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From the Arab Spring to a dark winter in Egypt

June 11, 2021
tags:#Egypt, #amnesty international, #freedom of speech, #social media
by:Pierre Sagnier
It’s been ten years since the Arab Spring overthrew Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak, but the trajectory of this past decade has been, to put it mildly, unfortunate. The lead actors of that revolution denounce the military regime that has been in power since 2013, and argue that it is committed to eliminating any space for freedom and violates even the most elementary human rights.

Those who lead the protests in 2011, as well as other activists, depict a gloomy situation: Sham presidential and parliamentary elections take place to the benefit of president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, any form of critical media is censored, civil organisations are closed, and thousands of political exiles and political prisoners are trapped in a rigged judicial system. The conclusion is unanimous for democracy supporters who carried out the Egyptian Revolution in 2011: the situation is now far worse.

Arrests, intimidation and quashing of dissent

“If you give me choice between Mubarak and Sisi, I choose Mubarak,” 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, told FairPlanet. “It was bad, definitively, but was much better. Now you may even walk in the street or sit in a cafe to smoke shisha or drink tea and they’ll come and arrest you. That has happened. Somebody writes one tweet, says what he thinks, and gets arrested.”

Taha was arrested in 2014, on the third anniversary of the revolution, after attending a funeral of a friend killed by the police. He was then released with charges and left the country before he got convicted. Now a life sentence is waiting for him in Egypt.

He defines the Egyptian government as a “totalitarian regime” that uses any tool, such as religion or nationalism, in order “to kill the civil society.” "With Mubarak, after 2005, you had the right to establish your own party, you can go to election without permission from the Egyptian intelligence, you can found your organisation, but now there’s no one point of that,” he added.

As the new regime doesn’t want to run the risk of suffering the same fate as Mubarak’s, it has reimposed a police state with repression as the answer to the slightest criticism. “People [are] afraid to talk about the political situation or the economic situation. Anybody who can think in Egypt can get arrested for just thinking,” said Taha.

Sisi’s government has imprisoned activists, journalists, opposition politicians, scholars, bloggers and even TikTokers for inciting ‘licentiousness’ with their dances.

The spreading of fake news is one of the most recurrent charges used by the regime against its critics. Such was the case in the arrest of five doctors last year after the latter criticised the lack of resources provided by the government to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

Press freedom and civil society under attack

In this context, press freedom is one of the main victims of repression in Egypt. “Right now it’s the worst time for journalists in Egypt [in] modern history,” Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North African Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told FairPlanet. “Egypt was holding 27 journalists in December according to our accounts,” he affirmed. 

By 2012, there was not a single journalist behind bars in Egypt, and now it is “the third jailer of journalists after China and Turkey and the first in the Middle East,” according to Mansour.

This persecution began right after Sisi’s coup d’état against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Government in 2013.

Two years later, in 2015, it began “online censorship banning websites and establishing a censorship or media regulatory body whose president is appointed by the president.” As a result, independent journals closed, news websites have been banned and many journalists were forced to exile.

“Everything”, Mansour added, “is written and distributed to be published word by word by Government and pro-government media, and anyone who doesn’t publish the official statement is liable nor just for imprisonment but for a huge amount of money.”

Civil organisations fare no better than the free media. Before Sisi’s coup d’état “there were around 35 non-governmental human rights organisations, now there are only five, and under huge pressure, because their members already have travel bans and their bank accounts are [frozen],” explained Taha of the Egyptian Front for Human Rights.

Last November, three members of one of these organisations, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), along with the executive director, Gasser Abed el Razek, were arrested after they had organised a meeting with accredited diplomats from Western countries including Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Spain to discuss human rights in Egypt and in the world. 

They were accused of joining a terrorist group, spreading fake news, undermining public security and funding terrorism. Finally, the international pressure was too immense and Egypt had no option but to release them; it did not, however, didn’t drop the charges.

Counterterrorism law used to silence opponents

Along with spreading fake news, the counterterrorism law is the other main tool used by the Egyptian Government to crush dissent. It has found in the menace of jihadist terrorism the all-purpose accusation to appease international critics, and is used indiscriminately to jail anyone perceived to challenge the government: from pro-democracy activists to a mother who denounced the torture and rape of her son in prison.

Taha dates the beginning of this twisted use of the law back to 2017. “Suddenly, all of us were Muslim Brothers, terrorists. Even the seculars or the Christians they arrested, the first accusation was joining a terrorist group and Muslim Brotherhood.”

By that time, another law had passed, which had tightened even further the restrictions on free speech on social media, said Mansour. “They created a category that anyone with 5,000 followers can be charged with abuse of social media to go after them on national security prosecution.” This, he pointed out, is not coincidental, as it happened after a 2016 White House reception to Sisi by former United States Donald Trump.

Trump, who once defined Sisi as his “favourite dictator,” has provided him “not just material and moral support, but even legitimacy,” the CPJ activist claimed. “And not just Trump. Western capitals have made sure for Sisi to get away with almost everything he has done to suppress the press. And Sisi’s use of counterterrorism law and later false news charges were meant to appease these Western capitals, who really didn’t care other than selling arms and provided this regime with the surveillance, the arms, and the tools to counter protesters and jail journalists and activists,” he added.

Death penalty executions tripled in 2020

The fact is that, as time goes by, the Egyptian regime has become less and less cautious in its methods of repression. “We see mass trial grouping journalists, activists, academics together under terrorism charges held for years without trial. Many of them, even after they received orders from courts for their release because of lack of evidence, have been rearrested with the same charges recycled with a new case number,” Mansour stated.

The cruelty of the forces in charge of persecuting dissidents has crescendoed. Some weeks ago, Amnesty International (IA) exposed the case of a 27-years-old woman, a university teacher, who was captured in 2019 along with her one-year-old son. Both of them were kept 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 at that time. The kid was sent off with some relatives, but the boy, who didn’t know any of them nor the world outside, suffered severe mental distress and asked continuously to “go back to the room.”

Furthermore, under Sisi Egypt has become one of the champions of the death penalty.  According to the Amnesty International annual report on this issue, last year the country had tripled the number of executions from 32 in 2019 to 107 in 2020. At least 23 of the executed, the report said, were sentenced “in cases relating to political violence, after grossly unfair trials marred by forced ‘confessions’ and other serious human rights violations, including torture and enforced disappearances.”

Activists push on despite gov’t crackdown

Despite Sisi’s dire crackdown on human rights, activists still have some hope to improve the situation in the coming years. Firstly, they appreciate the change in the international stance towards Egypt, especially after the end of Trump's presidency in the United States.

But in Europe, too, something has changed, Taha stated. “Earlier, Europe [was] occupied by the right-wing and they had common interests with Egypt. But now, the right-wing is down and the leftish and the reformers are up so there’s a big opportunity to change in Egypt in three-four years.”

He mentioned that last April, 31 countries, including the United States, signed a joint declaration at the UN Human Rights Council condemning the situation in Egypt, especially some aspects like the use of the counter-terrorism law to punish peaceful criticism. 

The Egyptian Government reacted angrily, stating that the resolution is based on “inaccurate information” and threatening to reveal information on human rights violations in some of the countries who signed it.

Kareem Taha admits that when they started the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, “the society wasn’t ready.” “We weren’t ready to have 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 need three more years to be totally ready for democratic transition and now there are organisations and an Egyptian forum for human rights in Paris,” so “we are preparing for it,” (‘it’ being a real democracy). 

“There’s an election in 2024 and, before that, we have to be ready and we have to build our front very well,” he concluded.

Image: Paul Kagame

Article written by:
Pierre Sagnier
Embed from Getty Images
“We weren’t ready to have a democratic transition. Yes, we started a revolution, but we didn’t know what to do after the revolution.” Kareem Taha
© Frédéric Soltan
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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Under his rule, freedom of speech and civil rights have been further eroded.
© Chesnot
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Former US President Donald Trump on Sisi: "My favorite dictator."
© Alex Wong