On April 30, 2014, Palestinian blogger and human rights advocate Iyad El-Baghdadi, a lifelong resident of the UAE, suddenly went silent on Twitter. Until last week, little was known of his fate.
On October 20, El-Baghdadi surfaced in Oslo, Norway and news broke that he had been arrested by UAE authorities on April 30. The blogger received no formal criminal charges — he was simply given the option of either living in indefinite detention in the UAE, or deportation to Malaysia. He chose Malaysia, and arrived there on May 13. Given his lack of official documentation, he remained in the Kuala Lumpur airport until June 8 or 9 until he managed to obtain a Palestinian Authority passport. El-Baghdadi was unable to leave the country until just last week.
The next day, El-Baghdadi recounted his experience at the Oslo event, garnering great affection and support from the audience. El-Baghdadi. In an email interview with Global Voices, El-Baghdadi recounted how “the reactions to the speech were overwhelming. People were walking up to me telling me how they were crying. People were messaging me telling me that they’re watching it in tears. I hope that this can be a turning point and a milestone and a call to action.”
He remained in Malaysia until October before moving to Norway, where he has applied for political asylum. El-Baghdadi speculated on whether specific tweetssparked his deportation, but told Global Voices that he does not “think it’s a particular tweet but my overall activism.”
Iyad El-Baghdadi, has been a vocal advocate for human rights and democracy on social media and in the blogosphere. His blog describes his involvement with the 2011 Arab uprisings:
In 2011, with the “Arab Spring” uprisings, Iyad began tweeting about the Egyptian revolution, translating statements, chants, and videos from Arabic to English, which allowed the international audience to understand what was happening. In February 2011 he translated Asmaa Mahfouz’s now-famous pre-revolution call for Egyptians to go down and protest. This video collected over a million views, and Iyad’s translation became the standard in literature documenting the revolution.
During the Libyan revolution, Iyad continued tweeting, cultivating reliable sources for information, making him one of the most active and important voices during that revolution. Between February 17 and the international intervention on March 19, 2011, he became known for his maps showing strategic on-the-ground positions.
El-Baghdadi is an avid Twitter user and his apparent silence for 179 days – from April 29 to October 22 (almost 6 months) – drew attention. Alex Rowell recounts:
It wasn’t long after Iyad El-Baghdadi’s last tweet, on 30 April, that I realized something had to be wrong. This was Iyad, after all, a man who (literally) averaged over 35 tweets a day – and could comfortably double that figure when he got on a roll, or when some new dictator’s speech or sectarian massacre sent him into a fury. For him not to have tweeted at all for several weeks was, frankly, alarming. I wondered at first if he was observing a 40-day silence in mourning of the tragic death of Bassem Sabry, the Egyptian writer and friend of his who passed away the day before. But that milestone came and went without result. I feared he too had come into some misfortune, and asked on Twitter if anyone knew anything. No one did, but several people re-tweeted the question, suggesting many of us had the same concerns.
But UAE authorities evidently were rattled by his vocal tendencies and thus arrested him. Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept gave a detailed account of El-Baghdadi’s arrest, detention and subsequent expulsion:
Baghdadi….maintained a highly active social media presence during the revolutions which suddenly went quiet earlier this year, shortly after the death of his friend and well-known Egyptian activist Bassem Sabry. His last Tweet, about Sabry’s death, was on April 30th.
The very next day, he was summoned to an immigration office in the UAE, arrested, and told that he would be immediately deported from the country. “The morning I was arrested,” Baghdadi says, “I woke up still crying over losing him…I didn’t get to mourn him like everyone else.”
In addition, he tweeted the following:
Bassem was El-Baghdadi’s “friend, comrade, colleague and brother.” He is yet to over come the grief caused by the loss of his friend Bassem, who fell to his death from a balcony in Cairo. El-Baghdadi wrote of Bassem:
His sincerity and love touched everyone he met or worked with. He was of course very smart and ambitious, but over anything else it was his humanity and warmth that won people over. He himself was a liberal, but he talked to and worked with everyone for the good of Egypt and the Arab world. Importantly, he was an excellent networker and a hub through which so many activists knew other activists and ultimately became best friends. Bassem knew everyone and everyone knew him and loved him. His death at such a young age and in such a tragic way was especially sad because Bassem was someone who could have made a great politician, a new kind of politician who is driven not by power and greed but by a genuine desire to do good. Bassem could have gone all the way, I honestly believed that one day he would be the President of Egypt. Even if he didn’t get to do that, and didn’t get to do so many things in his short life, he’s still great and we’ll never forget him. He’ll always be a symbol and an idol for our movement.
Reactions to El-Baghdadi’s ordeal have varyied, with some in support of UAE’s actions and others against it. We asked El-Baghdadi what he thinks about these reactions:
The overwhelming response was shock and horror, disgust and anger at the decision, and genuine sympathy. The reaction across the board warmed my heart even in these difficult circumstances. So many people wrote to me to show their support and to tell me this is only a slight setback and that I continue to be an important voice. A small minority – the tyrant-lovers – continue to insult me and to call me names, but I never cared about them before and won’t start to care now.
When asked about his decision to seek asylum, he replied: “most people weren’t surprised and told me it’s the right move, necessary for protection and for me to be able to continue my activities at full productivity and capacity without harassment.” We wish the very best for El-Baghdadi and hope that he will soon be united with his family.