There was never any illusion that Egypt’s 2018 election would either be free or fair. The result was always going to mean a return to power for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. And with a Sisi emboldened by victory, the human rights violations that followed were equally as predictable.
“It’s a lot more difficult these days,” Ahmad Abdallah, head of the board of trustees of the Cairo-based Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, winner of the 2018 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for Campaigning, tells Index. “Since the election we’ve seen a lot of arrests of political activists and human rights defenders, along with bloggers and journalists.”
On 21 May Haytham Mohamadeen, a lawyer and labour rights defender, who offers pro-bono legal aid to workers, was arrested pending investigation on charges of “aiding a terrorist organisation” and “calling for illegal protests”. Members of the opposition were arrested, including former diplomat Maasoum Marzouk, who, along with six other opposition figures, was arrested in Cairo ahead of planned anti-government protests. They were accused of “aiding a terrorist group” and “participating in a criminal agreement with the purpose of committing a terrorist crime”.
“Lots of people are now being detained who wouldn’t have previously been detained, including former supporters of Sisi,” Abdallah says.
The arrests have also hit quite close to home for ECRF. In May Amal Fathy, an activist and wife of a co-founder of the organisation, Mohamed Lotfy, was arrested along with her husband and two-year-old son in the middle of the night for a video she posted to Facebook criticising sexual harassment, of which she herself is a victim.
While Lofty and their son were soon released, Fathy was charged with crimes that include membership in a terrorist organisation, calling for terrorist acts and spreading false news that “damages the public order and harms national security”.
“Amal was ill even before jail, but her imprisonment has only made her medical situation worse,” Abdallah says. “We cannot provide her with the medications she needs while in jail, so day after day her situation is getting worse. And for what? She has done nothing — nothing at all. She simply expressed herself, and we are now unfortunately seeing what happens when someone speaks out.”
Abdallah can see firsthand that Lofty and their son are suffering also. “Lofty is usually the most active person, a spark of hope for everyone, but you can see how Amal’s detention has affected him because they are soul mates,” he says. “But Lofty is strong — he will get through this dark period.”
Index, in partnership with Doughty Street Chambers, have helped with Fathy’s case and have filed complaints to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and to the UN rapporteurs on freedom of expression and human rights defenders, which Abdallah says has been very helpful.
“We’ve expected a lot from Doughty Street and they have done a lot,” he says. “They’ve been absolutely great in their work for Amal, and she is happy with it; even though they don’t know her personally, it gives her hope and strength in prison.”
On Saturday 29 September, a court gave Fathy a two-year-suspended sentence and a fine for “spreading fake news”. The court also fined her 10,000 Egyptian pounds (£430). According to Reuters, her lawyer said she would appeal the verdict.
The Egyptian activist Haitham Mohamedeen, who works as a lawyer with ECRF, was also arrested in May in the wave of arrests targeting activists, but Abdallah explains this had more to do with his campaigning as a revolutionary socialists. Many ordinary citizens have also been caught up in the arrests, but these can receive much less attention as they don’t involve someone with an already high profile.
“We have even seen cases from non-Egyptians, one of whom is Lebanese citizen Mona el-Mazboh, who made a video criticising sexual harassment in Egypt,” Abdallah says. “She’s not an activist, she’s not connected to Egyptian activists, whether political or human rights defenders, and she’s been sentenced for several years.”
El-Mazboh was subsequently released after she was given a one-year suspended sentence.
In July Egypt’s parliament passed new a law giving the state powers to block social media accounts. Social media sites with more than 5,000 users are now classified as media outlets and users can be penalised for spreading fake news or incitement to break the law. The vague law, which Sisi says is designed to uphold freedom of expression, also prohibits journalists from filming in certain places.
“Unfortunately, in a legal framework, what the government is doing is illegal,” Abdallah says. “People are being hunted because of what they say on social media.”
ECRF has recorded 1,520 cases of enforced disappearances between 2013 until August 2018. Virtually all those who reappeared have been tortured in total impunity. Abdallah explains how these shocking numbers alone aren’t always enough to pique the interest of other members of society. “People are actually paying more attention now because the economic situation is getting worse, which is affecting their everyday life,” he says. “They are coming at it from the perspective of social and economic grievances — which of course we don’t have — not from a concern for human rights.”
With subsidies being lifted and wages stagnating, ordinary people are suffering. “Even those Egyptians with no interest in politics can see the situation is not going well,” Abdallah says.
Getting the attention of the international community is an even greater challenge. “This is because so few human rights defenders are free to speak to the press, and many have been detained,” he explains “Self-censorship is a problem among a lot of activists because everyone who is willing to speak ends up in jail.”
For Abdallah, international solidarity is a must because the situation Egypt finds itself in is identical to so many around the world. “All human rights violations affects us,” he says. “Look at the crisis in Syria, which led to a wave of migration to Europe, which has led to more restrictions — it’s all interconnected.”
“It’s very important to be connected to these activists, and learn from their experiences. It provides a seed for future work, so we can help each other.”