Even compared to Egypt’s troublesome human rights record over the past years, May 2018 has been a particular bad month for activists and other critical voices alike.
Six prominent figures have been arrested since the beginning of the month, five of them from their homes. Moreover, a researcher specialised in Sinai, Ismail Iskandarani, was handed down a 10-year prison sentence by a military court over ‘spreading false news’ and joining a ‘banned organisation’ on 22 May 2018.
It is a stark reminder that after the re-election of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in March 2018 the regime is all but planning to continue its repressive policies against any form of opposition and the process of closing down any space for debate and criticism.
Satirical blogger Shady Abu Zeid was arrested from his home on 6 May 2018. His whereabouts were at first unknown, but on 8 May 2018 the prosecution levelled charges on him over ‘spreading false news’ and ordered him 15 days in detention pending investigations. At the time of writing it was unclear whether his pre-trial detention has yet been officially renewed.
Abu Zeid is known from a prank fooling the police by handing them as balloons-inflated condoms at 25 January 2016, which marked both the fifth anniversary of the revolution and national police day. Ever since, Abu Zeid has faced threats from police personnel, against which he and his family had filed a legal complaint. Also, he resigned from his work for satirical show Abla Fahita due to the pressure he faced after the prank, and continued to make an online programme featuring street interviews.
On Friday night 11 May Amal Fathy was taken by the police from her home, together with her husband Mohamed Lotfy and two year-old son, who were both released a few hours later. Fathy had two days before her arrest posted a video on Facebook lashing out against sexual harassment in Egypt, not shying away from naming harassment of police personnel themselves. She is also in pre-trial detention pending investigations, on charges of “joining a terrorist group and using the Internet to call for terrorist acts and spreading false news and rumours to disrupt public security and harm national interests”.
Pro-state press have framed her as being a member of the banned youth movement ‘6 April’, while her husband Lotfy said she is not particularly political.
Several days later, on 15 May 2018, Shady ElGhazaly Harb was arrested and detained for 15 days under investigations over ‘fake news’ and ‘joining a terrorist organisation’. ElGhazali was one of the youth leaders during the 25 January Revolution. He had been a leader of the Al-Dostour Party until his resignation in 2013. His charges include joining a banned group, aiming to disrupt state institutions, spreading false news and undermining trust in the Egyptian state.
Again a few days later, on 18 May, lawyer and union leader Haitham Mohamedeen was arrested. Officials said he belonged to the Revolutionary Socialists, and is investigated over involvement with a banned group and inciting and taking part in illegal protests, in reference to the protests that broke out against the metro ticket price increase. Mohamedeen has been arrested several times before, on calling for protests against the Red Sea islands transfer to Saudi Arabia in 2016 and over ‘spreading lies about the military’ in 2013.
The fifth to be arrested was award-winning blogger Wael Abbas, whose house was raided around dawn on 23 May 2018. “I’m being arrested,” he posted himself on Facebook. Similar charges, – ‘publishing false news’ and ‘joining a illegal organisation’ – have been levelled against him. Abbas had a blog on which he criticised police violence and corruption, and was already active during the 2000s under former president Hosni Mubarak. He has been detained several times over the past years.
At the time of writing Hazem Abdelazim was the latest in the string of arrests of prominent activists. He was taken from his home on Saturday 26 May 2018, accusations would include – again – spreading false news, joining a banned organisation and inciting against the state. Abdelazim is a former minister from the Mubarak-era, and was an important figure in the 2014 elections campaign of Al-Sisi. Later he regretted his involvement, calling it ‘his biggest sin’ on his Twitter page and became a strong critic of the regime. One of his last tweets on 18 May read:
“The injustice increases. The tyrant becomes more unjust. Some youth are arrested daily… and some being martyred daily in Sinai… The system becomes more violent and oppressive. I will take a must-needed break from politics. I’m bored and disgusted. There is nothing to be said anymore. It’s in God’s hands.”
Since then he did not send a tweet with a political message, but as it turned out to no avail.
None of the arrestees had recently been particularly active in the political scene, merely voicing criticism through social media channels, but all had in one way or another been prominent faces of opposition during or after the revolution. A source close to the case therefore believes that the arrests are a way to make them pay for past actions. In the case of Shady Abu Zeid that would be the condom prank he pulled on the police back in 2016, for Mohamedeen and ElGhazaly their political roles following the revolution. Amal Fathy’s arrest may be related to the work of her husband, Mohamed Lotfy, who is a human rights lawyer and founder of Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. “They could not find a way to intimidate me, so they used my wife to give them a way in,” Lotfy told The Daily Beast.
Fathy is according to local media part of the same case as Abu Zeid, ElGhazaly, and blogger Mohamed Radwan who was arrested on 6 April. Abbas is in a case with two journalists and one lawyer arrested earlier this year.
The case of Sinai-researcher and journalist Iskandarani dates back to November 2015, when he was arrested at Hurghada airport. He had reported critically on the army’s operations in North and Central Sinai, where Egypt is battling a fierce Islamic State insurgency in since 2013. The area has been in complete lockdown with no access for journalists or independent observers. The army strictly controls the flow of information coming out of the conflict area.
The army spokesperson later denied in a statement to Reporters Without Borders the 10-year sentence of Iskandarani, only adding more confusion to the researcher’s fate.
In any case, the wave of arrests over the past weeks shows that the regime of Al-Sisi is planning to follow the path it has chosen since his takeover in 2013: Crushing opposition and gradually closing any space for public dissent.