Why you should care about the latest arrests of human rights defenders in Egypt

Why you should care about the latest arrests of human rights defenders in Egypt
More than 60,000 political prisoners have been incarcerated since Fattah al-Sisi’s power grab in 2013.
4 min read
20 November, 2020
The arrests mark the latest crackdown on one of the only remaining rights groups. [Getty]

What happened?

On Wednesday evening Gasser Abdel-Razek, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, was taken from his home in Cairo, by plain-clothed police, and was interrogated at the Supreme State Security Prosecution office at approximately 1:30am local time.

The EIPR, a Cairo-based advocacy group, was carrying out investigations into Egyptian prisons and detention conditions.

More than 60,000 political prisoners have been incarcerated since Fattah Al-Sisi's power grab in 2013, and the EIPR had been monitoring the spread of the coronavirus in the country's overcrowded prisons, which the government has been accused of under-reporting.

The arrest was triggered by a meeting of 13 ambassadors and diplomats at the EIPR's headquarters on 3 November to discuss the human rights situation in Egypt.

"The regime does like to control the narrative when it comes to dealing with foreign governments," David Butter, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, told The New Arab.

The EIPR's work covers the situation of religious minorities in Egypt, LGBT+ prosecution, sectarian violence, as well as advocating for mental health law reform and environmental justice in the country. So it was little surprise that the government did not look favourably on Abdel-Razek and his colleagues' work.

Abdel-Razek joined EIPR's Criminal Justice Unit Director Karim Ennarah and Administrative Aanager Mohamed Basheer, who were already in prison for 15 days "pending investigation" into the same charges: "joining a terror group" and "spreading false news".

Patrick Zaky, EIPR's gender researcher, had already been abducted by authorities on his return from studying abroad in Italy in February.

These arrests mark the latest crackdown on one of the only human rights advocacy groups left in Egypt.

Why is this crackdown significant?

In many ways, the Egyptian regime's crackdown is not different from previous waves of arrests, but it has been brandished an "escalation" by the local and international community, weary of the increasingly violent suppression of Egyptian civil society.

"This is an unprecedented crackdown on the human rights community and could well go beyond EIPR to engulf the few other remaining brave groups," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director in a statement.

Along with apprehending "dissidents", the Egyptian regime has also increased its use of the death penalty. A total of 53 people were executed in October alone.

This escalation of violence is a growing threat to the lives of Egyptians across the country.

What is the international community’s role?

Along with the sweeping arrests, this escalation is believed by many to have been triggered by the recent election defeat of US President Donald Trump.

"It is a fair assumption that the Egyptian foreign ministry and state security agencies are concerned about the prospect of Biden highlighting human rights issues," said Butter from Chatham House.

US President-elect Joe Biden has stated that under his leadership there will be "no more blank checks for Trump's 'favorite dictator'", referring to Al-Sisi, who is the second biggest recipient of US military aid.

Butter added that the increase in detentions by the Egyptian regime could be part of a strategy to "intimidate" political dissidents before releasing some of them, and "as a means to show the Biden team that Sisi is prepared to soften his policy".

Many states have also secured trade deals with Egypt despite its poor human rights record; money which is helping prop up Al-Sisi's regime.

"Sisi is probably resigned to having to lose a chunk of the US military aid budget, but may have calculated that the risk of effective sanctions from the new major arms suppliers - Italy, Germany, and France - is low because they want these deals to go through and can count on help from Egypt on counter-terrorism and migration-suppression," said Butter to The New Arab.

"Sisi may also be able to count on the desire of the main European players to continue to work with Egypt on Libya and on East Mediterranean security."

What can be done to hold Egypt accountable?

EIPR has called for the domestic and international community to stand in solidarity with them, and to demand the immediate release of its workers and for all charges against them to be dropped.

"The tepid response by the international community risks emboldening the Egyptian authorities and sends a terrifying message to civil society that human rights work will not be tolerated," said Luther in the Amnesty statement.

The UK, Canada, and France are some of the governments who have spoken out against the arrests, although there are no forewarnings of punitive actions.

The French statement was brandished by Cairo as "interference in an Egyptian internal affair and the attempt to influence the investigations".

The case continues...

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