In a promising advance, earlier this month on the 3rd December, Egypt released three human rights activists from southern Cairo’s Tora prison following an international campaign on their behalf. The three men, from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), had been detained in early November after a public meeting with 13 foreign diplomats and ambassadors, including representatives from the U.K., Germany, and Canada, to discuss human rights in the country, leading to charges of spreading false news, alongside charges of joining a terror group. The three men released included EIPR Executive Director Gasser Abdel-Razek, Criminal Justice Director Karim Ennarah, and Administrative Director Mohamed Basheer. In a statement, EIPR said that they were now either home or on their way home. However, a gender rights researcher for EIPR, Patrick George Zaky, remains behind bars since his arrest in February, when he visited Cairo from Bologna where he was completing a Master’s degree.
EIPR is a renowned Egyptian human rights group, operating in a context where many organisations have had to stop working in the face of a sustained crackdown on independent organisations by Egypt’s government under President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Indeed, EIPR has worked since 2002 with the aim of strengthening and protecting basic rights and freedoms in Egypt through research, advocacy, and the support of litigation. They also document civil rights violations, prison conditions, sectarian violence, and discrimination against religious minorities and women.
However, human rights advocates are not the only the only group of individuals targeted under President El-Sisi. Others targeted include Islamist political opponents, pro-democracy activists, journalists, and online critics. In fact, the same day Gasser Abdel-Razek appeared before a prosecutor for questioning, the 23rd November, judicial authorities added opposition politician Abdel-Monaem Abul Fetouh, activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, human rights lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer, and 25 others to a terrorism watch list for five years without charging them with a criminal offence or giving them an opportunity to challenge the evidence.
Nonetheless, the release of the EIPR activists and the October release of satirical blogger Shadi Abu Zeid after two and a half years in detention (also arrested for spreading false news and belonging to a terrorist group) are encouraging advances. These releases demonstrate that President El-Sisi’s government is responsive to international pressure. With the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressing her concern at the “profound chilling effect on an already weakened Egyptian civil society” alongside concerns voiced by traditional allies of Egypt such as the United Kingdom and the United States, there is clearly international attention on the matter. In fact, Italian, Irish, and other ambassadors had sent letters to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry asking for the release of the EIPR staff, and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab discussed the matter with Minister Shoukry.
On the other hand, whilst France had initially joined those who had voiced criticism about the arrests of the EIPR activists, on Monday 7th December at a meeting between President Emmanuel Macron and President El-Sisi at the Palais de l’Elysée in Paris, President Macron stated that defence and commercial ties would be maintained with Egypt and future French arms sales to Egypt would go ahead, as cooperation between the two countries was paramount in the struggle against terrorism and would contribute to regional stability. This statement was met with fierce criticism from liberal and left-wing French politicians over concerns about human rights violations.
However, President Macron affirmed at a joint press conference that: “I will not condition matters of defence and economic cooperation on these disagreements [over human rights], it is more effective to have a policy of demanding dialogue than a boycott which would only reduce the effectiveness of one of our partners in the fight against terrorism”. Indeed, France views the relationship with Egypt as crucial to the containment of armed insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula and militias that oppose General Haftar in Libya. Nevertheless, French officials stressed that President Macron had brought up the issue of human rights in private with President El-Sisi.
Despite the encouraging release of the activists, criminal charges against them have not been dropped, and Cairo’s Third Circuit Terrorism Court ordered the temporary freezing of all three men’s personal assets, property, and bank accounts. Hossam Bahgat, the founder and former director of EIPR, has had his assets frozen for years, and has been banned from leaving Egypt. Additionally, rights groups estimate that there are still as many as 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt. Whilst the release is a move in the right direction by President El-Sisi, there is still room for more progress in the respect of the important contributions of civil society in Egypt, and the continued release of more detainees, especially given the current risk prisoners face in crowded Egyptian prisons where few physical distancing measures are in place. A positive next step could include the release of EIPR researcher Patrick George Zaky, and more of his activist colleagues.