Activists targeted in presidential election run-up

Egypt's clampdown on political dissent increasingly includes family members of activists living abroad. The Sisi regime has also admitted to leveraging the release of individual political prisoners for financial aid. Jennifer Holleis reports

By Jennifer Holleis

Criticism of Egypt's government is regularly voiced from abroad, but almost never from within the country, infamous as its security apparatus is for brutal crackdowns on political activists.

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," said Fagr Eladly, adding that she is convinced her own political activity in Germany was the sole reason for her father's imprisonment.

Freedom for Fajr Al-Adly's father.. How did her story begin with the fight against oppression in #Egypt?#FreeThemAll@fagr_eladly @jannisgrimm @BeateBeller

— Free Them (@FreeThemAll_) August 29, 2023


Eladly made headlines in 2015, when she called Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi "a murderer" during a joint press conference with the then-German chancellor Angela Merkel.

On 28 August, the pre-trial detention for her father, who is not politically active and has been travelling 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 exclaimed, 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," said Amr Magdi, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). "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," he added.

Fagr Eladly, holding bouquets of flowers, and her father Alaa Eladly in Wiesbaden, Germany (image: private)
Activist Fajr Al-Adly and her father in Germany: on 18 August 2023, 59-year-old Alaa Al-Adly, father of political activist Fajr Al-Adly, who lives in Germany, was arrested after flying into Cairo airport from Frankfurt am Main. Many hope that growing international pressure will lead to his release – and that of numerous others

Increasing harassment

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'," revealed Wadih Al-Asmar, president of EuromedRights, a non-governmental umbrella organisation of 68 human rights organizations in 30 countries.

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 al-Sisi opponent Ahmed Tantawy were arrested after he announced his intention in April this year to run for the presidency in 2024.

"We are definitely observing an increased tendency by the Egyptian authorities to harass or arrest family members of politically controversial Egyptian activists, journalists and other dissidents inside the country and abroad," said Al-Asmar."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.

Egyptian researcher Patrick Zaky outside the court in Mansoura, Egypt (image: MOHAMED EL-RAAI/AFP/Getty Images)
أصدر الرئيس المصري عبد الفتاح السيسي عفوا رئاسيا عن الباحث المصري باتريك زكي بعد يوم واحد من الحكم عليه بالسجن لثلاث سنوات: ورغم الإفراج عن نشطاء بارزين في مصر مثل باتريك زكي وأحمد دومة، إلا أن قائمة السجناء السياسيين شملت انضمام شخصيات جديدة بما في ذلك الصحافي والناشط السياسي هشام قاسم، الذي جرى اعتقاله. ونقلت وكالة رويترز عن محاميه قوله إن "السلطات المصرية نقلت موكله إلى السجن رهن المحاكمة في تهمتي السب والقذف وإهانة ضباط وأمناء شرطة".

For Roll, 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 organisations 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," said Marie Gorgis, Egypt researcher at Amnesty International.

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 confirmed, adding that "the release of individual political prisoners is used as a signal for Western countries that the human rights situation is improving".

According to Egyptian state media, around 1,500 prisoners have been released since the re-instalment of the Presidential Pardon Committee, which is tasked with releasing 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.

Herewith we announce a hunger strike in #Egypt to demand the release of my father in front of the German embassy in #Cairo and to demonstrate our solidarity

#freeAlaaEladly #freemydad

— Fagr Eladly (@fagr_eladly) August 31, 2023


At the end of August, 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.

On 31 August, 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," said Stephan Roll, who also advises policymakers in Germany.

As Egypt is facing an increasing debt crisis, "the country will soon need Berlin's approval for the privatisation of the Siemens-built Beni Suef power plant, which was financed by German export credit guarantees," added Roll. "In view of empty state coffers, the sale of this power plant is very important for the Sisi administration."

Hoping for international pressure

Austrian Elena Pichler decided to raise her voice and call on embassies and human rights organisations 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".

Selfie of Badr Mohamed and his wife Elena Pichler against a desert background (image: private)
تطالب المواطنة النمساوية إيلينا بيشلر، سفارة بلادها والمنظمات الحقوقية بالضغط لدفع السلطات المصرية إلى الإفراج عن زوجها محمد بدر: وقررت بيشلر رفع صوتها ومطالبة السفارات ومنظمات حقوق الإنسان بالإفراج عن زوجها السجين السياسي. وقالت إنه عند اعتقال زوجها في أغسطس/ آب 2020: "طلب مني أحد المحامين في البداية ألا أثير ضجة لأن القضية ليست ذات أهمية وقد يتم إطلاق سراحه بعد بضعة أشهر". ومع ذلك بقي زوجها في الحبس الاحتياطي وقررت العودة إلى مصر في مارس / آذار الماضي 2023 ومعها ابنتها البالغة الآن عامين للنضال من أجل إطلاق سراح زوجها. وتقول: "حاولنا عدم فعل أي شيء لكن لم يتغير أي شيء ...".

The judges found Badr Mohamed guilty of "participating in an illegal gathering" and "displaying force associated with the crime of premeditated murder". On 13 August, 2013, the then 17-year-old had joined the protests against the military-led government of now-President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi 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," said Pichler. 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 2023, 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.

Badr Mohamed is serving an unjust five-year prison sentence following his conviction in January 2023 in connection to the Ramsis Square protests.

Here’s what you can do:

— AmnestyCanada (@AmnestyNow) August 30, 2023


"We've tried not doing anything and it didn't change the situation," Pichler added, saying that "my husband trusts me enough to make the right decisions, and not to do anything that just leaves us helpless".

Deutsche Welle reached out to the Egyptian ambassador to Germany, but hadn't received a reply by the time of publication.

Jennifer Holleis

© Deutsche Welle 2023