Four years after the death of Giulio Regeni, the human rights situation in Egypt has worsened. The government has responded to protests with unprecedented repression. Tensions are high, palpable.
In order to prevent further demonstrations after the sit-in on 27 September in Tahrir Square, makeshift checkpoints have been set up in downtown Cairo and in other Egyptian cities affected by the tumults.
Anyone who gravitates around the epicenter of the revolts, present and past, is stopped and forced to hand over their cell phone. In many cases, this is followed by arbitrary arrests.
The disclosure comes from the NGO Belady that reported thousands of forced disappearances from September to December 2019 that lasted 2 to 10 days. According to Amnesty International, the people who are stopped are accused of “membership in a terrorist group” and “misusing social media”. Dozens of minors have also been stopped in the sweeping arrests that sent five thousand Egyptians to prison in only a few weeks.
The al-Sisi government fears the rising discontent of those resisting to live under the pressure of a government that crushes opposition with violence.
Things are not much better for freedom of information. Many bloggers and journalists have been incarcerated, including Esraa Abdel Fattah who was arrested last October and brought to an unknown location.
“She couldn’t contact anyone for days,” says Khaleed Ali, one of her lawyers. “When we saw her, she told us she had been beaten, kicked and tortured. They kept her awake for hours. They started to strangle her to make her unlock her phone so they could access her email and social network accounts.”
Use of torture and “forced disappearances” on opposers and activists by security forces, whose ruthlessness we have experienced with the brutal death of Giulio Regeni, is as systematic as the violation of the rights of all citizens and the arrests with no legal basis.
It seems to have become common practice that when an unfortunate bystander is arrested, no charges are made and their detention is prolonged beyond their legal rights. They can wait months before appearing before a judge.
Mohamed Lofty, who has been an activist and researcher for Amnesty International for years, knows this only too well. The Executive Director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) and a consultant for the Regeni family, watched helplessly as his wife Amal Fathy was arrested. In May 2018, security forces took her, Lofty and their three-year-old son from their apartment. Lofty was released with their son thanks to his Egyptian-Swiss double citizenship.
Amal is currently on probation and must report to the police station in their neighborhood every day. She has a two-year sentence pending for criticizing Egypt’s system of handling sexual harassment. Her sentence has been suspended but she cannot leave the country.
“It is not safe here right now. There is a lot of tension because of the recent revolts against al-Sisi,” says Mohamed. “But we are trying to live each day with serenity. Our child started kindergarten recently and we want him to have the same kind of childhood as his peers.”
Despite the threats underlying their life, the Director of ECRF is determined to continue in his commitment.
“If I stop my work, it won’t guarantee greater security for Amal and my son. On the contrary. It would only prove to the government that their tactics work and that by putting pressure on, they can get what they want.”
This is not for him. Mohamed Lofty is inflexible on this and he is staying in Cairo, also to monitor what he defines “the largest repression since al-Sisi’s rise to power”.
The protestors are the first visible signs of political unrest in the past six years. The thousands of arrests in recent months suggest that the government sees this as a threat.
The demonstrations against the government and the President were generated by accusations by an Egyptian exile living in Spain, Mohammed Ali. He grew rich through building contracts involving the Egyptian military.
Ali posted videos online that talk of squandering public funds and rampant corruption, some of which implicate President Sisi himself.
Ali, movie star looks and attitude (he is also an actor), is the guy that you sit down with at the café and have a hookah with on a Thursday night in Egypt. Everyone understands him, they listen to him, they like him.
Egyptians were already fully aware that there was massive systematic corruption, and much of it has been linked to the control of the army over the economy. Ali, who knows the system well, laid it out in very clear terms; by names, by numbers, by dates. And the fact that he also came out and said that he himself was corrupt, gave him more credibility. And that paved the way for the viral take off of his call to demonstrate every Friday after Prayer.
Twelve days after Mohamad Ali’s first video went online, which received a million and a half views, President al-Sisi responded.
“Yes, I am building presidential palaces. And I will build more. But are they for me?” was his terse reply to the accusations.
The President’s statement proved to be a decisive thrust that prompted the demonstrators to take to the streets without backing from a political party or organization.
Other allegations on social networks followed Ali’s. Most of them were anonymous. Some of them appear to come from military personnel.
What this suggests is not a popular uprising but the first signs of a slow and soft coup d’état. Elements within the military who were once loyal to the former general turned president, are now preparing to depose him.
The videos posted online show a growing fissure from within the military establishment. It is no coincidence that in the last presidential election in Egypt most of those who wanted to challenge al-Sisi were former military men. They wouldn’t have run for office if they didn’t think there was internal support. The accusation of the mismanagement of military by twice-elected Al-Sisi for his own benefit is a serious problem. And that is Sisi’s number one concern.
But it’s not as simple as a dictator gone rogue and the people uprising demanding he step down. Those who know the Egyptian apparatus well believe that there is already talk within the government about post al-Sisi and that they are looking to finalize the solution. And this may come sooner than expected.
It all depends on the former general’s estate and the Egyptian people’s discontent that, however dormant, breeds in the outskirts where hunger is most felt. If the prices of basic necessities and fuel, already amply inflated, get any higher, Egypt could explode like a powder keg.