A smiling Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi appeared on state television last month to pardonmore than 330 prisoners, saying it was an act of clemency aheadof the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. This week, he pardonedanother 712.
Many were young Egyptians jailed for anti-governmentprotests.
But with less fanfare, at least six prominent el-Sissi critic have been detained in recent weeks, in what opposition activists say is an intensifying effort to crush all dissent less than three months after his landslide election victory.
“I am being arrested,” Wael Abbas, one of the highest-profile detainees, wrote on Facebook around dawn on May 23.
The journalist, who won an international award in 2007 for reporting on police brutality, was charged with spreading fake news and involvement with an illegal organization, a phrase often used by the Egyptian authorities as a reference to Islamist groups. His lawyer, Gamal Eid, said Abbas denied the
Abbas joined other high-profile figures in detention, allarrested in the space of three weeks. The group includes HazemAbdelazim, a well-known el-Sissi supporter-turned-critic, as well asseveral leading figures from Egypt’s 2011 uprising, when massprotests forced then-President Hosni Mubarak from office. Theactivists had since turned their sights on el-Sissi, whom they see asa return to an era of strong military control.
Egypt’s interior ministry and president’s office did notrespond to phone calls or written questions about the arrests.
Egypt’s foreign ministry said in a statement: “No citizen inEgypt is arrested … for directing criticism at the Egyptian government, but for committing crimes punishable by law.”
El-Sissi easily won re-election in March with 97 percent of thevote, but turnout was just 41 percent. All serious opponents hadwithdrawn beforehand from the race, citing intimidation.
Mohamed Zaree of the Cairo Institute for Human RightsStudies said he knew of about 30 journalists or activists whohad been arrested since the election. Reuters was not able toverify that figure.
The recent arrests have raised alarm, including in theUnited States and United Nations, partly because those detainedare prominent figures whose open criticism of the authoritieshad not triggered such strong reprisals until now.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence praised last month’s pardons,but also expressed concern to el-Sissi on May 24 over the newarrests. On Tuesday, U.N. human rights spokeswoman RavinaShamdasani urged Egypt to “respect … obligations underinternational human rights law.”
International and local rights groups have said the arrests were made without warrants and detainees were denied access to lawyers.
‘Targeted’ for writing
Since coming to power in 2014, el-Sissi has presided over asweeping crackdown on Islamist opponents and liberal activists,which rights groups say is the worst period of politicalrepression in modern Egyptian history.
The former military chief toppled elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 after mass protests against his rule.Thousands of supporters of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood were arrested, and Egypt passed a law requiring interior ministry permission for any public gathering of more than 10 people.
El-Sissi’s supporters say such measures are needed to keep Egyptstable as it recovers from political chaos and tackles graveeconomic challenges. It also faces an Islamic State insurgencyin the Sinai Peninsula and has imposed a nationwide state ofemergency.
El-Sissi, who denies there are political prisoners in Egypt, hasissued pardons several times a year, including on majorholidays, often releasing students and young protesters.
Some lawyers, rights researchers and diplomats said they areat a loss to explain the latest arrests. Those detained hadmainly avoided incarceration for years despite their onlineactivism.
“Before the election [there was] the logical explanationthat it was to scare [opposition] supporters,” Mohamed Lotfy,director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms,told Reuters.
“The latest [arrests] have just targeted those writing onthe internet,” he said, adding that el-Sissi’s critics wereincreasingly engaging in self-censorship for fear of arrest.
Lotfy’s wife, Amal Fathy, was detained last month forinsulting the state after posting a expletive-filled videocriticizing the government for failing to protect women againstsexual harassment.
Another detainee, Hazem Abdelazim, had complained on Twitterabout a deepening crackdown days before his arrest on May 27.
“People are being arrested every day … oppression isincreasing,” he wrote.
In his Twitter postings, he criticizedthe release of more than 300 prisoners by el-Sissi as not includingany political opponents or prominent critics. A full list ofthose pardoned was not made available by the authorities.
Abdelazim served as a government official under Mubarak andcampaigned for el-Sissi’s first term in 2014, but has since saidthat this was his “biggest sin.”
Like Abbas, the journalist, Abdelazim faces charges ofspreading fake news and involvement with an illegalorganization, charges that his lawyer said he denied.
Satirist Shady Abu Zeid and lawyer Haitham Mohamedeen wereamong other prominent Egyptians arrested in May. Abu Zeid’slawyer said he faced the same charges as Abbas and Abdelazim,charges that he denies.Mohamedeen’s lawyer was not immediatelyavailable for comment.
Shady Ghazaly Harb, a leading opposition figure in 2011 whenmass protests forced Mubarak from office, was also detained lastmonth. He had taken to Twitter to criticize the detention ofdemonstrators taking part in a rare public protest against anincrease in fares on the Cairo metro.