BEIRUT: Egypt has recently freed several prominent political detainees, raising hopes for an easing of a sweeping crackdown on dissent. But for rights activists, repression remains “systematic” and there is no relaxation in sight.
The Arab world’s most populous country, with 102 million residents, draws regular criticism over its rights record.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has progressively silenced dissent, but last year it appeared things were changing.
Sisi was elected in May 2014 after leading the military ouster of elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi the previous year.
In 2021, however, he ended a years-long state of emergency and the laws and special tribunals that went with it.
Then several rights activists and political dissidents — liberal and Islamist — were released.
They have included Italian-Egyptian researcher Patrick Zaki, who was freed from pre-trail custody in December, and Egyptian-Palestinian activist Ramy Shaath, who arrived in France this month after more than two years in detention, in exchange for renouncing his Egyptian citizenship.
But at the same time, Egypt’s most well-known political detainee, Alaa Abdel Fattah, a leading figure in the 2011 revolution that toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak, was sentenced to five years in jail.
Another 2011 activist, former MP Zyad el-Elaimy, received an identical sentence, while other activists were also jailed — with hard labour.
New repressive laws took effect, including a requirement that non-governmental organisations register with the authorities before mid-January or be dissolved.
Human Rights Watch says this “is complicated and burdensome, requiring hundreds of pages of documentation of past activities, funding sources, and planned activities”.
The process is not guaranteed, either.
“Registration is not final until the Social Solidarity Ministry publicly approves the group’s registration,” the US-based watchdog said.
Another group, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said it was informed in October that it could not register under its current name.
ANHRI was one of the largest and oldest rights groups in Egypt, but it shut its doors on January 10 after an 18-year history through which it had seen three presidents, a popular revolution.