On 29 May 2017, a Cairo misdemeanor court postponed until 3 July 2017 the first session in the trial of prominent human rights lawyer Khaled Ali, who faces charges of ‘offending public decency’.
A week earlier, Ali was detained for questioning but released on bail the next day pending investigations. The charges relate to a demonstration in front of the State Council in Cairo last January 2017, during which Ali allegedly raised his middle finger while being lifted up by the crowd, news website al-Ahram reported. Ali is leading a case challenging the 2016 agreement to hand over two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia.
The demonstration was to celebrate the Supreme Administrative Court’s decision to annul the transfer. In March 2017, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters overturned the ruling. Ali responded by filing a lawsuit contesting the ruling. Lawyer Malek Adly, part of Ali’s legal team, told Fanack at the time that the Court for Urgent Matters has no jurisdiction over such matters.
Through his role in the island case, Ali has become the face of Egypt’s secular revolutionaries, who were the driving force of the Arab Spring protests in 2011. His detention follows a spate of arrests targeting media and opposition figures, in what rights groups have called Egypt’s harshest crackdown on dissent in decades.
Ali was born to a rural family in the Delta governorate Dakhalia. He graduated with a degree in law in 1995 and gained a reputation as an anti-corruption activist under former President Hosni Mubarak. He is the founder of the Front for the Defense of Egyptian Protesters and Hisham Mubarak Law Center, and former head of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights.
He first entered politics as a presidential candidate in 2012. He gained support as the candidate closest to representing the revolution. “He was the only candidate with no links to the Islamists or the old regime,” research analyst Rana Yehia, who voted for Ali, told Fanack.
Mahmoud Mostafa, head of Ali’s 2012 campaign team in Asyut, a city in Upper Egypt, agrees. He got to know Ali in 2008 as a lawyer fighting for human and labour rights. “I was sure power wouldn’t corrupt him,” Mostafa said. “He was the candidate representing the revolutionary demands – bread, freedom and social justice – and the candidate of a new era.”
Ali was also the youngest of the contenders, at the time having just reached the minimum age of 40. He came in seventh, with only 120,000 votes. According to Mostafa, this was mostly because he was an outsider in the elections, and many chose to vote for other candidates who stood a higher chance of winning, such as socialist Hamdeen Sabbahi and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh.
However, neither of these candidates reached the run-off stage, losing out to old regime figure Ahmed Shafiq and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, who eventually won. “The opinions of Egyptians fluctuate heavily,” Mostafa said. “In the days of the revolution a majority supported the values of the revolution; a few years later that support had dwindled.”
Nonetheless, compared to Islamists and supporters of the old regime, secular revolutionaries constitute a minority in Egypt, Mostafa admitted. “Egyptians don’t like change,” he said. After General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi ousted Morsi in a military coup in 2013, Ali remained politically active and founded the Bread and Freedom Party, which is still in the process of formation.
In an interview with AP in February 2017, Ali hinted that he might run in the 2018 presidential elections against al-Sisi, who, it is widely believed, will seek a second term. “Of course, I am a likely candidate, but I have yet to make a final decision,” Ali said, adding that “democratic and social forces” were in talks about a joint strategy for the 2018 election. However, the charges against him could effectively keep him out of the presidential race. If he is found guilty, he will not be allowed to run.
“Khaled Ali’s arrest and prosecution was clearly politically motivated,” Amnesty International said in a statement. “The presidential elections are not scheduled to take place until 2018, yet the Egyptian authorities seem intent on pre-emptively crushing any potential rivals to maintain their grip on power,” the rights group added.
This assertion seems to be supported by recent events. Since mid-May, scores of activists and members of opposition parties have been arrested, in most cases for sharing critical Facebook posts. The parties and groups targeted include the Bread and Freedom Party, al-Dostour Party, the Egyptian Democratic Socialist and Popular Socialist Alliance parties as well as the Revolutionary Socialists and 6 April Youth Movement.
Several parties, rights groups and individuals signed a statement condemning the ‘rabid security campaign’ that is part of the ‘ruling authority’s desire to impose its total hegemony over all existing forces in society, and to silence any differing or dissenting voices’.
Before his own detention, Ali wrote on Facebook that the arrests ‘target the parties that have been active over the course of this year, and prosecute their members across the governorates in order to spread fear and to kill any attempt to revive political activism, or to reclaim the public domain’.
Following the wave of arrests, 23 news websites were blocked in Egypt. Among them were websites affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar, widely believed in Egypt to be supporting Islamists, such as Ikhwanonline and al-Jazeera. Some critical non-Islamist websites were also targeted, including Mada Masr and Daily News Egypt.
According to government officials, the websites were blocked because they spread false news and support terrorism. The newly-formed Supreme Media Council said blocking websites is “standard procedure” when national security is at stake. Daily News Egypt has been under attack from the government since December 2106, when its chairman, Mostafa Sakr, was put on a suspected terrorism list over alleged ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, and his assets were frozen.
Earlier in May 2017, police raided the offices of Daily News Egypt and sister publication al-Borsa, which was also blocked, and confiscated several computers over alleged ‘copyright issues’. Coinciding with the security campaign, al-Sisi passed a controversial new law that restricts NGO activity to development and social work and imposes jail terms of up to five years for non-compliance.
Some have argued that the timing of the crackdown is not accidental. During his visit to Saudi Arabia, American President Donald Trump told al-Sisi that the United States would no longer lecture Egypt on human rights, which could be interpreted as giving the authorities cart blanche for further suppression.
Mostafa also believes that the case against Ali is politically motivated, adding that only international pressure could prevent him from being sentenced. “Ali is capable of reviving a political movement, and the regime can’t afford such a movement to mobilize again,” he said.