Egypt issued a 15-year sentence over one tweet. For dissidents, it's a chilling new threshold

Egypt issued a 15-year sentence over one tweet. For dissidents, it's a chilling new threshold
Comment: Sisi's heavy-handed persecution of Hassan instils fear and paranoia that will ultimately cause Egyptians at home and abroad to think twice before speaking out, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
02 Sep, 2020
Bahey el-Din Hassan was sentenced to 15 years in absentia [Getty]
As Egypt under the rule of Abdel Fatah el-Sisi descends further into the clutches of totalitarianism, those who shine a light on the vicious mechanics of this are more important than ever.

This is precisely why the regime recently sentenced Bahey el-Din Hassan in absentia (he lives in exile in France after receiving death threats from the regime) to 15 years imprisonment for what amounts to him airing legitimate criticisms of it on twitter. 

Hassan's name might not be a household name in the West, but to Egyptians he is known as the fearless director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS). The CIHRS, as its name suggests, concerns itself with documenting the vast human rights abuses that are occurring in Egypt and the wider MENA region.

For this, thanks to the crudely vicious machinations of the Sisi regime, it has - like all other independent civil society organisations - come under several forms of attack. But the sentence handed down to Hassan, which is the longest ever given to a human rights advocate in Egypt, crosses several different disturbing new thresholds. 

As is becoming the new normal in Egypt, even the most moderate critics of the regime are tried as terrorists.  Hassan's sentence was passed down in Cairo's Fifth Circuit Terrorism Court, a layer of the judicial system that has been created, contrary to its name, not to target "terrorists" but rather to persecute anyone who criticises the regime - journalistsdoctors, human rights advocates and even barely dissenting social media users

The sentence handed down to Hassan, which is the longest ever given to a human rights advocate in Egypt, crosses several different disturbing new thresholds

The absurd and invented charges cited against Hassan fall under the remit of the tyrannical cybercrime law passed in 2018, which is the regime's main instrument for curtailing freedom of speech and information on the internet. The law criminalises not just direct criticism of the regime, but criticism of "state institutions" and the dissemination of "fake news" - a euphemism for any legitimate criticism of the regime and its policies. 

There has been a wave of arrests and convictions using these laws, but the targeting of Hassan, and the extent of his punishment, sends a particular message to Egyptian ex-patriots and emigrants.

The Egyptian regime doesn't yet follow its close ally Saudi in sending death squads to murder critical ex-patriots. However, by handing out such a long sentence to Hassan, it is saying in no uncertain terms that if you're an Egyptian citizen who lives abroad, you can and will be targeted for persecution.  

Given the habit among Egyptians of maintaining dual citizenship and frequently returning to Egypt, the persecution of Hassan is a stark warning to expat Egyptians that their behaviour outside of Egypt is being watched and the consequences of any critical behaviour will mean the most excessive punishments. 

This a regime that loves to make statements through grandiose and often brutal spectacles. The Rabaa massacre was the most barbaric warning that the 'age of Tahrir', as in the age of mass protests against authority in Egypt, had come to an end. Similarly, the vicious murder of Giulio Regeni was an inhumanely ominous message to perceived meddlesome foreigners that their western passports would no longer be a protection against the kind of violence regularly meted out to Egyptians.

The targeting of expats has involved several incidents, including letting Mustafa Kassam, a New York taxi driver of dual US-Egyptian citizenship, die in a hunger strike earlier this year after his arbitrary arrest and imprisonment in a mass show trial following the coup in 2013. 

Read more: Rabaa wasn't just a coup, it ushered in a new, totalitarian era in Egypt

Then there was the case of American-Egyptian schoolteacher Reem Desouky, who was arrested straight off the plane with her 13-year-old son as she visited family in Egypt, for the "crime" of writing a Facebook post that was mildly critical of the regime. 

Though Desouky was released and allowed to return to the US, the regime arrested her brother and kept him in prison to deter her from describing her 10-month ordeal to the outside world. In fact, the targeting of the family members of Egyptian political dissidents and exiles has become common practice for the regime, with reports of harassment, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, torture and threats being used to silence Egyptians abroad.

This is precisely the reasoning behind the regime handing out such a steep sentence to Hassan. Someone with a high profile like Hassan, who had already been threatened with death for speaking out against Sisi in 2014, probably knows that his exile is permanent as long as the regime remains in power. 

But for millions of other Egyptians who live abroad, there is now a wave of renewed fear about returning to the country due to their online comments or participation in perceived anti-regime activities.

Speaking anonymously to me, one Egyptian student living abroad tells me that he used to scoff at the "paranoia" of some Egyptians when it came to the idea that the regime would be monitoring them and targeting them - but not anymore. "Hearing about them arresting the relatives of… critics is what gave me the fear," he says.

"They might not be able to harm me outside of Egypt," he continues, "but they could easily get to my family or they could arrest me if I return… I have posted things on social media against the regime's policies in the past, now there is definitely a fear [that I will be arrested] when I go back."

And this is precisely what the regime wants. Even if they aren't monitoring the activities of every Egyptian abroad, by persecuting Hassan so publicly and excessively, they are creating an atmosphere of fear and paranoia that will ultimately lead to Egyptians ceasing or thinking twice before participating in any form of critical behaviour against the regime. 

The persecution of Hassan is a stark warning to expatriot Egyptians that their behaviour outside of Egypt is being watched

A single Facebook post or tweet perceived by the regime to be sufficiently critical is now akin to committing a terrorist act.

What certainly doesn't help is the silence of the world.  Outside the region, most expat Egyptians live in North America and Europe. Donald Trump famously called Sisi his "favourite dictator", with the historic close ties between Egypt and the US deepening under Trump.

In Europe, Angela Merkel has 
praised Sisi as a "role model of stability", while employing the tyrant as a refugee-detaining policeman of the racist Fortress Europe project, providing him with arms and instruments of repression.

This collusion with Sisi only encourages and empowers him in his persecution of expat and dual national Egyptians. To give a concrete example: if Italy can effectively accept one of its own citizens studying abroad in Egypt being viciously murdered by the Egyptian mukhabarat, why would they care about the fate of an Egyptian immigrant? 

Indeed, this exacerbation has been noted by Hassan and the CIHRS. Prior to his sentencing, a pro-regime media personality in Egypt, now an official in the regime, called for Hassan's murder "in the Russian way", by poison.

If the Sisi regime continues this ceaseless totalitarian radicalisation, not will the regime export its brutality overseas to silence exiled dissidents, but it will very likely get away with it. 

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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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.