Freedom of expression in Egypt is in its most perilous condition for decades. Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in 2014, crackdowns on civil society organisations have intensified and dozens of writers have been arrested or forced to flee the country. His regime has adopted numerous laws that restrict free expression and peaceful activism. The anti-terrorism law passed in August 2015 prevents the media from publishing information on militant violence and imposes heavy fines on anyone found guilty of doing so. A new cyber crimes law, approved in June last year by the Egyptian parliament, stifles online freedom of speech and sanctions prison sentences of up to five years. These laws are effectively criminalising any writers, human rights activists and intellectuals brave enough to criticise the authorities.
In September last year, Amnesty International launched a campaign called Egypt: An Open-air Prison for Critics, in response to the unprecedented severity of the repression. ‘It is currently more dangerous to criticize the government in Egypt than at any time in the country’s recent history. Egyptians living under President al-Sisi are treated as criminals simply for peacefully expressing their opinions,’ claims Najia Bounaim, Amnesty International’s North Africa campaigns director. ‘The security services have been ruthless in clamping down on any remaining political, social or even cultural independent spaces. These measures, more extreme than anything seen in former President Hosni Mubarak’s repressive 30-year rule, have turned Egypt into an open-air prison for critics.’
Just as one dissident is freed, another is arrested. On 12 December, prominent writer and blogger Wael Abbas (LR, July 2018) was released after seven months of pre-trial detention. He had been held for writing articles critical of the Egyptian government. As Carles Torner, PEN International’s executive director, observed, ‘he should have never been arrested in the first place.’
Just three days before Abbas’s release, another writer was arrested. Ibrahim al-Husseini is a 63-year-old journalist, poet and short-story writer whose latest collection, Leil (‘Night’), is published by the Supreme Council for Culture in Egypt. Al-Husseini has defended human rights since the 1970s and his articles have often been critical of authoritarianism and religious extremism. He has previously been harassed and detained because of his work. His family believe his current detention relates to social media posts in which he commented on news events in Egypt and France.
In the early morning of 9 December, al-Husseini was arrested at his home in Cairo by several security agents, who confiscated a number of his books and electronic devices. He was taken to the Shubra al-Kheima police station before being transferred to an unknown location. He was reportedly interrogated for eighteen hours and denied access to a lawyer and his family.
Al-Husseini has diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. He has reportedly suffered several strokes and requires regular medical care. His family was only allowed to deliver his medicine four days after his arrest. On 23 December, the State Security Prosecution ordered al-Husseini’s pre-trial detention for fifteen days on a charge of ‘inciting a demonstration’. Two days later, his health condition suddenly worsened. His symptoms included bleeding, which lasted a full night, and he was subsequently transferred to a hospital, where he was given an initial examination. Doctors wanted to conduct an endoscopy, to determine the cause of the bleeding, and to monitor his condition, but he was returned to prison. His family, who have only been allowed to visit him in prison for fewer than ten minutes due to restrictions, have said that his health has since deteriorated. Despite this, al-Husseini is confined in a tiny cell with four other detainees. Lawyers have been denied access to the investigation report and other relevant documents. On 5 January 2019, al-Husseini’s pre-trial detention was renewed for another fifteen days. At the time of writing he remains detained.
Readers might like to send appeals calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Ibrahim al-Husseini and urging the authorities to drop all charges against him; expressing serious concern for his wellbeing; seeking assurances that, pending his release, he is provided with all medical care he may require and has full access to family visits and legal representation; and insisting that the government fully respect the right to freedom of expression and association 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 20 7491 1542
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Office of the President
Al-Ittihadia Palace, Cairo, Arab Republic of Egypt
Fax: +202 2 391 1441
Mohamed Hossam Abdel Rahim
Ministry of Justice
Lazoghly Square, Cairo, Arab Republic of Egypt
Fax: +202 2 795 8103
Ministry of Interior
Fifth Settlement, New Cairo, Arab Republic of Egypt
Fax: +202 2794 5529