Sarah Schulman is a writer and a professor of humanities at the City University of New York.
I recently was contacted by two Canadian journalists with questions about how filmmaker John Greyson and doctor Tarek Loubani were freed from a Cairo prison last October, and how that information can help Mohammed Fahmy, a Canadian Al-Jazeera reporter who has been imprisoned in Cairo for four months. As the US coordinator of the Free Tarek and John campaign, I have some thoughts that might be helpful.
Key members of the Greyson-Loubani rescue team have published analyses of the case, and point to a key issue that should inform the Fahmy campaign: Mr. Greyson and Mr. Loubani were not freed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. As the writer Naomi Klein, whose work was central to the rescue, pointed out, the Harper government played a role, but they did not have the diplomatic power, and were not willing to invoke bilateral issues such as mining treaties to facilitate the release. While there was a very visible popular, on-the-ground campaign in Canada featuring petitions, Maple Leaf buttons, posters, post cards, demonstrations, photos on Twitter, celebrity press conferences, die-ins and a megaphone chorus, this campaign was aimed at Ottawa and did not directly address the branch of the Egyptian government that ultimately made the decision.
Out of the 16,000 people arrested in Cairo since July, only a handful have been released. That Mr. Greyson and Mr. Loubani are free at all is amazing, and that their lives were saved after only fifty days in prison demands that we acknowledge the other operative strategies that were aimed directly at the Egyptian government.
1. International media. There were six articles on the Greyson/Loubani case in the New York Times alone, including the front page of the Sunday edition. The British coordinator of the campaign, Ian Iqbal Rashid, was able to get significant coverage in the British press, which our friends reported was shared widely on Egyptian social media.
2. Rights organizations. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch worked on the ground in Egypt alongside John and Tarek’s attorneys and the Canadian Consulate. Amnesty also named them an “urgent action case” and had a campaign of letters and faxes going directly to the Egyptian prosecutor. Lead organizers also had personal contacts on the ground in Egypt; in some cases these people had relationships with higher-ups that made communication easier.
3. Washington involvement. The U.S. State Department was contacted at least four times: Once by Amnesty International, which seems to have produced an unexpected hearing for the two in court, once by a high-level Hollywood executive who had been contacted by a powerful American museum director, and at least twice through contacts of Naomi Klein and Eve Ensler, the author of The Vagina Monologues.
4. Grassroots diplomacy. A Global Consulate Campaign organized delegations and consular contacts around the world aimed at Egyptian outposts of their Ministry of Foreign Affairs in diverse locations including Seoul, Berlin, London, New Delhi and Washington. These created significant international interest and allowed for extensive communication between supporters and diplomatic staff. It also introduced officials to the sector of professors, artists and doctors surrounding the defendants, and to their social class, subculture and their use of international travel, individual action, and independent filmmaking to dispel misconceptions that Mr. Greyson and Mr. Loubani were spies.
5. The United Nations. Amnesty International directed communications to Egyptian UN representatives about Mr. Loubani and Mr. Greyson. Direct contacts, including those to Samantha Power, the U.S. representative to the UN, were also significant.
6. Tourism. Just a few days before John and Tarek were freed by Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, key strategist Justin Podur and I were planning a series of actions targeting Egyptian tourism. This is a tactic I highly recommend for advocates of Muhammed Fahmy. In General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s “presidential” campaign, one of his promises is to revive tourism to Egypt. This is clearly a realm in which an effective organizing team can have direct impact.
While clearly some of these factors in the release of Mr. Greyson and Mr. Loubani were based on elite connections not available to everyone, others are the products of basic, systematic, focused and creative grassroots organizing. No individual can substitute for collective activism with achievable goals pursued through concrete tactics. The larger message is clear: any strategy that exclusively assumes that Stephen Harper is the linchpin is one that will not serve those currently in prison.