For some reason, I always had a feeling that I would end up in prison.
Somewhere at the edge of my awareness, I thought I would end up being a prisoner of conscience for speaking against injustice in some part of the world. I remember reading prison memoirs, etching in my mind the ways prisoners said they survived their torture, just in case I would need these strategies myself. This bizarre fear turned out to come true, but not for myself; my younger sister Aya is the one who is imprisoned in Egypt.
Today is the 900th day that Aya has been held in illegal pretrial detention over absurd and unfounded charges. Her hearings have been unjustifiably postponed numerous times over the past two and a half years. Sadly, Aya is like many other students, activists, humanitarians and intellectuals imprisoned as part of the Egyptian government’s crackdown on any hint of dissidence.
Aya and I were born into an Egyptian American family. We grew up in Falls Church. Aya graduated from George Mason University with a degree in conflict analysis and resolution. Afterward, she moved to Egypt, finished a law degree from Cairo University and with her husband founded the Belady Foundation, which aims to shelter and rehabilitate marginalized street children.
It is terrifying to imagine my young sister, imprisoned in a country whose judiciary is often a mockery of justice on horrifying, bogus charges of child trafficking and sexual exploitation that can carry a life sentence — and with no certainty that we can do anything to free her. Many days, I maintain a near-suppression of Aya’s situation in my mind so that I can lead a semblance of a normal life. Other days, I remind myself that Aya’s situation is not as bad as others’ in who have died under torture or have been forcibly disappeared in Egypt and other places around the world. What I don’t confront during the day about Aya’s situation makes an appearance at night, when I wake up suffocating and gasping for air. I get nightmares about visiting Aya in prison, panicked that I, too, may be taken and forgotten, only to feel ashamed in my dream that I’m worried about myself, when the worry should be about her. For my last birthday in January, Aya gave me a bracelet and a card thanking me for not forgetting her. I thought to myself how prison must be such a breaking experience that one must feel the need to thank her own sister for doing that.
Every time we get media coverage or someone important takes note of our case, I think about the thousands of people who are similarly imprisoned unjustly but who may not have the same avenues to make their voices heard. I feel overwhelming guilt about the futility of their cases. Then I remember that throughout history, persecuted individuals have often carried the burden of screaming the loudest to get the grease.
For a long time, our family thought it was best to not make a fuss of Aya’s case in the United States. We knew about the delicate balance of U.S.-Egyptian relations and thought we should work quietly with Egyptian human rights organizations and the legal channels at our disposal to secure her release. Two and a half years later, it is evident this won’t happen. Our main hope for Aya is for sustained pressure from American citizens and the U.S government to be put upon the Egyptian authorities. We are relieved that our recent lobbying efforts garnered the support of various members of Congress and State Department officials. But we are frustrated that our government seems to feel too shackled to do more to release an unjustly detained American citizen, especially considering that the United States sends billions of dollars of aid to Egypt.
Our family always prized our hyphenated Middle Eastern-American identity. We felt incredibly lucky to have the privilege of mobility between the two worlds and the opportunity to blend what we cherished about them both. Aya decided to take her American education and skills to Egypt to serve those less fortunate. Never did we imagine that it was at the fault line of these two worlds that Aya would fall and land in prison under the headline “American woman heads child trafficking gang in Egypt.” We understand that relations between Egypt and the United States are tenuous and that Egypt’s leadership is difficult to negotiate with. Our government has succeeded in freeing Americans in Iran, Egypt and other countries in the past, and it can and must succeed again.
In Egypt’s climate of paranoia about Western interference, Aya’s American identity helped land her in prison. It should be her American government that helps free her.
Alaa Hijazi is an Arab American clinical psychologist and university professor based in Beirut.