Egypt’s clampdown on political dissent increasingly includes family members of activists living abroad. The government has also admitted to leveraging the release of individual political prisoners for financial aid.
Several recent cases indicate that activists’ families in the diaspora are now being targeted by the Egyptian authorities.
At the end of August, Alaa Eladly, the 59-year-old father of German-Egyptian political activist Fagr Eladly was detained after flying into the Egyptian capital Cairo from Germany’s Frankfurt am Main.
“There was no specific accusation and no official reason,” Fagr Eladly told DW, adding that she is convinced her own political activity in Germany was the sole reason for her father’s imprisonment. Eladly made headlines in 2015, when she called Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi “a murderer” during a joint press conference with the then-German chancellor Angela Merkel.
On August 28, the pre-trial detention for her father, who is not politically active and has been traveling to Egypt frequently and without problem for the past 33 years, was set to 15 days.
Fagr Eladly announced a day later that she was starting a hunger strike outside the German embassy in Cairo. “It is shameful and unethical to punish relatives,” she told DW, adding that “if you have a problem, solve the problem with the person itself.”
A spokesperson for the German Foreign Office said on Thursday that the German Embassy in Cairo was “aware of the case, has been in close contact with relatives of Mr. Eladly, and has raised the case with the Egyptian authorities.”
However, as Alaa Eladly doesn’t have a German passport, the reach of the German authorities remains limited.
“Arresting Fagr Eladly could have resulted in diplomatic troubles with Germany, but her father is Egyptian only,” Amr Magdi, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told DW.
“Arresting family members of dissidents living abroad has been a systematic pattern used by the Egyptian government to silence critics in the past years, but now there seems to be a fresh wave of it,” Magdi said.
In August, the Egyptian Gamal Abdelhamid Ziada was also arrested, blindfolded, handcuffed and questioned over the work of his Belgium-based son, human rights defender and journalist, Ahmed Gamal Ziada.
“The officer claimed Mr. Ziada’s son was inciting against the state and described him as a ‘fleeing journalist’,” Wadih Al-Asmar, president of EuromedRights, a non-governmental umbrella organization of 68 human rights organizations in 30 countries, told DW.
In April, Neama Hesham, wife of human rights defender Mohamed El-Baqer was arrested and forced to delete her social media posts referring to the mistreatment of her husband in prison.
Moreover, no less than 12 family members of the el-Sissi opponent Ahmed Tantawy were arrested after he announced his intention in April this year to run for the presidency in 2024.
“We definitely observe an increased tendency of the Egyptian authorities to harass or arrest family members of politically controversial Egyptian activists, journalists and other dissidents inside the country and abroad,” Al-Asmar said.
“The arrest of family members is an obvious means of exerting pressure to silence dissidents and spread fear in the diaspora,” agreed Stephan Roll, head of the Africa and Middle East Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
For him, the timing is essential. “In the run-up to the presidential elections in early 2024, protest or even counter-campaigns are to be stifled in the bud,” he added.
Political prisoners no longer denied
Human rights organizations estimate that the number of political prisoners in Egypt ranges between 65,000 to 70,000.
“Last year, in Cairo alone around 2,500 dissidents were detained and taken to the Supreme State Security Prosecution for merely exercising their human rights,” Marie Gorgis, Egypt researcher at Amnesty International, told DW.
However, until now, the Egyptian authorities have regularly denied the existence of political prisoners in general.
“The Egyptian leadership has recently changed its strategy,” Stephan Roll told DW, adding that “the release of individual political prisoners is used as a signal for Western countries that the human rights situation is improving,” he said.
According to Egyptian state media, around 1,500 prisoners have been released since the re-installment of the Presidential Pardon Comittee, which is tasked to release young prisoners of conscience, in April last year.
But despite the recent release of a few prominent political prisoners, like Patrick Zaky, his lawyer, the human rights defender Mohamed El-Baqer, or Ahmed Douma, new people continue to be imprisoned.
Earlier this week, Hisham Kassem, a prominent political activist and potential candidate in the presidential elections early next year was detained and accused of slander and verbal assault charges, his lawyer told news agency Reuters.
Rule of law treated for cash?
On Thursday, Fagr Aladly once more appealed to the German authorities for help. She suggested linking future investments to Egypt’s rule of law and human rights.
“This demand is by no means baseless,” Stephan Roll, who also advises policymakers in Germany, told DW.
As Egypt is facing an increasing debt crisis, “the country will soon need Berlin’s approval for the privatization of the Siemens-built Beni Suef power plant, which was financed by German export credit guarantees,” said Roll. “In view of empty state coffers, the sale of this power plant is very important for the el-Sissi-administration.”
Hoping for international pressure
Austrian Elena Pichler decided to raise her voice and call on embassies and human rights organizations to free her husband, Egyptian political prisoner Badr Mohamed.
The now 27-year-old was taken into pre-trial detention in August 2020 and eventually sentenced to five years in January 2023, in a trial that Amnesty International called “deeply unfair”.
The judges found Badr Mohamed guilty of “participating in an illegal gathering” and “displaying force associated with the crime of premeditated murder”. On August 13, 2013, the then 17-year-old had joined the protests against the military-led government of now-President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on Cairo’s Ramses Square.
“In the beginning, a lawyer told me to stay under the radar as Badr’s case is insignificant enough to release him after a few months,” Pichler told DW.
However, Badr Mohamed remained in prison while Elena Pichler gave birth to their daughter and returned to Austria once the pandemic-related travel restrictions were lifted.
In March 2923, she decided to return to Egypt together with their now 2-year-old daughter to fight for his release.
“Activism and campaigns are not welcomed here in Egypt and I am constantly scared that they will crack down on him in prison for that,” she said.
“But we’ve tried to not do anything and it didn’t change the situation,” Pichler told DW, adding that “my husband trusts me enough to make the right decisions, and not do anything that just leaves us helpless.”
DW reached out to the Egyptian ambassador to Germany but hadn’t received a reply by the time of publication.
Source : DW