(Esraa El-Taweel, photo via Mada Masr)
The photos of imprisoned Egyptian activist Esraa El-Taweel walking with crutches, sobbing, and begging for medical care as a judge extends her detention by 45 days, have gone viral, triggering a mix of responses among Egyptians. Some have labeled her as a symbol of regime oppression; others show no mercy for her. Moreover, these photos of Taweel in tears have come at the right time for opponents of President Sisi’s visit to the United Kingdom.
Those who support Taweel highlight how the 23 year old has been held at Qanater Women’s Prison for 155 days on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization, disseminating false information, and disturbing the peace. Taweel was shot when security forces dispersed a protest during the anniversary of the revolution in 2014. The bullet inflicted a debilitating spinal injury and confined Taweel to a wheelchair for several weeks. President Sisi, who is heading to the UK soon, has raised serious concerns in that country about Egypt’s human rights record.
Taweel’s opponents, on the other hand, have published some of her older tweets. I was struck by two recent tweets in 2015, in which she incited the murder of police officers. Agaib, her friends denies the authenticities of those tweets. As her account is now susoended, there is no way to prove or disprove them.
Others claim, without providing evidence, that she actually joined a violent youth group and spread false information about Egypt to foreign media.
However, I believe the question we should ask ourselves is not what Taweel did or did not do. As Egyptians, we should ask how we propose to deal with our vulnerable,angry youth? How do we reintegrate them into society? How do we prevent them from radicalization?
Whatever the answers to the above questions are, imprisoning a young vulnerable and disabled girl is not one of them. Egypt has to find a formula to rehabilitate its disfranchised youth.
For 30 years, the Mubarak regime offered nothing to Egypt’s youth. As a result, many of them found their refuge in virtual reality on social media, in which they have fantasized about violence and anarchy. The January 2011 revolution and the political chaos that followed gave this section of Egyptian youth an opportunity to vent their anger and try to implement what they think is right. It was a mix of idealism and frustration. The ousting of President Morsi has made it even worse for those youth. They feel betrayed and now view violence as a solution.
By detaining Taweel, the Egyptian authorities have inadvertently turned a girl with Twitter’s diarrhea, a confused political view, and possible violent fantasy into a hero for political Islam. Her photos will be in the history books and on social media pages for decades as evidence of the ruthlessness of the Egyptian regime. That is definitely not a wise move for Egypt.
I do not have to be supporter of political Islam or a revolutionary activist to support Taweel’s release. Even regime supporters such as TV anchor Amr Adeeb have expressed similar sentiments.
Taweel should be released, at least on bail, until her trial. If Egypt does not want to show mercy, it should at least stop behaving as a vulnerable country scared of a disabled young girl. It does not bode well for the future of Egypt.