The decision to leave your country, especially when you leave for political or ideological reasons, can be gut-wrenching. My parents made that decision for me when they left Iran in my early adolescence. Unlike some Iranians forced to flee, my parents were not members of a persecuted religious minority. Nor were they high-profile political activists at immediate risk of arrest. But as people who had demonstrated against the Shah’s dictatorship, and had hoped that the 1979 revolution would bring democracy and social justice to Iran, witnessing their country plunge into authoritarianism and turn into a theocracy was more than they could bear. It was like the country they knew and hoped for no longer existed. Add to that the fact that, in September 1980, Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Iran, igniting a cruel war that would last eight years, and my parents felt that the best option for them, my two sisters and me was to build a future elsewhere. It was a decision that tormented them as they made it, and continued to occupy their thoughts for years after emigration.
Of course, my parents are not unique. Following the 1979 revolution and throughout the Iran-Iraq war, hundreds of thousands of Iranians fled into exile and became part of a diaspora that is scattered all over the globe.
And though the Iran-Iraq war is long over, and though the extreme brutality of the first years following 1979 has given way to oscillating periods of calm and unrest (the most famous episode being the mass protests after the 2009 presidential elections that brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad into office for a second term), Iranians continue to leave Iran, for a combination of ideological, political and economic reasons. Not in the same large numbers, but in a constant trickle.
During a recent trip to Iran, practically every young person I met (and some not so young) had a question for me about migrating. These are not political activists at risk of detention. They are people tired of living with a sense of hopelessness, a feeling that their talents and abilities are going to waste in a country where advancement through merit has become a joke, a premonition that nothing will change for the better. This hopelessness became particularly acute after the protests following the 2009 elections were crushed. Many of the activists left Iran. The US-led sanctions, which have had far-reaching, devastating effects on the economy, are also fueling the desperation.
The overwhelming desire to leave is painful to see each time I am confronted with it. It is upsetting that some 30 years after the events that propelled my parents’ departure, the situation in Iran remains dire, and that young people in particular have lost faith in a better tomorrow.
I am also confronted with these sentiments in Egypt, the country I have called home since 2005. The January 25, 2011 uprising that led to Husni Mubarak’s resignation brought with it an incredible optimism. One activist described feeling at the time that everything was possible. The succeeding events — the transitional period of army rule, the elections that brought the Muslim Brothers to power — may have been seen as setbacks for many of the activists who were driven by a desire for greater democracy and social justice in Egypt. But most of my Egyptian friends who had spent days protesting in Tahrir Square felt that the setbacks were inevitable and indeed necessary on the long road to true political transformation. It was unrealistic to think the Brothers would have no role in the new Egypt, they would say, even as they were disappointed and at times enraged by the Islamists’ tactics, refusal to compromise and, in many instances, clear hypocrisy. The Egypt my friends wanted was still possible and still worth fighting for. And fighting was still possible, in spite of everything.
Everything seems to have changed since then. The protests of June 30, 2013, the army coup that removed Muhammad Mursi from office, the massacre of hundreds of Muslim Brother supporters in August 2013, the lack of accountability, the support for the massacre drummed up by state media, the drafting of a constitution that is supposed to enshrine the rule of law at the same time that the most basic principles of humanity are flouted, the elections that brought ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi to power, the jailing of journalists, the mass death sentences issued for Muslim Brothers, the draconian anti-protest laws, the threats looming over NGOs, and numerous other developments, big and small, have sunk these same once hopeful, bright-eyed friends into depths of depression.
And so, one by one, we hear of departures. Some of the same people who returned from overseas to take part in the shaping of a new Egypt have decided to leave again. Some have decided that now is the time to pursue an advanced degree, a job, a fellowship — anything that will take them away. Some journalist friends, terrified by the imprisonment of their colleagues, are seeking postings elsewhere. Some who work for NGOs are bracing for a crackdown, due to restrictive NGO legislation, and have moved their operations elsewhere. Some, visiting friends who are behind bars for violating the protest law, fear that remaining in Egypt will only bring the same for them. They are thinking of leaving.
In short, what I am witnessing in Egypt now, the conversations I am having, evokes memories of Iranian friends and acquaintances going into exile. Once again, I watch some of a country’s best and brightest unable to bear the pain of coping with a “tomorrow that never came.” And, with their departures, that tomorrow becomes more and more distant.