ISTANBUL — When the United Arab Emirates deported prominent democracy activist Iyad el-Baghdadi in late April, he disappeared for nearly six months. On Oct. 22, he re-emerged on stage at the Oslo Freedom Forum, ready to fight back.
Known for his massive social media presence during the Arab world’s 2011 uprisings and their messy aftermath, the startup consultant-turned-activist broke his radio silence that day with a powerful message to the region and its leaders: The Arab Spring is not dead.
The next day, he applied for political asylum in Norway.
Video courtesy of the Oslo Freedom Forum.
It had been six months since el-Baghdadi was called into a UAE immigration office on April 30 and given a choice: indefinite imprisonment or immediate deportation. The country — which has a reputation for jailing, deporting and torturing dissidents — never formally charged him with any crime or provided an explanation.
While el-Baghdadi was careful not to focus his criticism on the UAE, he says he was deported due to his online outspokenness against repression and leadership in the region, specifically the government of Egypt, whose military-led overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi and subsequent violent crackdown was applauded by the UAE. During the uprisings, he vociferously tweeted and poked fun at the regional leaders in charge, and gained a huge following both within the UAE and abroad. He is known for his satirical Arab Tyrant’s Manual, which he hopes to publish soon as a book.
While el-Baghdadi chose deportation over jail, the 36-year-old father-to-be couldn’t be sent back to his own country. He was born in Kuwait and raised in the UAE, but he holds the Egyptian travel documents of a Palestinian refugee.
His grandparents fled with his 4-month-old father, Ismael, from their ancestral home in Jaffa — now in present-day Israel — in 1948, when the state of Israel was created. Ismael was one of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who left or were forced from their homes without the right to return. He settled in Egypt before moving to the UAE in 1970. Now, his son finds himself unable to return to his family home.
Immigration authorities locked up el-Baghdadi in a cell in Abu Dhabi’s al-Sadr prison before he was deported. The conditions were terrible beyond belief, he says, and he was forced to beg to call his wife, who was 7 months pregnant at the time.
After 13 days behind bars, the UAE deported him to Malaysia, one of the few countries he was told would accept him as a deported Palestinian refugee.
But when his Etihad Airways flight landed in the capital Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian authorities gave him a different story: He wouldn’t be allowed beyond passport control.
For three weeks, el-Baghdadi was stuck in the airport, unable to enter the country or fly elsewhere. He spent the seemingly endless hours sitting in cafes, reading and wandering around the airport.
On June 8, he was finally allowed into Malaysia as an “exceptional case,” with the help of a team of friends, activists and the Palestinian embassy in Malaysia.
But el-Baghdadi did not take to Twitter to blast the UAE for his deportation. Instead, he kept quiet, terrified of what would happen to his pregnant wife, Ammara, and his family, if he spoke out.
Stranded in Malaysia without a job or a concrete plan, el-Baghdadi says he dreaded his son’s birth. He was furious that he couldn’t be by his wife’s side.
Iyad el-Baghdadi’s son, Ismael.
“I was so looking forward to the moment I look into his eyes and I become a father,” he says.
On June 17, el-Baghdadi’s own birthday, Ammara gave birth to a healthy baby boy.
“The moment I saw him — the first picture I received — I felt a huge sense of relief. I just knew we were going to be okay.”
They named him Ismael, after el-Baghdadi’s father.
“Ismael was a refugee child,” he explained, referring to the son of Abraham, a patriarch in the Quran and the Bible. “Tradition tells us he was moved with his mother to Mecca as an infant. Ismael, my father, was a refugee child. And here it’s 2014, and we have another refugee child. Another Ismael.”
El-Baghdadi hopes Norway will grant asylum to him and his family in the next few months and end their statelessness. He is currently at a center for asylum seekers north of Oslo, where he’s bonded with other asylum seekers, many of whom are Syrian. So far, he says, his experience seeking asylum there has been “awesome.”
Iyad el-Baghadi with his wife, Ammara, and son, Ismael, in Malaysia.
“It’s heartwarming to see how authorities here treat refugees,” he said. While it’s too early to know if he will be granted asylum, he says he has a strong case for protection. He hopes his wife and infant son, who are currently in Malaysia, will be able to join him soon.
El-Baghdadi is back online now, where he’s been met with an outpouring of support. He said he’s more determined than ever to fight for democracy and freedom in the Middle East.
El-Baghdadi ended his speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum with a tribute to young Ismael, with whom he has only been able to spend three days. He said he hopes that his outspokenness against tyranny, and his subsequent deportation, serve as an inspiration to his son.
“I don’t want my son to live in fear,” he told HuffPost. “I cannot promise him that he’ll live in liberty because I don’t know how far we’ll go in a single lifetime. But I want him to know that his liberty and dignity are worth his life. And if he ever has to choose to fight for his rights or to live in peace and safety, I want him to not think twice and to choose to fight.”
El-Baghdadi says the defiant spirit that fueled revolt in 2011 hasn’t disappeared. Instead, he asserts, it’s a ticking time bomb.
“The Arab Spring is a destination,” he said, echoing his Oslo speech, “and the story isn’t over. It’s very far from over. We will reach our spring.”
This article has been updated to indicate the age of el-Baghdadi’s father when he left Jaffa.