Filmmaker Who Mocked Egypt’s President Dies in Prison

It has emerged that Shady Habash, an Egyptian artist and filmmaker, died in maximum security Tora prison in Egypt on 3 May. According to the New York Times, Habash was imprisoned in 2018 after he directed the music video accompanying “Balaha,” a song by Egyptian musician Ramy Essam. The song mocked President el-Sisi, and its release resulted in the arrest of several contributors, including Habash. Shady Habash, 24, had been held for over two years without trial before his sudden death. 

Several days after Habash’s death, an Egyptian public prosecutor stated that Habash “had drunk a quantity of [alcohol-based sanitizer] at noon the day prior to his death,” according to the BBC. This accidental ingestion resulted in severe stomach cramps, for which he was reportedly treated; but, after being returned to his cell to recover, Habash died before being taken to a hospital. 

Shady Habash is not the first artist to be imprisoned after criticising el-Sisi’s government, and his death reflects a broader pattern of prisoner neglect in Egypt. According to Al Jazeera, Abdelrahman Ayyash, a human rights activist, wrote: “Shadi got very sick in his prison cell, his [fellow] inmates cried for help for some time, but guards and officers had not intervened until his last breath.” Habash’s lawyer, Ahmed el-Khwaga, stated in an interview with the AFP news agency that “his health had been deteriorating for several days… he was hospitalized, then returned to the prison yesterday evening where he died in the night.” It is unclear exactly what happened inside Tora prison. However, both accounts suggest that Habash’s death was at least in part attributable to neglect. 

Prior to Habash’s death, various human rights organizations had firmly condemned the treatment of Egyptian inmates, particularly political prisoners. Recently, Amnesty International called on President el-Sisi to release prisoners vulnerable to the coronavirus. The coronavirus has the potential to wreak havoc in Egypt’s overcrowded, unsanitary prisons. President el-Sisi released 4,000 prisoners on Sinai Liberation Day, a holiday commemorating Egypt’s reclamation of the Sinai Peninsula from the Israelis. But not one of the 4,000 released were political prisoners, reports the New York Times. 

Shady Habash’s death was a preventable tragedy mishandled and potentially misrepresented by the Egyptian authorities. His incarceration was similarly unjust. In a letter penned on October of this year, Habash wrote that “prison doesn’t kill, loneliness does.” This letter was widely circulated after his death. Furthermore, he chronicled his challenge to “stop [himself] from going mad or dying slowly because [he had] been thrown in a room two years ago and forgotten.” It is clear that Habash suffered while imprisoned, both from the poor conditions and the uncertainty of his trial. Mai El-Sadany, a Washington-based lawyer, tweeted that the statement from the Egyptian public prosecutor offering the probable cause of Habash’s death “fails to address a key legal issue: why was Shady Habash still in illegal pre-trial detention beyond the domestic two-year maximum?” It is clear that Habash was both unjustly arrested and unjustly imprisoned. 

Shady Habash’s death highlights the extent to which civil liberties, particularly freedom of speech, have been curtailed in Egypt under President el-Sisi’s regime. According to the New York Times, many writers and artists have fled the country in recent years, including Ramy Essam, rock musician and the face of Balaha. Furthermore, “political prisoners in Egypt are often held for years without trial, frequently in what rights groups say are dirty, overcrowded conditions with poor medical treatment.” Habash was one such political prisoner. 

Essam, who hired Habash to direct the music video for “Balaha,” became famous during the 2011 Arab Spring, reports the Wall Street Journal. The irreverence of “Balaha,” in addition to Essam’s connection to the unrest of 2011, made him dangerous in the eyes of the government. 

President el-Sisi came to power in 2013 in the wake of the Arab Spring after deposing then-President Morsi in a military takeover. The Wall Street Journal emphasized that his regime has been characterized by curtailed civil liberties, as evidenced by the arrest of tens of thousands of artists, activists, and protesters. “Balaha,” which means “date” in Arabic, is a word that has been used as a “derisive” nickname for el-Sisi. The song mocked the president and condemned the government’s corruption and attacks on personal freedoms. This sort of oppression was made manifest in the arrest of the artists involved in the production. 

Shady Habash’s death has crystalized the necessity for Egyptian judicial reforms. The consistent curtailment of civil liberties in Egypt must stop. Individuals, particularly those artists and writers who have a duty to critique, and thus improve the country, must be allowed to speak. The lyrics in “Balaha” condemned government corruption and criticized President el-Sisi. After his arrest, Habash was accused of crimes including “membership in a terrorist group and spreading false news,” reports The Walls Street Journal. These charges constitute a thinly veiled attempt to silence critics of the regime. 

Furthermore, Egyptian prison reform is of the utmost importance. As of now, Egyptian prisons are overcrowded, dirty, and inmates lack proper medical care. Shady Habash’s death is not the first to occur in an Egyptian prison. This past year an American, Moustafa Kassem, died in prison, and Alaa Abd El Fattah, another political prisoner, began a hunger strike on April 12, according to the New York Times. Shady Habash’s death, which allegedly occurred in his cell, was preventable. Egyptian authorities reported that Habash died before he could be taken to hospital after failing to respond to the antiseptic and antispasmodic drugs administered to “stabilize his condition,” writes the BBC. Even the public prosecutor’s report allows that the prison authorities knew of his condition, though the testimonies of both activist Ayyash and Habash’s lawyer suggest that alcohol poisoning may be an inaccurate depiction of the true cause of death. In addition to the fact that death “after drinking hand sanitizer… mistaken for water” garners suspicion, it is clear that Habash did not receive adequate medical care. In the future, prisoners must be treated humanely and with dignity.

The arrest and imprisonment of those involved in the making of “Balaha” illuminated the realities of government corruption in Egypt. As noted by lawyer Mai El-Sadany, Habash had been held in prison, pre-trial, beyond the two-year maximum. This constituted a clear breach of Habash’s rights. Galal El-Behairy, the lyricist behind “Balaha,” will be imprisoned for three years, according to The New York Times. PEN International, a writer and artist focussed non-profit, reported that prior to his trial, el Behairy had exhibited signs of “severe torture.” Such maltreatment and unjust imprisonment is not uncommon. Political prisoners can be held for years without trial. Injustice, particularly for these political prisoners, is systemic. President el-Sisi fears criticism and exhibits extreme intolerance, corroborated by his track record of unsubstantiated arrests for those who criticize him. Civil liberties are a human right. Egypt must reform its justice system, purging itself of rampant government corruption, and strive to build a freer nation. 

Finally, El-Behairy and others implicated in the making of “Balaha” must be freed and the charges brought against them must be expunged. They were unjustly imprisoned and should be released as soon as possible.

There is hope that Habash’s death, though tragic, may galvanize change in Egypt. Artists, writers, activists, and members of the public should be able to speak without threats of violence or incarceration. Governments rife with corruption and injustice, as alluded to in “Balaha,” establish order through fear and force. This is unconscionable. Freedoms of speech, association, and the press are human rights and should not be in any way impeded by government. A regime can no longer lay claim to any kind of authority, particularly moral authority, after abusing the rights of its citizens. Though Shady Habash can never receive true justice and freedom, other political prisoners deserve to.

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