Egypt Locks Down

Tom Stevenson

Last week, Egypt’s National Security Agency made a series of arrests targeting the country’s leading human rights organisation, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. On 15 November, there was a night raid on the home of the EIPR’s administrative director, Mohamed El Basheer. On 18 November, Karim Ennarah, a researcher, was taken from the beach-front in the town of Dahab, where he was on holiday. EIPR’s director, Gasser Abdel Razek, was arrested the following day at his home in Cairo. His lawyers say his head was shaved and he was kept in solitary confinement with only a metal bed to sleep on.

EIPR occupies a central position in Egypt’s dissident movement. It publishes research on every aspect of the Egyptian state’s repressive practices. It documents the activities of the national security state, the executions of prisoners, and the government’s dealings with the IMF. It campaigns on behalf of victims of state violence.

The arrests appear to stem from a meeting held on 3 November at EIPR’s offices, attended by a group of European diplomats. Such meetings are not unusual: EIPR holds them from time to time and does so openly. But the arrest and torture of the regime’s political opponents are not unusual either. The importance of EIPR’s work has led the state to take an interest in its international reputation. The organisation’s profile has in the past afforded it some limited protection. But given the military junta’s attitude to opposition, EIPR’s continued existence has been something of a contradiction, which Egypt’s leaders would like to resolve.

EIPR is known and admired internationally, and there has been an outpouring of support for the detained men. The United Nations, the UK Foreign Office, representatives of European governments and international human rights organisations have condemned the arrests. So has Bernie Sanders. Political prisoners in Egypt are caught in endlessly renewed bouts of remand detention. International expressions of solidarity are important in trying to break the cycle.

An initial hearing for EIPR’s director, before the Supreme State Security Prosecutor was held today. It had been brought forward; there were hopes the expedited hearing was a sign the government was having second thoughts and the cases might be dismissed. That isn’t what happened. After the hearing, Gasser was returned to prison. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry has claimed the arrests are a procedural matter, but this clearly isn’t a question of not having the right permits. The charges against EIPR’s staff are the usual ones in political cases: ‘spreading fake news’ and ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’.

The accusations are absurd. The Egyptian government began to put additional pressure on EIPR, including surveillance, in October 2019. In February, Patrick Zaki, a young researcher who had worked for the organisation but was then studying in Italy, was arrested at Cairo airport and later tortured in detention. He remains in prison because of a forged arrest report, which claims he was arrested in his hometown and includes charges of ‘incitement to protest’.

Last week’s arrests coincided with a smear campaign against EIPR in the parts of the Egyptian press owned by the General Intelligence Service. The current head of intelligence is General Abbas Kamel, President Sisi’s right hand man. The arrests were no error by an overreaching police chief. The order came from the top. Sisi has calculated that international expressions of sympathy for EIPR will be fleeting.

Sisi and the military junta have done what they can to ingratiate themselves with their international backers. They have invited energy companies to exploit oil and gas resources. They have signed arms deals that have turned a small state, in global terms, into the world’s third largest buyer of weapons. And they have made Egypt a home for yield-seeking international capital: the state’s expenses are now increasingly financed by dollar denominated loans sensitive to currency fluctuation. Egypt’s external debt has more than tripled in the last ten years.

It’s easy to see why the country’s rulers have trouble pre-empting the reactions of foreign governments that provide weapons, training and surveillance equipment to the repressive apparatus and then occasionally complain about their use. A military state laden with French fighter jets, Italian frigates, German submarines and British assault rifles finds itself reprimanded by its providers for arresting principled troublemakers. In the contorted logic of European governments, this is a form of influence. To their authoritarian collaborators it looks like caprice.

The last time I met with Gasser Abdel Razek he told me he wanted to quit, go to culinary school and open a restaurant. But the work of a committed activist is never done. He always knew he could be arrested at any moment. He didn’t hide the fact that the prospect of imprisonment, and especially solitary confinement, frightened him.

Beyond statements of concern, the campaign for the release of EIPR’s staff is demanding action, at least from the states whose representatives were at the meeting on 3 November.