunger strike, El-Behairy wrote “Fiskooti Mooti” (“In My Silence Lies My Death”) and smuggled it out. Within weeks, Ramy transformed it into a recorded song. In the lyrics, he laments:
My voice denies me and shatters within
In my silence, death lurks, so I sing
But how can I hum my tunes for you, O homeland
If my demise lies in the melodies of a song
At Al-Mazraa prison, a year after Douma had received the smuggled collection, El-Behairy got hold of a notebook of Douma’s poems. Douma had initially gifted the collection to Ziad Al-Elaimy, another political prisoner. After borrowing it from Al-Elaimy, El-Behairy cherished the verses and held on to the collection as a keepsake. Not long after, Ziad was pardoned, followed months later by Douma. El-Behairy remains behind, with nothing but poetry, when found, to hold and tend to him.
“I’m uncertain whether Galal still has those poems or if they’ve been confiscated, as art usually is in prison.” Douma said. “I hope Galal can still read and write poetry in any capacity — it will always be a prisoner’s lifeline.”
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