Ahmed Douma by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

Ahmed Douma


‘Nothing is more precious than the opening of a new window onto the world… or onto freedom. This is true everywhere, but it is especially true here,’ writes Ahmed Douma in Tajdīf (‘Blasphemy’), translated by Ahmed Hassan and Elliott Colla.

Our world is measured by the freedom we possess. We might spend our whole life boring a hole to squeeze through.

Here, the complex problem we face has to do with the thickness of the walls: they are impenetrable.

Yes, the window remains, one-sided as ever. But, as I tell my soul and its wishes, the window is merely the beginning of error. It is confusing that it looks at you while you cannot see. Very confusing.

Douma is an Egyptian poet and activist who participated in the 2011 mass demonstrations and has been arbitrarily detained since December 2013. He uses poetry to write about his involvement in the Egyptian revolution, his hopes and aspirations. In his 2012 collection Soutak Talee (‘Your Voice is Heard’), published by Dewan, he touches on his experiences with several youth and reformist movements in Egypt, including Kefaya and the April 6 Youth Movement. In later works, he describes his detention and the oppression he has faced.

Douma has spent much of the last decade in prison, in spite of several changes of government. His persecution dates back to the authorities’ violent dispersal of a sit-in staged by protesters outside the cabinet offices in central Cairo between 16 and 20 December 2011. The clashes became known as the ‘cabinet clashes’. According to Amnesty International, during these protests, security forces killed eighteen protesters, injured more than nine hundred others and subjected several women to sexual and gender-based violence. Hundreds of people were arrested for their involvement in the protest, many of whom complained of torture and other ill-treatment.

In January 2012, Douma was detained on charges of ‘incitement to violence’ and ‘assaulting police and armed forces’. Three months later, he was provisionally released pending further investigation. In March 2013, he was involved in violent clashes at the Muslim Brotherhood’s Moqattam headquarters and detained as a result. He was also charged with insulting Egypt’s then-president, Mohamed Morsi, and given a six-month suspended sentence. In December 2013, he was rearrested in the aftermath of the enactment of a draconian law restricting freedom of peaceful assembly. He was later tried, convicted and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, to be followed by three years of parole. In 2015, while in prison, Douma was charged with ‘illegal assembly’ and ‘assaulting security forces’ for his participation in the 2011 clashes. He was handed a 25-year prison sentence and fined 17 million Egyptian pounds following a grossly unfair trial. The judge sentenced him to a further three years’ imprisonment for ‘insulting the judiciary’ during the hearing.

Douma’s latest collection, Curly, was published by El Maraya, which displayed his poetry at the 2021 Cairo International Book Fair. However, security officials visited the publishing house’s stand at the fair and asked representatives to remove his poetry.

Douma powerfully describes his confinement in poem #12 in the collection, translated by Hassan and Colla:

My cell sings you a song
Whose melody opposes return
Whose lyrics grant me
A little song that, in hope, resembles
A homeland’s embrace
An embrace wide enough for all
A homeland
That is not merely a collection of graves.

Douma’s physical health has deteriorated as a result of the poor conditions in which he is being held. The eight years he has spent in solitary confinement have had a devastating impact on his mental health. PEN and other human rights organisations believe his detention is punishment for his critical views.

Readers might like to write appeals expressing concern that Ahmed Douma has been targeted because of his political activism and opposition to the authorities, asserting that banning his poetry violates his right to freedom of expression, and calling on the Egyptian government to lift the ban on his writing and release him immediately.

Appeals to be addressed to:

His Excellency Mohamed Ashraf M Kamal Elkholy
Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
26 South Street, London W1K 1DW
Fax: +44 20 7491 1542
Email: eg.emb_london@mfa.gov.eg

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Office of the President
Al-Ittihadia Palace
Cairo, Arab Republic of Egypt
Fax: +202 2 391 1441
Email: p.spokesman@op.gov.eg / moh_moussa@op.gov.eg

Update: In February 2022, twelve Egyptian activists, including Galal El Behairy (LR, July 2018), began a hunger strike in protest at their unlawful detention at Tora Prison Complex. At the time of writing, their physical condition is fragile. PEN continues to call on the Egyptian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the activists and all those currently held in detention for peacefully exercising their right to free expression.

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