Over the last several years, Egypt has defied all expectations, but, right now, those expectations are at an all time low.
Since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013, Egypt has descended into a brand of popular authoritarianism that knows few limits and no mercy. The period kicked off with the largest state-sanctioned massacre of civilians ever seen in the country’s modern history. As Human Rights Watch has documented, Egyptian security services killed at least 1,000 people during the August 2013 assault on Muslim Brotherhood protesters camped out at Rabaa al Adeweya Square in Cairo.
Fast forward over a year later and approximately 40,000 civilians have been arrested and detained on dubious, politically-motivated charges. Over 100 children have been imprisoned on political grounds, as well. Prominent political activists have been sentenced to many years in prison, for standing up against a regressive protest law aimed at curbing the vibrant public sphere that had become a hallmark of Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak’s fall in February 2011.
In its latest assault against civil society, the Egyptian state ordered all NGOs to comply with an Mubarak-era law requiring them to officially register with the state. Under this legislation, the state has authority to prohibit Egyptian NGOs from affiliating with international organizations, as well as to shut down these organizations, freeze their assets, confiscate their property, and block their funding. A number of prominent Egyptian NGOs publicly refused to comply with the registration deadline, which went into effect on November 10.
For this defiance, they have paid a price. According to unconfirmed reports, dozens of prominent human rights activists have fled the country in the last several weeks, forced out by persistent threats from government agents. Those that have remained have done so at great risk to their personal safety and security – as journalist Sarah Carr recounted in a July 2014 article for Mada Masr, the Egyptian state has used rape and sexual assault to degrade, break, and silence political activists in the country.
On November 5, 2014, Egypt was held to account for its grave human rights violations, at a periodic review session in front of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). As reported by the BBC, during the session, Keith Harper, U.S. ambassador to the UNHRC, accused Egypt of violating “freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association [and] depriv[ing] thousands of Egyptians of fair trial guarantees.”
While these facts are damning, the current government’s absurd injustices are most powerfully captured by the stories of those suffering under this suffocating and oppressive environment. Three Al Jazeera English journalists, detained since December 29, 2013 in essence for speaking with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, have become a symbol of this absurdity. Attorneys for one of the detained men, Mohammed Fahmy, released a statement on Wednesday, November 5, calling for their client’s release and describing his deteriorating physical condition:
The charges against Mr Fahmy centre on the allegation that he was a member of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood group. Yet Mr Fahmy was one of the people who marched in the 30 June revolution that led to Mohamed Morsi’s ouster and ultimately put President Sisi in power. Mr Fahmy criticised the Morsi regime throughout his questioning by prosecutors when he was asked about his political views. And at trial there was not a shred of evidence to show that Mr Fahmy had any affiliation with them whatsoever. He is serving a 7-year prison sentence for simply reporting the news.
The absurdity of the case has now been recognised both within and outside Egypt. The United Nations Secretary-General has condemned the verdicts. Navi Pillay – the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time of the trial – concluded that the trial was “rife with procedural irregularities … in breach of international human rights law”. And she “urged the Egyptian authorities to promptly release all journalists … imprisoned for carrying out legitimate news reporting activities, including Mohamed Fahmy”. Prominent Egyptians including Mr Naguib Sawiris and Mr Amr Moussa have publicly proclaimed Mr Fahmy’s innocence. And President Sisi himself expressed regret about the “negative consequences” of the case for Egypt.2
Egypt’s highest court now has an opportunity to put things right. A panel of judges at the Court of Cassation will hear the appeal filed by Mr Fahmy on 1 January 2015. We are barristers representing Mr Fahmy in the case – along with his Egyptian lawyer Negad al Borai – and we recently filed a submission to the Egyptian Court of Cassation on international human rights law in support of the appeal. This Court has in the past overturned the decisions of lower courts in seminal cases that have protected key rights of individuals in Egypt. And it can do so again when it hears this appeal next year.
In the meantime, Mr Fahmy’s detention has become a great danger to his health. Mr Fahmy suffers from Hepatitis C, a disease of the liver that can be terminal and that requires special treatment that Mr Fahmy cannot receive while he is in detention. He has also suffered a permanent disability in his right shoulder due to an injury exacerbated during his detention. He will require a series of complicated correctional bone surgeries that also require extensive recovery and support not readily available in prison. Last month the Egyptian Syndicate of
Journalists sent letters to Egypt’s chief prosecutor, Mr Hisham Barakat, requesting Mr Fahmy’s temporary release on health grounds, attaching copies of health reports to support the plea. Under the Egyptian Code of Criminal Procedure the prosecutor is empowered to grant compassionate release on health grounds. Mr Fahmy awaits his decision.
Mr Fahmy has not committed any crime. Al Jazeera English – Mr. Fahmy’s employer when he was arrested – should take positive steps to assist him in his bid for freedom and refrain from taking any action that might undermine his cause. Egypt’s Supreme Court should overturn his conviction and release him when it hears his appeal. And in the meantime the authorities should grant him temporary release so that he can receive the medical treatment that he so urgently needs.
As outside observers, there are often few ways for us to meaningfully support those whose lives have been torn apart by the arbitrary and senseless acts of an unaccountable government. In Fahmy’s case, however, a donation page has been created to help finance his legal defense.
The road to an Egypt where human rights and civil liberties are protected is a long one, but individual victories are indispensable to paving the way.