The situation regarding freedom of expression and opinion in Egypt has deteriorated markedly since President al-Sisi came to power in 2014. There has been a sharp rise in the number of writers and journalists detained or imprisoned solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and many writers and activists have been forced to flee the country.
At the time of writing, poet Galal El-Behairy awaits trial. He was arrested on 3 March 2018 and held incommunicado for a week. When he then appeared before the High State Security Court he had clearly been tortured. The High State Security Prosecution subsequently ordered a forensic medical examination, but the findings have not been made public or shared with his lawyer.
El-Behairy is due to be tried in both a military court and the High State Security Court. The charges appear to relate to his latest book of poetry, The Finest Women on Earth, published earlier this year. El-Behairy is also under investigation for writing the lyrics for Ramy Essam’s song ‘Balaha’, which criticises Egyptian government policies. Following the release of the song and a music video on 26 February, El-Behairy and Essam endured a smear campaign led by pro-government media outlets.
On 6 May, El-Behairy attended a trial in a military court where he was informed that the verdict in relation to his poetry would be handed down three days later. The verdict was later postponed until 16 May and at the time of writing is expected in late June. PEN believes that El-Behairy is being held in violation of his right to freedom of expression and is calling for his release.
PEN has published a poem El-Behairy wrote in detention, titled ‘Opening’. Its translator wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. Here is a part of it:
In the heart of this night
I own nothing
but my smile.
I take my country in my arms
and talk to her
about all the prisoners’ lives… out there
beyond the prison’s borders,
beyond the jailer’s grasp,
and about man’s need… for his fellow man,
about a dream
that was licit
about a burden
that could be borne
if everyone took part in it
El-Behairy is one of many writers and activists currently detained for daring to exercise their right to free expression. The latest victim of al-Sisi’s crackdown is Wael Abbas, a prominent Egyptian blogger and political activist who was arrested on 23 May 2018. Several armed agents from the Egyptian security service raided his home, blindfolded him and took him to an undisclosed location. The agents also confiscated his electronic devices and other personal belongings, including cameras, hard disks, mobile phones, laptops and books.
On 28 May 2018, Abbas was questioned for several hours by Egypt’s High State Security Prosecution. He is accused of ‘joining a terrorist group’, ‘spreading false news damaging public security and the public interest’ and using social media to ‘spread ideas inciting terrorist acts’. Abbas remains detained at Tora Prison pending the conclusion of the investigation into his activities.
Since 2004, Abbas has used his blog to highlight human rights violations, including corruption and police brutality. He won the Egyptians Against Corruption Award for 2005–6 and was the recipient of a Human Rights Watch Hellman/Hammett Award in 2008. In 2006, he posted a video showing the torture by police of an individual, which led to the imprisonment of a police officer, Captain Islam Nabih. In 2007, he won the Knight International Award for Journalistic Excellence and was named Middle East Person of the Year by CNN.
Abbas is the author of many books, including Abdel Nasser and Minorities, a collection of articles written between 2006 and 2013 that question the American administration’s support of former president Hosni Mubarak, and Another Person, published in 2018. Abbas has been harassed for several years. His YouTube account was shut down in 2007 after he posted videos of police brutality and in December 2017 his Twitter account was suspended, which, Abbas claims, meant the deletion of over 250,000 tweets, along with ‘dozens of thousands of pictures, videos and live streams from the middle of every crisis in Egypt with date stamp on them, reporting on people who got tortured, killed or [went] missing [and] live coverage of events as they happened in the street’. PEN believes that the charges against Abbas relate to his peaceful activism and criticism of the Egyptian government. It is protesting against his detention.
Readers might like to send appeals calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Galal El-Behairy, if still detained, and Wael Abbas; seeking assurances that they have full access to family visits, legal representation and adequate medical care while in detention; and urging the Egyptian government to ensure that the right to freedom of expression is fully respected in law and practice in accordance with the Egyptian constitution and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a state party.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Nasser Kamel
Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
26 South Street, London W1K 1DW
Fax: +44 207 491 1542 | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mohamed Hossam Abdel Rahim
Minister of Justice
Fax: +202 2795 8103 | Email: email@example.com
Magdy Abdel Ghaffar
Minister of Interior
Fax: +202 2794 5529 | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org