On October 1, 2014, European United Left/Nordic Green Left European Parliamentary Group (GUE/NGL) rescinded its nomination of Egyptian activist, Alaa Abd El Fattah, for the Sarkhov Prize, which is awarded each year by the European Parliament in support of “freedom of thought.” The nomination was purportedly retracted based on tweets sent by Alaa, over the course of the last few years. While the GUE/NGL statement references his alleged “call for a critical number of Israelis” to be murdered, no link or other evidence of the offending tweet is provided. The group’s decision came only one day after a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) editorial titled, “A Dissident for Hate: A nominee for the Sakharov Prize has called for violence against Israeli civilians.” Excerpted below, the article, which is quite short, does little more than string together a series of tweets purportedly sent by Alaa between 2009 and 2012:
“One should only debate human beings,” he tweeted in 2009. “Zionists and other imperialists are not human beings.” In late 2010 he tweeted: “Dear zionists please don’t ever talk to me, I’m a violent person who advocated the killing of all zionists including civilians.”
“My heroes have always killed colonialists,” Mr. Abdel Fattah tweeted in 2010, linking to a news article marking the death of Abu Daoud, the Palestinian terrorist who masterminded the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of 11 Israeli athletes. In 2012 he wrote: “Assassinating [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat isn’t something that should shame a man, but instead honor him.”
The editorial went on to call for the nomination’s withdrawal:
Such stunts sully the legacy of Andrei Sakharov who, according to his wife, the dissident Yelena Bonner, once said that “all wars that Israel has waged have been just, forced upon it by the irresponsibility of Arab leaders.” The European Parliament should uphold this distinction and remove Mr. Abdel Fattah’s name from the list.
Whatever you may think about Alaa’s views, it is hard to credit the WSJ’s argument that his statements amount to a “call for violence against Israeli civilians.” The closest contender (“Dear zionists please don’t ever talk to me, I’m a violent person who advocated the killing of all zionists including civilians.”) seems to have been written with sarcasm. In any case, as Alaa himself has pointed out, the only way to truly know the message and intention behind these tweets is to examine the context and speak to the man himself. Given the current realities he faces in his own country, the committee’s decision to eschew any such investigation and summarily withdraw its nomination could place the well-known political activist in even greater danger
In a Facebook post published on October 6, Alaa publicly responded to the GUE/NGL’s decision:
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’s statement on rescinding Alaa’s nomination is included below, followed by the full text of Alaa’s response.
Who is in the right? Is Alaa being punished for expressing a point of view? Or did the committee behave correctly? Let us know by leaving comments on this post or Tweeting to @MuftahOrg?
GUE/NGL Group President Gabi Zimmer on the 2014 Sakharov Prize
As in previous years, our group put forward candidates for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize. This year we proposed three bloggers who were victims of repression in their respective countries because they had expressed their opinions and were therefore symbolic of violations of freedom of expression.
It emerges that one of the bloggers we proposed, Alaa Abdel Fatah who was a victim of repression in Egypt and jailed several times, called for the murder “of a critical number of Israelis” in a tweet in 2012. We did not avail of this information when we put forward his candidacy.
Needless to say, we cannot and will not tolerate such behaviour. This call goes against all our principles as well as the criteria for nomination for the Sakharov Prize. Our group has always favoured debate and political confrontation between peoples, including the Israeli people.
It is in this context that our group has decided to withdraw its proposal.
It was with joy that I received the news of my nomination to the Sakharov prize, the same joy any act of solidarity inspires.
Since my release from prison in Egypt on bail, with my fate still bound to the Special Terrorism Courts and the draconian Protest Law, I’ve been facing constant harassment from official and unofficial representatives of the regime. New trumped-up criminal charges pop up every few days. A horde of political talk-show hosts on supposedly independent TV stations discuss old and out-of-context tweets, twisting my words and assigning sinister implications to them. There’s an insistent tarnish campaign meant to prepare the general public for my eventual return to prison. Needless to say, I’m banned from appearing on local TV stations, and I’m forbidden to travel outside Egypt.
So it is solidarity such as that of GUE/NGL that creates the pressure to keep me out of jail and out of harm. It was also a comfort to find comrades in unexpected places; GUE/NGL’s stance against neo-liberal policies and against the distortion of European democracy seemed in line with the aspirations of persecuted revolutionaries in Egypt and the broader Arab context.
I was proud to be nominated along with Tunisian rapper, Weld el 15, and Moroccan rapper, El 7aqed, both imprisoned for insulting the police in their popular songs. I was relieved that the MEPs who nominated us understood the point of doing symbolic/verbal violence to the image of the powerful who consistently commit systemic actual violence to the bodies, souls and livelihood of the powerless; relieved that the MEPs understood the meaning of questioning the humanity of those who derive their power from dehumanizing their opponents.
I was not surprised when a new tarnish campaign was launched in reaction to my nomination. My family has faced such campaigns before by supporters of the Israeli occupation and Israeli apartheid. The latest when my sister, Mona Seif, was shortlisted for the Martin Ennals Award. But 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 and made it 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.
The GUE/NGL’s president’s statement claims that I “called for the murder of a critical number of Israelis”. For what it’s worth, here is what I would have said if anyone from GUE/NGL or any other MEPs had asked me to clarify:
The tweet in question is certainly shocking if taken out of context, but even then it cannot be framed as “a call” for anything. It was a “mention” to two friends, part of a private conversation – a thread spanning multiple tweets – that took place over a public medium (limited to 140 characters) on the first night of Israel’s 2012 attack on Gaza. A conversation between friends who already knew enough about each others’ views to make it unnecessary to clarify and elaborate, for instance, the distinction between civilians and combatants – as one would if one were making a public statement. As this was not a public statement, only those who follow all three of us on Twitter would have had this tweet appear on their timeline at 2am on the 15th of November 2012. And even after the tarnish campaign it has only been retweeted 4 times.
To pretend that you can interpret this tweet two years later without consulting the people involved in the conversation, and to claim that it constitutes a call to action, is simply ridiculous. That I should now feel the need to explain and clarify what wasn’t intended for a general public in the first place, and to be condemned for my thoughts not my actions in such a manner is clearly an attack on my personal liberty. The chilling effect of having to adapt to such harassment and condemnation should be perfectly clear for those honoring Sakharov’s legacy.
The conversation relating to the war on Gaza started with a friend expressing her doubt that the conflict would ever be resolved by local actors. I and the other friend in the conversation replied insisting that like most such conflicts it will be resolved locally. The tweet stated what seems to be the basic strategy of most national liberation movements, especially those that opt for armed resistance: to make the price of occupation/colonization/apartheid too expensive for the society that supports it. The strategy of the Palestinians is exactly that – via both violent and nonviolent means (BDS and armed resistance for example). Since this was during a time of war I had the armed resistance in mind. Think of Vietnam or Algeria; many would say this is exactly what happened: after a critical number of casualties in asymmetric wars the civilian population supporting the occupier refused to continue its support – despite the fact that the casualties suffered by the society resisting colonisation were massively higher.
My tweet was not a call for anything, it was not even a statement of opinion. It was a statement of one of the facts of the conflict. If GUE/NGL had asked me about my views I would have directed them to my March 2012 debate on Deutsche Welle:
It should perhaps be remembered that the first laureate of the Sakharov prize was Nelson Mandela back in 1988, when he and the ANC were considered terrorists by many democratic governments. At the time, his views on the necessity of violence for resisting apartheid must have required and inspired complex debates on appropriate tactics and strategies, the rules of engagement, the moral, political and social limitations that should be put on revolutionary violence, etc. There would have been plenty of statements attributable to him or his comrades – including the famous Rivonia Trial speech in which he admits to planning sabotage – that would have looked pretty scary out of context.
Finally: I hardy ever call for any solution or action on my own. As an individual I have always expressed my opinions and positions in the clearest and strongest language. But as an activist I have always worked for any given cause with and through the largest united front possible. When it comes to calls for solutions or actions, and for the sake of consensus, I would make the very compromises I refuse to make when speaking only for myself.
More importantly I do not call for anything when it is not a cause that directly I’m directly engaged with. I stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people but I never presume to tell them what to do.
If my views on violence – specifically against civilians – are what is in question the answers can be found in my actions and my published views in my local context and my own struggle: in Egypt.