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Human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor smiles while speaking to Associated Press journalists in Ajman, United Arab Emirates, on Thursday, August 25, 2016. © 2016 AP Images

At the recent inaugural Hay Literary Festival in Abu Dhabi, the prominent Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif courageously used her platform to highlight the plight of Ahmed Mansoor, one of many Emirati activists unjustly languishing in UAE prisons simply for speaking their minds. Soueif’s words were all the more significant because hosting and sponsoring cultural events is exactly how the UAE seeks to whitewash its terrible record on human rights.

“It is very important that cultural activities and cultural events are not used to paper over the fault lines and the injustices . . . I am speaking particularly here about a man who is himself a poet as well as an architect, and a very respected activist for human rights, and that is Ahmed Mansoor,” she said from an Abu Dhabi stage.

Such a bold statement does not come without risk, especially for an Egyptian novelist whose own country is notorious for its persecution of activists, protesters, and critics.

Over the past two decades, the UAE has dedicated considerable resources to creating an image as a progressive, rights-respecting, and tolerant state. Years of image-crafting have limited global awareness of the UAE’s terrible abuses, disguising the need for real reforms.

A key piece of the UAE’s image-enhancing efforts is its use of international sporting, cultural, technology, and academic events which it hopes may offer a sheen of respectability to an otherwise ruthlessly repressive regime.

One example of the UAE’s attempt to cover up its record is its hosting of literary festivals – events explicitly committed to promoting debate and free expression – while its rulers simultaneously repress residents who strive to exercise these very values.  

UAE authorities have carried out a sustained assault on freedom of expression since 2011 by imprisoning anyone who dares to criticize the ruling family or its policies.

By shining a light on Ahmed Mansoor and others, Soueif made sure this particular festival actually demonstrated what free expression is. She has paved the way for those with platforms at other government-sponsored cultural events to similarly seize the chance to support and advocate for courageous Emiratis like Ahmed Mansoor, who cannot speak out themselves.

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