From the Arab Spring to a gloomy winter in Egypt
Those who led the protests in 2011, as well as other activists, portray a gloomy situation: mock presidential and legislative elections are taking place for the benefit of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, all forms of critical media are censored, civil organizations are closed, and thousands of political exiles and political prisoners are trapped in a rigged justice system. The conclusion is unanimous for the supporters of democracy who led the Egyptian Revolution in 2011: the situation is now much worse.
Arrests, intimidation and quashing of dissent
“If you give me the choice between Mubarak and Sisi, I choose Mubarak,” said Kareem Taha, a human rights activist who had to leave Egypt in 2014 and is now deputy executive director of the Egyptian Front for Human Rights – an NGO based in the Czech Republic. “It was bad, definitely, but it was a lot better. Now you can even walk down the street or sit in a cafe to smoke shisha or drink tea and they will come and stop you. It happened. Someone writes a tweet, says what they think, and gets arrested.
Taha was arrested in 2014, on the third anniversary of the revolution, after attending the funeral of a friend killed by police. He was then released on charge and left the country before being sentenced. Now a life sentence awaits him in Egypt.
He defines the Egyptian government as a “totalitarian regime” which uses any tool, such as religion or nationalism, to “kill civil society”. “With Mubarak, after 2005, you had the right to create your own party, you can go to the elections without the authorization of the Egyptian secret services, you can found your organization, but now it is useless,” he said. -he adds.
Not wanting to run the risk of suffering the same fate as Mubarak, the new regime has re-imposed a police state with repression as a response to the slightest criticism. “People [are] afraid to talk about the political situation or the economic situation. Anyone who can think in Egypt can be arrested for just thinking, ”Taha said.
Sisi’s government has jailed activists, journalists, opposition politicians, academics, bloggers and even TikTokers for inciting “license” with their dances.
The dissemination of fake news is one of the most recurring accusations used by the regime against its critics. This was the case in the arrest of five doctors last year after the latter criticized the lack of resources made available by the government to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Press freedom and civil society under attack
In this context, the freedom of the press is one of the main victims of the repression in Egypt. “Right now is the worst time for journalists in Egypt [in] modern history, ”said Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “Egypt held 27 journalists in December according to our accounts,” he said.
In 2012, there was not a single journalist behind bars in Egypt, and now he is “the third jailer of journalists after China and Turkey and the first in the Middle East,” according to Mansour.
This persecution began immediately after Sisi’s coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013.
Two years later, in 2015, he began “online censorship banning websites and establishing a media censorship or regulatory body whose chairman is appointed by the president.” As a result, independent newspapers have closed, news sites have been banned and many journalists have been forced into exile.
“Everything,” Mansour added, “is written and distributed to be published verbatim by the government and pro-government media, and anyone who does not publish the official statement is liable not only to imprisonment but to death. ‘a huge amount of money. “
Civilian organizations do no better than the free media. Before Sisi’s coup, “there were around 35 non-governmental human rights organizations, there are only five today, and under tremendous pressure, as their members are already banned from working. travel and their bank accounts [frozen]”, Explained Taha of the Egyptian Front for Human Rights.
Last November, three members of one of these organizations, the Egyptian Human Rights Initiative (EIPR), as well as the executive director, Gasser Abed el Razek, were arrested after organizing a meeting with accredited diplomats from Western countries, including Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Spain, to discuss human rights in Egypt and around the world.
They were accused of joining a terrorist group, spreading false information, endangering public safety and financing terrorism. Finally, the international pressure was too immense and Egypt had no choice but to release them; however, he did not drop the charges.
Anti-terrorism law used to silence opponents
Besides spreading false information, the anti-terrorism law is the other main tool used by the Egyptian government to crush dissent. He has found the threat of jihadist terrorism the universal accusation to appease international critics, and is used indiscriminately to jail anyone perceived to defy the government: from pro-democracy activists to a mother who denounced the torture and rape of her son in prison.
Taha traces the beginning of this twisted use of the law back to 2017. “Suddenly we were all Muslim Brotherhood, terrorists. Even the laity or the Christians they arrested, the first accusation was of joining a terrorist group and the Muslim Brotherhood.
By then, another law had been passed that further tightened restrictions on free speech on social media, Mansour said. “They created a category in which anyone with 5,000 followers can be charged with abusing social media to prosecute them in national security prosecutions.” This, he stressed, is no coincidence, as it happened after a 2016 White House reception of Sisi by former US Donald Trump.
Trump, who once defined Sisi as his “favorite dictator,” provided him with “not only material and moral support, but even legitimacy,” the CPJ activist said. “And not just Trump. Western capitals have made sure Sisi gets away with almost anything he has done to suppress the press. And Sisi’s use of the anti-terrorism law and later fake news accusations were aimed at appeasing those Western capitals, which really didn’t care about selling weapons and provided this regime with the surveillance, weapons and tools to counter demonstrators and imprison journalists and activists, ”he added.
Death penalty executions tripled in 2020
The point is that over time the Egyptian regime has become less and less careful in its methods of repression. “We are seeing mass trials of journalists, activists and academics accused of terrorism and detained for years without trial. Many of them, even after receiving court orders for their release due to lack of evidence, were re-arrested with the same charges recycled with a new case number, ”Mansour said.
The cruelty of the forces charged with persecuting dissidents has increased. A few weeks ago, Amnesty International (IA) exposed the case of a 27-year-old university professor who was captured in 2019 with her one-year-old son. Both were held in a small room for 23 months without access to a judge.
The two finally saw a judge last February, as if they had just been arrested then. The child was expelled along with members of his family, but the boy, who did not know either of them or the outside world, suffered from severe mental distress and continually asked to “go back to the room”.
Moreover, under Sisi, Egypt has become one of the champions of the death penalty. According to Amnesty International Annual Report on this issue, last year the country tripled the number of executions from 32 in 2019 to 107 in 2020. At least 23 of those executed, according to the report, were convicted “in cases related to political violence, after manifestly unfair trials marred by forced “confessions” and other serious human rights violations, including torture and enforced disappearances.
Activists continue despite government crackdown
Despite Sisi’s terrible crackdown on human rights, activists still have some hope of improving the situation in the years to come. First, they appreciate the change in international stance towards Egypt, especially after the end of Trump’s presidency in the United States.
But in Europe, too, something has changed, Taha said. “Earlier, Europe [was] occupied by the right and they had common interests with Egypt. But now the right is on the decline and the left and the reformers are on the rise, so there is a great opportunity for change in Egypt in three or four years.
He mentions that last April, 31 countries, including the United States, signed a joint statement to the UN Human Rights Council condemning the situation in Egypt, in particular aspects such as the use of the anti-terrorism law to punish peaceful criticism.
The Egyptian government has reacted angrily, saying the resolution is based on “inaccurate information” and threatening to reveal information about human rights violations in some of the countries that have signed it.
Kareem Taha admits that when they started the Egyptian revolution in 2011, “society was not ready”. “We were not ready for a democratic transition. Yes, we started a revolution, but we didn’t know what to do after the revolution.
Now, he added, they have “built a new generation of activists, a new strategy”. “We still need three years to be fully ready for the democratic transition and now there are organizations and an Egyptian human rights forum in Paris”, so “we are preparing for it” (“this is a real democracy “).
“There is an election in 2024 and before that we have to be ready and we have to build our front very well,” he concluded.
Picture: Paul Kagame.