If it was about me, I would have thrown myself into President Donald Trump’s embrace when I walked into his office, as he stood to greet me. I could use being in the grace and warmth of the president of the United States, after having rotted in an Egyptian prison for three years, enduring a savage defamation campaign, and facing multiple life sentences. Dina Powell, who facilitated my release in 2017, actively encouraged the hug, twice. “He likes you, Aya. He thinks you’re an angel. Hug him.”
But it was never about me. I was not in prison for a nefarious act that I committed. I was in prison because as an American who is inspired by the story of our nation, I felt that I could make my native homeland more like us, a democracy that respects the individual, human rights, and the rule of law. But the Egyptian dictatorship would not have it. It arrested me and accused me of being a spy, among other salacious and farcical charges, and persecuted me as it continued to arrest and torture thousands of activists like me.
But Trump did not get it. He thought that I could forget what I was about and asked me to “thank President Sisi.” I felt slighted. Clearly, the president viewed both my suffering, and freedom, as a deal. A deal that freed me physically but killed my fight for justice.
I suffered emotionally for nearly a year after the meeting. I did not want to be ungrateful to the president. I forced myself to reexamine my stance. At least Trump gets things done, I tried to persuade myself. I decided to closely watch his administration, still in its first 100 days of rule. I hoped against all odds that the president’s toxic campaign talk would prove to be hollow rhetoric and then cease or transform.
But it did not. It grew worse. Moreover, unlike the way he presented himself, the president did not get things done. My release was the exception. It was an opportunity to prove, as he repeatedly told me in the meeting — and to his supporters in rallies — that he saved me when Barack Obama failed.
He considered my release just a trophy win. After me, he failed to press for the release of other Americans detained in Egypt. Indeed, when U.S. citizen Moustafa Kassem — who was detained for political reasons in Egypt — was arbitrarily killed in Egypt’s prison in January, Trump remained silent. Worse, just last week, the State Department issued a travel advisory, stating that it has “limited ability to assist dual U.S.-Egyptian citizens who are arrested or detained in Egypt.” Kassem was not a dual citizen at the time of his death.
Such a statement codifies what I, and those in marginalized black, brown, immigrant, non-WASP communities felt all along. We are not equal citizens, and America is not about equality and rights. As such, Trump is not only failing Americans, he is defining America.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders is working hard to redeem it and redefine it. The Sanders campaign has succeeded in demonstrating what America has become. The nation had foregone its status as a rebel against brutal exploitation of the individual by the ruling monarch, and morphed into one of institutional exploitation of the individual by the corporation, the patron of the ruling few.
Sanders has demonstrated that it is not just people like me — brown, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, children of single mothers — who struggle. He has revealed that the average Joes and Janes have become marginalized. Yet, we the marginalized, not finding the space to discuss financial struggle in a society that that exhibits itself as wealthy with plenitude, found only ourselves to blame.
Sanders is patting us on the back, telling each of us that it is not our fault. The problem is not us, but them: the system. The establishment. Even if macroeconomy looks good with mean income levels skewed by billionaires, the people are suffering, and the people’s suffering requires a pause.
Sanders’s pause is reviving the Constitution from becoming “we the few, the billionaire and corporations” to “we the people.” All the people. Everywhere. This is progress for America. It is an awakening that cannot go back. And the America I know does not go back; it is like the arrow, always forward, never stalling. What makes America America is not vicious capitalism, not technology. What defines America is progress. And a Sanders administration is progress.