From airport to prison: Gamal Al-Gamal and the illusion of ‘opposition from inside’

“I write without considering the low ceilings in a country where everything became low; a country where we plant roses in mud and reap thorns. We sing for hope and by hope, but we drown in poverty and despair; a country which we support but it lets us down.”

These were the words of journalist Gamal Al-Gamal which he posted on Facebook in April 2017, after the editor-in-chief of Al Masry Al Youm Egyptian daily abolished his column. Then, Al-Gamal set out on a journey that ended in the high security Tora Prison.

To exile in Istanbul

Gamal Al-Gamal is an Egyptian writer and journalist who adopts Nasserism – an ideology based on the ideas of the former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. He used to present himself as just “a free man,” a professional independent writer and an intellectual that has natural hostility towards authorities. He sees that the intellectual is a potential project against the authority, which adheres to keeping the status quo, while the intellectual longs for progression and development towards the better.

Al-Gamal opposed Mubarak’s regime and participated in the 25 January Revolution. Then, he supported the overthrow of the late president Professor Mohamed Morsi. However, Al-Gamal opposed Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and wrote against his policies in his column. In September 2014, Al-Gamal’s column in Al-Tahrir Egyptian daily was abolished after he received a telephone call from Abdel Fattah al-Sisi himself, who was angry at Al-Gamal for criticising his policies. Al-Gamal started writing in Al Masry Al Youm, another private daily with a wider space for freedom of expression, but his column was stopped again.

The last article of Al-Gamal, which was not published, was titled, “Why did al-Sisi declare the state of emergency?” in which he said that “al-Sisi is no less dangerous than terrorism,” and that “the declaration of emergency is to protect the ruling regime not Egypt.” Al-Gamal’s dismissal came after the arrest of Salah Diab, the Egyptian businessman who owns Al Masry Al Youm, who is in conflict with the current Egyptian authorities. Then, Al-Gamal issued a statement on Facebook saying, “down with censorship. They confiscated the sky. I came totally under siege and lost the last platform I call from for freedom and future, but, no problem, I will continue singing and distributing hope in roads.”

“I will resist ugliness and corruption and share life and dreams with the good people. At least, I achieved half of my dream: a fired bird is better than burning the nest with birds inside. The lean years taught me how to live with love and dignity as a free citizen, even if the country was handcuffed by chains, stupidity, and a narrow mind. I will continue, with you, the dream of a country that accommodates our words, prospects and even foolishness.” Late in 2017, Al-Gamal departed to Istanbul, where he was interviewed by several international media outlets, including Al Jazeera, BBC, and Al-Aalam, in which he attacked repression in al-Sisi’s Egypt.

Al-Gamal started writing for Al Jazeera and Arabi 21 news website. His first article from abroad was titled, “The writer who supported the coup,” in which he said that even if Al Jazeera is an anti-Egypt platform, it does not at least expropriate his freedom, and the state-sponsored Egyptian media is more hostile to the country than Al Jazeera. He worked for Al-Sharq TV as a host of the eight o’clock TV show. Al-Gamal said in 2019 that he thinks of going back to Egypt and becoming the “opposition from inside.” Al-Gamal added on Facebook, “I cannot adapt to living abroad and my role is not agitation but raising awareness.” On 22 February 2021, he came back to Egypt, where he was arrested immediately at the airport. As usual in Egypt, he remained disappeared for days before resurfacing before the Supreme State Security Prosecution, which put him in custody.

Opposition from inside

Al-Gamal’s friends said that the decision to return to Egypt came due to his homesickness and longing to see his son. Moreover, he suffers illness and he feared death outside Egypt. “My father got ill and decided to come back to Egypt fearing that he could die without seeing me again,” said Bahaa, Al-Gamal’s son, on Twitter. In March 2020, Bahaa issued a letter to his father saying, “We are all the same now. We are all in exile now. My father, our countries have narrowed, and our dreams have been suspended.” He added, “We will meet again when the world becomes free. Even if you went back to prison, you will persist like earth to meet later.”

Ironically, Al-Gamal’s detention immediately after his return was preceded by signals from the state-sponsored media that opponents who live abroad can come back and oppose the regime from inside Egypt. One of the messages was directed to Al-Gamal himself, when Nashaat Al-Deehi, a TV host, urged Al-Gamal, in a direct public message during his show, to come back and oppose the authorities without fear because “his hands are free of blood,” according to Al-Deehi’s words.

What happened with Al-Gamal has uncovered the illusion that the Egyptian regime can be opposed from inside Egypt, as Al-Gamal is not the first. In February 2018, the prominent Egyptian politician Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh was arrested at Cairo International Airport after returning from London where he made several interviews in which he attacked al-Sisi’s regime. So far, he is still in prison and being held in very bad conditions.