Shaimaa el-Sabbagh by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh


On Sunday 1 February, four hundred days after his arrest for ‘illegally broadcasting from a hotel suite’, Peter Greste (LR, May 2014), a journalist for Al Jazeera English and an Australian national, was released from prison in Egypt and deported, following a recently enacted presidential decree that allows foreign detainees to continue their detention in their home countries. His two colleagues, Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy (a Canadian–Egyptian dual national) and producer Baher Mohamed (an Egyptian national), remained behind bars. However, renewed international pressure resulted in their release on bail almost two weeks later. Fahmy had to pay 250,000 Egyptian pounds (£21,000) for his freedom, but Mohamed did not have to post bail. Fahmy has asked to be deported to Canada but, despite having renounced his Egyptian passport, this option seems to have been ruled out. The case against the journalists will be reopened on 23 February.

While the release of the Al Jazeera journalists is welcome, freedom of expression continues to be widely suppressed in Egypt. The result is a lack of transparency and impunity for those who attack writers. A case in point is the murder of Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, a 31-year-old poet, and the subsequent media clampdown. On 24 January, Sabbagh was killed as she participated in a peaceful procession in Cairo to mark the fourth anniversary of the Arab Spring protests. Sabbagh was shot at close range with birdshot (often used by Egyptian security forces) as she walked in the procession to lay flowers in Tahrir Square. Her last moments were captured on video, which shows police wielding weapons of the type that killed her. Although the footage has been widely circulated on the internet, the authorities have imposed a media ban on reporting her death and the ongoing investigation. An Interior Ministry spokesman has reportedly ruled out police responsibility. The Hisham Mubarak Law Center claims that five witnesses who attempted to give investigators their account of the incident were charged with assaulting police officers and taking part in an illegal demonstration.

As a teenager in the late 1990s, Sabbagh would meet other poets in cafes around her native Alexandria and became one of a small group of published Egyptian poets working in the avant-garde style of free verse and using popular, colloquial Arabic. After the 2011 uprising, Sabbagh joined the Socialist Popular Alliance Party and regularly attended demonstrations. Her friends in Alexandria called her ‘the voice of the revolution’ because of her talent for leading chants. However, as her playful poem ‘A Letter to My Purse’ (translated here by Maged Zaher) illustrates, Sabbagh seems to have preferred writing about the details of ordinary life to political issues:

I am not sure
Truly, she was nothing more than just a purse
But when lost, there was a problem
How to face the world without her
Because the streets remember us together
The shops know her more than me
Because she is the one who pays
She knows the smell of my sweat and she loves it
She knows the different buses
And has her own relationship with their drivers
She memorizes the ticket price
And always has the exact change
Once I bought a perfume she didn’t like
She spilled all of it and refused to let me use it
By the way
She also loves my family
And she always carried a picture
Of each one she loves
What might she be feeling right now
Maybe scared?
Or disgusted from the sweat of someone she doesn’t know
Annoyed by the new streets?
If she stopped by one of the stores we visited together
Would she like the same items?
Anyway, she has the house keys
And I am waiting for her.

Sabbagh leaves behind a five-year-old son.

Readers might like to send appeals welcoming the release of Al Jazeera English journalist Peter Greste; calling for the convictions of Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed to be overturned; expressing serious concern at the murder of poet Shaimaa el-Sabbagh; calling for a prompt and thorough investigation into her death; and urging the authorities to immediately lift the media ban on the circumstances surrounding her death and the ongoing investigation.

Appeals to be sent to:

His Excellency Nasser Kamel
Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
26 South Street, London W1K 1DW

Update: The decapitated body of Mexican journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo (LR, February 2015) was discovered by the Veracruz state authorities on 24 January 2015. Clemente Noé Rodríguez Martínez, a gang member and former police officer, reportedly confessed to his role in the crime. He alleges that the journalist was killed on the day he was abducted on the orders of the mayor of Medellín de Bravo, Omar Cruz Reyes.

On 9 January 2015, Saudi blogger and activist Raef Badawi (LR, February 2013 & July 2014), imprisoned in May 2014 for insulting Islam and founding a liberal website, was flogged fifty times. This punishment was due to continue every Friday until he received a total of a thousand lashes. However, subsequent floggings have been postponed because Badawi had not recovered sufficiently from the previous punishment. English PEN is holding weekly vigils outside the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in London every Friday at 9am. All are welcome to attend. Readers might like to write to their MPs urging them to support Early Day Motion 720, condemning the sentence imposed on Badawi, and email the Saudi ambassador ( calling for Badawi’s unconditional release and for his sentence of flogging to be overturned. 

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