Like millions of children throughout the world, my three daughters, aged 5, 9, and 12, have been confined to their home in Cairo for most of the past year, since the pandemic closed their schools. But unlike many other parents, I would give almost anything to be stuck at home with them. I agonize over choices I have made that have taken me away from them. As the years pass, and the Egyptian regime intensifies its crackdown on dissent, I fear that separation is permanent.
I chose to oppose the military regime in my home country of Egypt. I chose to write articles, attend meetings, and organize demonstrations in support of democracy. And when all of that failed, and the Egyptian authorities sentenced me to 25 years in prison, I chose to flee through the border with Sudan, leaving my family behind.
My daughters were not given a choice.
On a recent Saturday morning, from Istanbul, my place of exile, I answered the weekly video call. I prepare breakfast for all of us on Saturdays, as I used to do in person. I fried eggs with basturma, one of my daughters’ favorite dishes, boiled fava beans and chopped tomatoes and cucumbers. My wife prepared the same breakfast in her parents’ house in Cairo, where she and the girls now live.
But the Internet kept cutting out, and my youngest daughter became frustrated. “I can’t see Baba!” she screamed, lashing out and hitting her older sister. The video froze, and when it returned, I saw a stream of tears flowing down the cheeks of each of my three daughters.
Time stops for us during those hard moments, when our resilient daughters break down from the strain of separation. I’m powerless, trapped inside a video screen and reminded that remote parenting is not really parenting. We were saved by my brave, beloved wife, whose voice is like a kiss of life. She made them laugh, boasted that her eggs were tastier than Baba’s and promised a better video connection next time.
When I was 13, I wrote a letter to then-President Hosni Mubarak, urging him to resign. When I was 16 and again when I was 22, his security officers arrested and tortured me. By 2011 I had become a leader of the April 6 Youth Movement, which called for democracy in Egypt and inspired our successful uprising against Mubarak. I celebrated when Egypt held its first fair and free elections in 2012.
But the military overthrew Egypt’s only democratically elected president just a year later, and Gen. Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi took control. The principal of the school where I was an English teacher fired me, on orders from the authorities. The following year, the government charged me with organizing unlawful demonstrations, spreading false news and other “crimes.” In October 2015, friends told me a judge had sentenced me to 25 years in prison, without bothering to inform my lawyer or me.
I had two options. The first was to surrender myself to the Egyptian authorities and face imprisonment with the 50,000 other political detainees in Egypt’s notorious prisons, where torture is systematic and widespread. The second was to flee my country. I crossed the border into Sudan and later flew to Turkey.
My wife tried to join me, but Egyptian security forces detained her and our daughters at the airport and banned them from leaving the country, keeping them hostage to coerce my return. Police officers ransacked our rented flat five times and finally ordered the landlord to evict my wife and daughters. My wife called me, crying, after they broke everything in the apartment.
There are many of us political exiles here in Istanbul, Egyptian fathers and mothers desperate to see our children but knowing that if we return to Egypt, we will be arrested or worse. And there are many parents in Egypt raising their children alone, because their spouses are exiled or imprisoned. My wife told me of a conversation she overheard recently between my daughter and a boy she knows, the son of a jailed political detainee. The boy said he had spent the night outside the prison gates, waiting for a morning visit, after months in which he had not seen his father.
“Did you see your Baba?” my daughter asked.
“Yes,” he said, “but it was a visit with no touch.”
“What does that mean?” my daughter asked.
“A visit from behind glass,” the boy said. “We weren’t allowed to hug Baba, just press our hands against his through the glass.” And my wife heard the boy ask my daughter, “Why are you crying?”
“I wish I could see my Baba,” my daughter told him. “I wish I could press my hand against his through the glass.”
I know the boy’s detained father. He chose not to flee, or maybe he didn’t get the chance.
Since 2013, the al-Sisi regime has engaged in a brutal crackdown on dissent that is unprecedented in modern Egyptian history. The authorities have jailed journalists, intellectuals, human rights activists, and political rivals, including Islamists and liberals, and even actors, fashion models, and dentists. They have tortured and killed my friends. They have retaliated against our families.
And even though I know what the Sisi regime would do to me if I returned to Egypt, I am consumed with guilt for abandoning my family. Sometimes I think it would be worth it to go home and spend the rest of my life in prison, if only I, too, could press my hands against my daughters’ hands through a Plexiglas window or even—dare I dream—hold them close during a “touch” visit inside an Egyptian prison.