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Iyad el-Baghdadi, a free voice in the Arab world

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Norwegian authorities alert the Palestinian activist of threats made against him.

27/05/2019
Iyad el-Baghdadi is one of the figureheads of the new wave of activists who are vehemently rebelling against the traditional take on the Arab world. After becoming persona non grata in his adopted country, the United Arab Emirates, in 2014, el-Baghdadi, an activist of Palestinian origins, is today the subject of new threats against his life. “Not this Baghdadi”, he says on his Twitter account, referring to Abu Bakr, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State group, for whom he was mistaken in 2016. " I took it as a joke", he told l’Orient Le Jour over the phone.

A political refugee in Norway from 2015, el-Baghdadi, who is the president of the Kawakibi Foundation, and a member of the liberal Civita think-tank, was informed on April 25, by the intelligence services of his host country (who had been alerted by the CIA), that he was a “target”, and was temporarily placed under police protection. “I am not afraid”, he claims, while continuing to mobilize the media and public opinion. To him, the origins of these threats are an open secret.

A long-time and harsh critic of the Saudi regime, his close ties to Jamal Khashoggi (the Saudi journalist assassinated in Istanbul in October 2018, in his own country’s consulate), is one of the first things on the list of grievances the state holds against him. The activist consistently and directly accuses Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS), and his right hand man Saud al-Kahtani of being behind the crackdown on dissenters. “MBS created this rule: “I can kill anybody, no matter who he/she is””, states el-Baghdadi. “If you are threatened in a country such as Norway, what chance do I have here?”, a human rights activist living in an Arab country recently wrote to him.

Since the Arab Spring in 2011, el-Baghdadi has become a role model for many. “It was a unique opportunity to regain our freedom and our fundamental rights; I dove right in”, he says. When the first demonstrations began in Egypt, he was a resident of the UAE. As he held a Palestinian refugee’s travel document, he couldn’t joint the protestors at Tahrir Square and take part in the movement in person. So he showed his support from afar, through the only platform of expression available to Arab youth: Twitter. Soon, his series of tweets commenting on the events, as well as his translations of revolutionary songs and videos from Arabic to English turned el-Baghdadi into a significant and resourceful reference point for the networks of activists and those surfing the web. His ideas and his political stands resonated with the Arab youth, united in the same fight: the fight of a generation.


Agenda-free

In an area where many intellectuals tend to take sides, his activism strikes a discordant note. It is the symbol of a generation, which, in line with Samir Kassir, considers the fight for the Palestinian cause to be intrinsically linked with the fight against tyranny throughout the region. While in the past, part of the leftist Arab camp has tied its destiny to that of the authoritarian regimes, Iyad el-Baghdadi answers to no one, and has no hidden agenda. An avid critic of all authoritarian excesses, in all shapes and sizes, he says that the only things that guide him are “his faith, his morals and his principles”. His strategy and his knowledge of social networks have struck home. On Twitter, his analysis of the region is always sought after, and his use of English allows him to both stand out and protect himself. The hashtag #ArabTyrantManual that el-Baghdadi created to mock the Arab dictators’ reactions to the Arab Spring went viral. El-Baghdadi continued to denounce the Syrian regime, and to dismantle one by one the conspiracy theories that proliferated. “Dear Assad’s defenders “supporting” Palestine, the blood of Palestinian children is not any redder than that of Syrian children”, he wrote in 2015.

“I was radicalized after the Iraqi war. At some point, I used to read a lot about Salafist Jihadism. Then I went through de-radicalization on my own. [The] Arab Springs were the last nails in the coffin of this part of [my] past, because it made me understand that I did not need violence”, he says. Since then he abhors extremist ideologies. “I am anti-IS, anti-Nosra (the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda), and anti-Hezbollah. “Is it by helping Assad to kill Syrians, that Nasrallah thinks he is liberating Palestine?”, he tweeted in 2015. The active participation of Hezbollah in the suppression of the anti-regime rebellion made el-Baghdadi change his mind about the charismatic leader of the Shiite party. His positions inevitably generated responses from an army of trolls. “They cannot label me an Islamist, because they know that I am against Islamists, or an extremist because I am actually a de-radicalization expert, or pro-ISIS because I rant against ISIS all the time, or pro-Qatar, or pro-Erdogan, because I am opposed to everyone”, he adds. So, some people lash out at his Palestinian origins, especially now, with the upcoming presentation of the peace plan put together by Jared Kushner.


“I did not want to have kids”

To some extent, his personal story explains his political engagement and his stance against partisan positions. “It is very difficult to grow up without politics when you’re Palestinian. It is something that you cannot escape”, he says. Son of a Palestinian father whose parents fled Palestine in 1948 and headed to Egypt, Iyad el-Baghdadi was born in Kuwait in 1977, and was raised in the United Arab Emirates. During a passport check when he was only four years old, he and his brother were separated from their Jordanian mother. Faced with the helplessness of the woman, the security officer shouted at her: “This is your fault, why did you marry a Palestinian?”.

“In 1982, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon coincided with the football World Cup. I remember the general fervor and excitement, but I also remember my father’s anxiety”, he says. While el-Baghdadi strongly defends the Palestinian cause, he also condemns its many flaws. “As a Palestinian, I find it important to also fight anti-Semitism and violence, because they hurt our cause”, he adds.

He never felt at home in the UAE. “At best, they make you feel like you’re just a guest”. His growing activism did not go unnoticed, even if he was careful not to publicly criticize his host country. At the end of 2013, he received warnings just as he learned that his wife of seven years was pregnant. “It was an unplanned pregnancy. I did not want to have children, for fear that they would be a hindrance to my activism”, he says very bluntly. After being detained for some time, he eventually chose exile. Following a brief stay in Malaysia, he finally decided to make Norway his country of asylum. Invited to speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2014, he spent a few harsh winter months in a refugee camp. However, his notoriety helped him escape the rough conditions, and he was joined by his wife and son.

In September 2017, Jamal Khashoggi was exiled to the United States, and the two men shadowed each other for a long time, but el-Baghdadi, like many other activists, mistrusted Khashoggi as he was part of the Saudi elite, and had worked for the government. “Everything changed after his exile. He opened up, and started gravitating more towards us militants”, he said while praising Khashoggi’s wisdom, and his attentive listening, two of the now deceased Saudi journalist’s “rare qualities”. Iyad el-Baghdadi has inherited two projects that were initiated by Khashoggi the year before his brutal assassination. His involvement could carry serious consequences. While very grateful for Oslo for handling and overseeing his case, el-Baghdadi remains on his guard. “The Saudis are thinking about how to react to me. On Tuesday, I received a threatening email, and they sent messages to my family.”


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 23rd of may)

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