We must mobilize to amplify the voices of democratic change and stand up for prisoners of conscience.
One year after a mass of protests in the Middle East erupted and captivated the eyes of the world, the quest to vanquish despotic dictators and build functional democracies committed to protecting the rights of their citizens is ongoing, to say the least. Assad’s campaign of slaughter – and possibly ethnic cleansing – continues unabated in Syria, with the international community failing to muster the will to intervene. Meanwhile, Libya and Egypt – now liberated from the tyranny of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi, respectively – face the monstrous task of moving forward to build political, economic and social infrastructure.
However, the promise of true democracy has not yet been realized. The ruling Egyptian military council has initiated a brutal crackdown on dissent which, as Amnesty International recently reported, “bears all the hallmarks of the Mubarak era.” Indeed, we are witnessing the targeted suppression of bloggers, writers, and dissidents – youths who embody the ideals of the Arab Spring itself, and who have the courage to speak out against leaders who promise reform and fail to deliver.
I believe young people have an important role to play in giving a voice to, and supporting their peers in the Middle East – and indeed, around the world – who are resisting oppression in the streets and online. The case of 26-year-old Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad is especially relevant and should be urgently taken up by student activists. Sanad, an active leader in the Tahrir Square revolution, originally exclaimed on his blog that the “army and the people are of one hand.” However, following the military council’s repressive behaviour towards the protestors, he declared that the “army and the people are no longer of one hand.” For this Sanad was arrested and sentenced by a military tribunal to three years in prison for “insulting the military.” These military trials are devoid of fundamental civil rights to due process and presumption of innocence, and the Egyptian tribunal has a preposterous 93% conviction rate. Shockingly, there have been more of these trials during the military’s brief tenure than throughout the entire Mubarak era.
What makes Sanad’s case particularly unique is that he is a member of the heavily persecuted Coptic Christian community in Egypt, and in addition, he has voiced support for the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, at a time when much of Egyptian society – including the Muslim Brotherhood, currently leading the polls in the ongoing elections – is calling for the repeal of this landmark peace agreement. As such, it would seem highly appropriate for Jewish, pro-Israeli and “pro-peace” students to unite with Christian students, as well as campus human rights groups, in advocating for the immediate release of Maikel Nabil Sanad. The urgency cannot be overstated, as Sanad recently ended a hunger strike which lasted over 120 days. While the world celebrated New Years, he was moved to a prison hospital, his life hanging by a thread. The international community must demand that Egypt drop all charges against Sanad. Failing this, states should begin to consider consequences, such as the withholding of aid from the US and Europe.
We can draw inspiration from the massive and grassroots effort to stand up for persecuted Soviet Jews and advocate for the release of prisoners of conscience such as Natan Sharansky. Hundreds of thousands of people from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds gathered en masse around the globe to demand that President Mikhail Gorbachev release Sharansky. Indeed, it was on a visit to Canada that Gorbachev – while testifying before a Parliamentary agriculture committee (!) – was ceaselessly pushed and prodded about Sharansky’s case everywhere he turned, both inside and outside the Parliament buildings. Upon returning home, Gorbachev promptly ordered Sharansky’s release after nine years of torture in prison. Sharansky believes he was granted freedom when so many others were left to perish “because my nine years of imprisonment were accompanied by a relentless worldwide campaign and steady, unambiguous pressure on the communist regime by leaders of the free world. The regime knew that it would pay a heavy price if I were to die.”
Sharansky’s case is proof that advocacy works. What begins with civil society groups – people like you and I coming together – can find itself in the purview of our elected parliamentarians, who, with our encouragement and support, can choose to make the issue a priority. A point is reached when the state that is enabling or perhaps instigating human rights violations begins to pay attention, realizing its continued impunity may jeopardize political or economic ties with other states. Sharansky’s case became a priority for Gorbachev only once he was faced with pressures from other states. Also, in the Soviet era, US senators enacted legislation which made the provision of aid money contingent on steps taken by the USSR to release Soviet Jewish prisoners and stop persecution of Jewish citizens. We are constantly reminded that dictatorships will take action to protect human rights when it suits their interests.
Social Unrest, Social Media
While the campaign to free Maikel Nabil Sanad has enjoyed numerous high points – notably, the tireless work of Canadian Member of Parliament Irwin Cotler (who was, incidentally, Sharansky’s lawyer and is now serving as Sanad’s international legal counsel, at the request of his family) as well as the International Federation of Liberal Youth’s decision to name Sanad the first ever recipient of its “Freedom Award” – more action must be taken, as Sanad continues his perilous hunger strike.
Our generation’s expert use of social media tools leaves us well-suited to mobilize and raise awareness about the plight of these individuals. I recently returned from New York City where I had the pleasure of meeting David Keyes, who is leading the way in giving a virtual voice to pro-democracy activists in the Arab world including Iran. Keyes is the founder of Cyber Dissidents, which aims to “research and analyze Internet activists in the Middle East, translate and republish their works, and highlight repression against this group by authoritarian regimes.”
Keyes also recognizes the potential to build alliances between student leaders and dissidents, and as such he has launched a student movement fueled by “campus ambassadors” at nearly twenty universities. I strongly recommend checking out the website and signing up to get involved in this bold initiative, “dedicated to creating a unified voice behind those struggling for human liberty.” In a fitting nod to the Soviet era, Natan Sharansky – Keyes’ source of personal inspiration for his activism – serves as an Advisor to Cyber Dissidents.
Standing up for dissidents and prisoners of conscience allows us to uncover the human face behind the Arab Spring and, more generally, the quest to promote and protect universal human rights enshrined in international covenants. The experience of Maikel Nabil Sanad, and that of countless others just like him, calls for immediate action. Given his weak health, it may soon be too late.
The Mindthis online community is a wonderful, global example of young professionals uniting to exercise freedom of expression and allow people from different backgrounds and fields of study to learn about one another. I invite all readers to join me in efforts to ensure fundamental freedoms can be guaranteed to, and freely exercised by all humankind.