'Facebook Girl' may be free, but oppression remains rife in Egypt

Published : July 22, 2021 20:37 IST

Egypt's 'Facebook Girl,' Esraa Abdel Fattah, after her release. Photo: picture alliance/dpa

Despite the release of prominent imprisoned activists, the situation of dissidents in Egypt remains dire. The latest arrests suggest that Egypt is continuing its clampdown on critics.

This week's Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha, brought great news to around 40 detainees in Cairo's prisons: that they were free to go. Among them were three popular journalists and three human rights activists. However, these releases don't yet mean they have been acquitted: All 40 still have to appear in court at trials slated for at some time later this year.

One of those freed was the country's well-known "Facebook Girl", Esraa Abdel-Fattah. This 43-year-old blogger and Nobel Peace Prize nominee spent almost two years in pretrial detention for "disseminating false news and anti-state charges."

Also released was the regime-critical Egyptian journalist Gamal el-Gamal, who lived in Turkey for four years, hosting a TV show and being active on Facebook. He was taken into custody upon his arrival at Cairo's International Airport earlier this year.

"I welcome with a very warm heart the recent releases. Two of them are people that I've known personally for over a decade. I can't tell you how ecstatic I am, but I'm also confident that this is not a permanent solution. I'm glad that we got these people out, but there are plenty more inside," Ramy Yaacoub, executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC, told DW on the phone.

Clampdown overshadows releases

The recent release of activists and journalists is in stark contrast to the ongoing clampdown on dissidents in Egypt. This week, the former editor-in-chief of the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, Abdel Naser Salama, was detained on terrorism and false news charges. Last week, a trial at Egypt's highest criminal court, the Court of Cassation, continued against six other activists and journalists, including former lawmaker Zyad el-Elaimy.

Egypt also shows no mercy to members of the Muslim Brotherhood organization, which was designated as a terrorist group in 2013. This June, the death verdict for 12 Egyptian members was upheld. Their families have now started a social media campaign under the hashtag #StopEgyExecutions to protest against the verdict and raise attention.

One of these convicted men is Mohamed El-Beltagy, a prominent figure of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. His wife, Sana Abd Al-Gawad, has written a letter, of which DW received a copy. In it, she accuses the Egyptian regime of denying basic human rights to the detained.

"Recently, the military regime sentenced my husband to death in a final decision, while my husband — and dozens of leaders of activists — for years are being subjected to slow and systematic killing, where they are denied their most basic rights to life and the means of survival," the letter says.

Human Rights Watch estimates that about 60,000 people are currently jailed in Egypt on political grounds. The country also topped Amnesty International's list of nations with the most death sentences and executions in 2020: Egypt's numbers more than tripled from 32 in 2019 to 107 executions the following year.

Clearly concern from Washington

The recent detentions and convictions have drawn attention — above all, from Egypt's powerful ally, the US. Last week, Ned Price, the Department of State's spokesperson, voiced concern over Egypt's politically motivated indictment against Hossam Bahgat, a prominent investigative journalist and the director-general of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

"We believe all people should be allowed to express their political views freely, to assemble and associate peacefully. As a strategic partner, we have raised these concerns with the Egyptian government, and we will continue to do so going forward," Price said in a press briefing. Price made it clear that the US will not "overlook human rights in the name of security, stability, any other interests that we might have. Our values and our interests are both of tremendous importance to us, and this administration is not prepared to sacrifice one for the other."

Asked at the press conference if the issue could affect a planned arms package for Egypt, Price said: "Human rights across the board is something we look at very closely in making those decisions."

This is in line with the vows made as a candidate by current US President Joe Biden that "there would be no more "blank checks" for the Egyptian president, who had become a close ally of Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump.

Egypt's trump cards

"International pressure could certainly get President el-Sissi and the Egyptian government to change their behavior. But the truth is, we haven't seen anyone attempt that seriously," Mohamed El Dahshan, associate fellow with the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Programme, told DW on the phone.

"The last time someone made a half-hearted attempt at using their clout to influence the Egyptian government on the human rights dossier, they did not follow through. And essentially, the Egyptian government called their bluff," he said.

Egypt also holds a few trump cards with which it can arm itself against pressure from Washington: The country is considered a reliable partner in the fight against terrorism, US warships and military vessels enjoy preferential treatment when passing through the Suez Canal and military aircraft can pass through Egyptian airspace unhindered. In addition, Egypt is an important mediator in the Middle East conflict and was recently praised by the US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, for brokering a peace deal between the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and Israel.

Egypt's potential new allies

Furthermore, Egypt also has other powerful partners, as Ramy Yaacoub of the Tahrir Institute points out: "The United States' relationship with Egypt is a bilateral relationship and a multifaceted one, and the United States' interest is for Egypt to not go seeking out buying more weapons from Russia or France or China."

Yaacoub sees other ways as being more likely to convince Egypt to heed the United States. "Egypt is in much dire need of help — for example, in the GERD, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam issue with Ethiopia, or via educational grants and programs that could be awarded and perhaps used in that kind of soft power approach that could be encouraged," Yaacoub said. "So there are other soft-power ways that could be helpful. I'm not saying that they are as effective, but it needs to be a package of tools that are used rather than just one thing or one threat,"

At any rate, it remains to be seen whether Cairo will turn human rights into a new trademark — or whether the recent releases will have to be seen merely as exceptions brought about by the annual holiday.

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