MARCH 6, 2023 — March 5 marked five years since the arrest of Egyptian poet Galal El-Behairy, and yesterday the poet launched a hunger strike, as his supporters said, “to get out of prison alive, or not alive.”
El-Behairy was arrested on March 5, 2018, for the song lyrics he wrote for a February 2018 song by Egyptian artist Ramy Essam, “Balaha.“
As Romaissaa Benzizoune wrote in 2019:
An English professor, El-Behairy translated the video’s subtitles himself. The song is a not-so-veiled jab at the Egyptian regime, which took power in 2014: ‘four years have passed without a trace/ the people were waiting for your turtle race.’ No one is directly named in the video. The song is instead addressed to ‘Balaha,’ which literally means ‘date’ but can be used as a derogatory nickname.
In a public statement released by Ramy Essam’s legal team, El-Behairy writes:
Five whole years have passed. Five years, that is about 1800 days and a few more. The number may not seem to mean much amidst other numbers. But if it is the number of leaves that fall off the tree of your life, it becomes demonic and scary.
In the past, I used to know that if someone’s wallet or car was stolen, he would go to the nearest police station and there he might find help. But if it is your life that is being stolen, where can you go and who to turn to?
The patriotism we grew up learning was broad, astonishing and amazing. When has it been reduced to a few meters in a prison cell? Why was it turned into this horror freak, whose utmost role is to steal away the lives of its children and destroy all that is humane and beautiful in them?
I believe I am one of the children of this country, and I think there are much more important roles for me and those like me whose hands never spilt blood and whose minds never knew fanaticism, than to fade and grow senile behind bars.
Today, I start the sixth year in a life wasted in prisons, accused of shaming accusations, the least of which is lying and the worst is terrorism. Many crimes, of which I have not committed but one, which is poetry. Mature poetry… Naïve poetry… idealistic or adolescent poetry… but poetry all the same.
Today, I decide to use my constitutional and human right in protesting this inhumane situation by starting a hunger strike, denying myself food, my heart medicines and my antidepressants to be gradually escalated to include drinking as well. I will continue my strike until I retrieve my freedom by getting out of here alive, or not alive.
Badr prison, Cell 2/55, Sector 4
The lyrics of “Balaha“
El-Behairy’s “I have a date with tomorrow“
El-Behairy’s “Letter from Tora Prison“