Arrest of Khaled Hamza Salam
I woke up on Wednesday February 20th on the news of the arrest of Khaled Hamza Salam, IkhwanWeb.com co-editor in chief. I was on a short visit to Egypt and had met Hamza on Tuesday night, where we went over several contentious issues including the ongoing military tribunal for leaders of the country’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and the continuous deterioration of human rights status in Egypt.
Many people know Hamza through his writings, others know him as a very strong human rights activist, but his contributions to reform in Egypt go way beyond that. He is one of the founders of ikhwanweb.com, the MB’s official English website, and a proprietor of its mission of building bridges of mutual understanding and respect with the world. Within the Brotherhood, he is known to be a strong advocate of dialogue and openness.
The website is only one manifestation of Hamza’s pursuits of reform. His openness was not limited to publishing a diverse collection of views on the website, but went beyond that to building good relations with political activists from different backgrounds. I was not surprised therefore to receive tens of emails and messages from different corners of the world expressing solidarity with my close friend and mentor upon his arrest.
Hamza is one of the strongest Islamist voices in the field of human rights. He has used the website to bring attention to the systemic violations of human rights in Egypt, and has very good connections with human rights activists all over the world. He was arrested on his way home from a meeting with the president of the Arab Commission for Human Rights, where they were discussing the deteriorating human rights status in light of the military tribunal, emergency law and the ongoing mass arrests of Brotherhood members ahead of the upcoming municipal elections.
He is also very inspirational in mentoring new generations on openness and tolerance. While never crediting himself for that, most Brotherhood “new generation” bloggers, writers and activists acknowledge Hamza’s role in giving them the space they needed, and lobbying to get their voices heard. I personally feel deeply indebted to the long hours we spent discussing different matters, and sincerely believe this has had a tremendous effect on the way I see different things. I assume that other junior Brotherhood members feel equally indebted, and realize how Hamza’s deep, moderate thought along with his patience and humbleness could contribute to the integration of the MB in political life, and the moderation of Islamist thought.
It is specifically for the above mentioned reasons that Hamza is now behind bars. The Egyptian regime could not tolerate strong opposition leaders who enjoy the support of people of different ideologies and political parties. The regime is aware of its notorious human rights reputation and has decided to resolve that issue by punishing violations’ revealers rather than committers. It could not tolerate strong international pressure against its resorting to extralegal measures by sending its civilian opposition to military tribunals and has therefore arrested one of the most determined activists working on coordinating with international observers and human rights activists wishing to attend tribunal sessions. Hamza was persistent in coordinating with international observers invited by local rights organizations, and never lost hope despite them being banned from attending all court sessions.
His arrest might undermine international coverage for the tribunal’s verdict that was expected a couple of days later but was postponed till March 25th. Yet it will neither diminish their families suffering and injustice they are facing, nor the destructive impact of the tribunal on the future of stability, democracy and genuine reform in the country.
In fact, his arrest and the arrest of hundreds of others will only make things worse. The regime – which is now ramping up its crackdown on MB members to preempt their ability to secure any seats in the upcoming municipal elections and has arrested more than 400 members of the group over the past month – is facing mounting workers and government employees’ riots protesting against low wages and increasing prices. Reports illustrate a tremendous increase in crime rate over the past couple of years, while intellectuals blame that on the regime’s view that political security is more important than crime reduction, and that the regime could easily turn a blind eye towards any crime while its efforts are focused on undermining the ability of its political rivals to oppose its policies. Instead of resolving these problems that might have a chaotic impact in the very near future, the regime is silencing those who reveal them.
The arrest and detention of Hamza sends all the wrong signals to junior MB members. With most of the group’s prominent and influential moderate leaders being frequently subjected to arrests, detentions and tribunals, junior members’ moderate orientation might decline and more might adopt hardline, less-integrative positions. Hamza and Khayrat El Shater – MB Deputy Chairman now standing before a military tribunal after four acquittals by civilian courts – are two mentors and leaders known for their moderate views and close relations with leading figures of the “new generation.” They are both behind bars, while several influential international observers are silently witnessing the enduring oppression and human rights violations that might lead to domestic and regional catastrophes.