By Elliott Colla
It is something of a badge of honor that Egypt’s most renowned modern poet, the late Ahmed Fouad Negm, was arrested, detained, tried, and imprisoned so many time during his career. Given the deep ideological differences between Egypt’s first three presidents—Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak—it is remarkable that all three agreed on this one point: Negm belonged in jail for the dangerous eloquence of his poetry. Of course, Negm’s case is not necessarily so uncommon: in countries ruled by dictators, we expect to find the just and the righteous languishing in jail, especially when they are eloquent.
Negm was not the only Egyptian poet to grace Egyptian jails, before him came many. And today, there are more. But few as compelling as Ahmed Douma, a young poet who, like Negm, has been arrested by every Egyptian president of his lifetime. Like Negm before him, Douma has been active in nearly every Egyptian social movement of his day. As with Negm, Douma has been arrested, detained, tried and imprisoned—twenty-two times thus far. As with Negm, prison has not stopped Douma from speaking of freedom.
Born in 1989 in the Beheira Governorate, Ahmed Douma was raised in a family milieu dominated by talk of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist movement. In 2004, Douma heard about the birth of a new pro-democracy movement, Kefaya. He promptly left for Cairo and joined the struggle. This caused tensions with his Brotherhood family and friends who were suspicious of the movement. Against the wishes of Brotherhood leaders, Douma supported the 2008 April 6 workers’ strike in Mahalla al-Kubra, one of the most significant expressions of dissent during Mubarak’s final years. Douma broke with the Brothers even further when, along with Mohammed Adel and Ahmed Maher, he founded the April 6 Youth Movement, which would later become one of the hallmark groups of the 2011 uprising. After a 2009 solidarity action with Gaza, Douma was arrested in Rafah, then tried by a military tribunal; he was tortured during his detention.
On 25 January 2011, Douma was one of the very first activists to arrive at Midan Tahrir. He didn’t leave until Mubarak was deposed. When Mubarak was replaced by another tier of generals (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF), he went back to work, taking part in a sit-in outside cabinet offices in protest of military rule. The sit-in was violently dispersed and Douma was detained on charges that he had attacked the military with Molotov cocktails.
Egyptians elected Mohamed Morsi in 2012, but the choice did not impress many, including Douma. Protesting the violent behavior of Brotherhood activists, Douma called Morsi a criminal on television. He was quickly arrested and sentenced for insulting the president. The following year, Morsi was overthrown in a military coup d’état. The new junta secured their power by way the Rabaa and Nahda massacres in which hundreds of unarmed Egyptians were killed in cold blood by the Egyptian military. These unprecedented events rightfully terrified many who had previously participated in protests and effectively ended a decade of rolling street protests. Undaunted, Douma participated in a 2013 protest against new anti-protest laws. He was arrested, fined, and sentenced to three years in jail. While in prison, Douma was retried for the 2011 Cabinet sit-in. The judge leveled a $2.25 million fine and sentenced Douma to life imprisonment. Douma has remained in prison ever since, five of those years in solitary confinement.
Douma is merely one of the 65,000 political prisoners that inhabit Egypt’s gulag today. Though detained and abused, he has never stopped resisting and never stopped writing. In 2021, he published his second collection of poetry, Curly, with the Cairene publishing house, Dar Maraya. But on the eve of its publication state security officials confiscated copies of the book, in an effort to erase one of Egypt’s bravest, most crucial voices. But Douma remains as loud and eloquent as ever. The prison experience may have stripped him of some things, but his dignity and power remain intact. We have translated two poems from this collection, along with an excerpt from Blasphemy (Tajdīf), a prose work composed in total isolation.
Two poems by Douma, translated by Elliott Colla and Ahmed Hassan:
Elliott Colla teaches Arabic literature in Washington, DC. Ahmed Hassan is a lawyer and translator in Cairo.