Middle East

Egypt cracking down harder on human rights groups, experts say

Emboldened Egyptian security forces have stepped up their crackdown on human rights groups with a series of unprecedented recent moves triggering widespread alarm, experts are warning.

Last week the head of a leading human rights organisation and two of its staff members were detained after the group met with foreign diplomats in Cairo.

Gasser Abdel-Razek, the head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, was arrested on 19 November, hours after the head of EIPR’s criminal justice unit Karim Ennarah appeared in court.

Ennarah was detained days earlier at a beach resort in South Sinai, shortly after the arrest of administrative manager Mohammed Basheer. All three are now held in pretrial detention, accused of joining a terrorist group, and “spreading false news”.

Human rights organisations have borne the brunt of a harsh crackdown since Egyptian president Abdel-Fatah al Sisi swept to power in a military coup in 2013.

Egypt’s overflowing prisons house an estimated 60,000 political prisoners, while journalists and civil society organisations tracking the brutality of Sisi’s regime regularly face arrest. Organisations monitoring the torture and enforced disappearances that characterise the modern Egyptian state have found their offices shuttered, their staff intimidated and their funding blocked.

“The worst has happened. We’ve always feared this,” said Ennarah’s wife, UK-based filmmaker Jess Kelly. “EIPR has been targeted often,” she added. A fourth EIPR employee, researcher Patrick Zaky, was arrested on arrival at Cairo airport in February during a visit to his family.

Security forces began the fresh crackdown on EIPR a week after the organisation disclosed a routine meeting with foreign diplomats in Cairo to discuss human rights in Egypt, signalling yet another new low for Egyptian rights groups.

“For the Egyptian authorities to bring baseless terrorism charges against senior staff of one of the country’s most respected NGOs less than two weeks after they met with foreign diplomats is unprecedented, and creates an alarming and unacceptable implication that informing policymakers is criminal activity,” said Mai El-Sadany, an expert on Egyptian law at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington DC.

The detentions provoked widespread criticism overseas. British foreign secretary Dominic Raab raised the arrests with his counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, while the French foreign ministryGerman foreign ministry and European Union’s External Action Service all expressed their “concern.”

The Egyptian government lashed out at any fresh criticism of its human rights record. Ahmed Hafez, spokesman for Egypt’s ministry of foreign affairs, accused Egypt’s critics of violating “the principles of national sovereignty and interference in internal affairs”, and labelled the statements an “attempt to influence the investigations” into EIPR staff.

Observers hope the incoming Joe Biden administration in the US will curb some of the draconian excesses of Sisi’s regime. The US has long been one of the country’s most valuable partners, whose alliance comes with an estimated $1.38bn (£1bn) in aid requested annually by Egypt, primarily military financing. Biden previously stated that there will be “no more blank checks for [Donald] Trump’s favourite dictator”.

The transition to the Biden administration marks a shift in relations between Cairo and Washington DC, striking a contrast to the warmth between Trump and Sisi. The Senate foreign relations committee called the EIPR arrests “disturbing”, while Antony Blinken, Biden’s foreign policy adviser, said he was concerned by the detentions as “meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime”.

The bipartisan Working Group on Egypt, a group of foreign policy experts including some tipped to serve in the Biden administration, said in June that “continued mass violations of human rights increase the prospect of instability in Egypt and threaten US national security interests”.

US lawmakers are increasingly questioning the level of financial aid Egypt receives despite ongoing abuses, with particular focus on Egyptian efforts to intimidate or arrest family members of critics living abroad.

Five cousins of Mohammed Soltan, a US activist who brought a lawsuit against Egypt’s former prime minister, were arrested in Egypt in June and released from prison shortly after Biden’s victory.

New Jersey congressman Tom Malinowski has proposed an amendment to the 2021 National Defense Authorisation Act, designed to trigger a suspension of security assistance if the secretary of state certifies that the Egyptian government harassed US citizens or their families.

The Egyptian foreign ministry has already begun to equip itself for the fight in Washington, hiring the DC lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck on a $65,000-a-month contract days after Biden won.

Former top Egyptian diplomat Amr Moussa appeared on a popular Egyptian cable news show at the same time, urging Cairo to “lobby, lobby, lobby”.

SOURCE