Abul-Kasem walks free, but Egypt's authoritarian crackdown persists

Abul-Kasem walks free, but Egypt's authoritarian crackdown persists
5 min read
10 Dec, 2018
Comment: British teenager Mohammed Fathi Abul-Kasem has been released, but it's time the UK government spoke out against its authoritarian allies, writes Malia Bouattia.
Abul-Kasem was imprisoned for three weeks in Egypt [YouTube]
This weekend we welcomed the good news that Mohammed Fathi Abul-Kasem, the 19-year-old British student who was detained in Egypt  for supposedly collecting military intelligence, has been released.

Abul-Kasem was stopped at Alexandria airport, upon his arrival with a friend from Libya on 21 November. He was interrogated over a photograph that he had taken from the plane window, which included a military helicopter in the background.

Egyptian authorities claimed this was evidence that he was "collecting information of a military facility". He spent three weeks in an Egyptian jail, with very limited access to his family.

Described by his cousin Shareen Nawaz as "a very, very soft kid," Abul-Kasem was facing military trial over spying, which would have taken place in secret, with little chance of appeal. 

The case of the Ashton College student's detention came not long after British academic Matthew Hedges was pardoned by the UAE, after similarly being accused of spying, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The family mobilised soon after they heard from Manchester-born Abul-Kasem, 12 hours after his arrest. A petition, which was signed by thousands, was circulated and Nawaz took to social media to increase pressure on her local MP, as well as Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt.

Given the context of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's authoritarian rule and continuing crackdowns, that often rely on accusations of spying and terrorism as reasons for arbitrary arrests, many were worried about the 19-year-old's treatment inside the prison and, ultimately, his fate.

State's media regulatory agency is able to shut down websites that it views as threatening to national security

Once released, Abul-Kasem said "I was ready to give up mentally and physically" in an audio recording that he uploaded online for all to hear. The 19-year-old prospective university student, is now forced to live with the nightmare of his detention and its psychological impact is likely to be life long.

Just recently, Amnesty internationalpresented cases 2015 of at least six children who have been tortured in Egyptian custody. Thereport notes that they were "severely beaten, given electric shocks on their genitalia and other parts of their body or suspended by their limbs".

Also according to the report, another 12 children have been the victim of forced disappearances since 2015. These tactics used by the Egyptian state, serve to force confessions from the detainees for crimes they had not committed.

The Sisi regime's repression of what it has termed the "spreading of rumours" includes new laws which target activists, journalists, human rights campaigners and critics of the government.

Under a new power, the state's media regulatory agency is able to shut down websites that it views as threatening to national security, as well as social media accounts with over 5,000 followers, all under the guise of "stopping fake news".

The impacts of this have been disastrous for what little is left of
independent journalism, and those who are fighting for freedom of the press. Around 500 sites have been shut down in just a few months. This is in addition to the expensive permit fees enforced on online newspapers.

The ongoing detention without charge of Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein has further highlighted some of the totalitarian practices of the Egyptian government, making it one of the most infamous opponents of press freedom in the world.

Despite both Hedges, and now Abul-Kasem being freed following mounting public pressure, there are still those such as Giulio Regeni who were much less fortunate. Indeed, it seems increasingly clear that Cambridge University PhD student Regeni, who was researching trade unions, was tortured and killed by security services.

It seems increasingly clear that Cambridge University PhD student Regeni, who was researching trade unions, was tortured and killed by security services

Furthermore, these cases benfit from attention on the world stage because they involve European citizens. Egyptians themselves, many of whom are victims of similar treatment, are not so 'lucky'.  

In fact, the level of violence directed at Egyptian trade unionists, academics, journalists, bloggers, human rights workers and others, speaks for volumes about the regime.

A few weeks ago, human rights lawyers Hoda Abdelmonem and Mohamed Abu Horairah were accused of "joining an illegal group" and "inciting harm to the national economy" following weeks of their disappearance at the hands of the Egyptian security authorities.

Other activists who were targeted include Aisha Shater, Mohamed al-Hodeiby, Ahmed al-Hodeiby, and Bahaa Odah, Marwa Abdelmonem, Ibrahim Atta and Somaya Nassef. Human Rights Watch has reported that this has happened to at least 40 others since October.

Read more: Egypt authorities torture, disappear children, warns rights groups

These cases should serve as an important reminder that in all of our rallying efforts around individual cases, our demands must also always seek to uproot the very policies that led to their arrest, imprisonment, torture or death.

While we celebrate, and breathe a sigh of relief for these individuals and their loved ones upon their release, we should not fall into the trap of assuming that the work is done.

Our continued solidarity is made all the more important by the fact that our governments are often directly involved in training, arming, and/or normalising the behaviour and repressive activities of these states.

For example, after the start of the Arab spring in 2011, while he publicly celebrated the spread of democracy in the region, David Cameron joined British arms' companies in a tour of the same violent dictatorial regimes, to advocate beefing up their arsenals.

The fact that British citizens are increasingly being caught in these state's nets is a price that our governments seem more than happy to pay. It could not be clearer: Liberation - here or there - requires the fall of the regimes; both here and there.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.