By Mohamed Lotfy
As Egypt faces the worst crackdown on freedom of expression seen in decades, Europe’s leaders have set about forging a stronger relationship with their neighbour across the Mediterranean.
Talk of a “mutually beneficial partnership” with President Al-Sisi’s Egypt has centred on shared “common interests”, with next to no mention of the grave human rights violations and abuses taking place in the country.
I speak about the current crackdown from personal experience. My wife, Amal Fathy, was arrested when the police stormed into our home in the early hours of 11 May this year. Together with our three-year old son, we were taken to a police station in Cairo. Later in the morning a prosecutor questioned Amal for several hours about a video she had posted on Facebook two days earlier. In the video, she spoke about her experience of sexual harassment and criticized the Egyptian authorities’ failure to protect women. But in Egypt, if you speak out as a survivor, you could end up being the one who is punished, not the perpetrator.
My family was torn apart that day. Amal was detained for “spreading false news that could harm public security” and, subsequently, in relation to a separate case, for “belonging to a terrorist group”. She remains behind bars to this day, though yesterday we were offered a glimmer of hope that her agonizing ordeal in prison will shortly come to an end. A court ordered the Egyptian authorities to release Amal on probation, so I am desperately hoping that they comply and she will soon be home, reunited with us, her family.
My wife’s detention falls squarely within an escalating pattern of repression in Egypt. Since last year, hundreds of political activists, journalists and human rights defenders have been arbitrarily arrested simply for expressing their opinions. Even the most inoffensive forms of criticism have been branded as threats to national security and crimes under Egypt’s Counter-Terrorism law.
Critics are routinely detained without trial for months or even years on end, with many forcibly disappeared and tortured into making confessions that are then used against them in court. Even children as young as 12 are not spared.
If and when they are finally brought before a court, they face grossly unfair, mass trials, which produce flawed charges. The sentencing to death of 75 people after a mass trial in the Rabaa square protest is one such example.
Against this background, Europe’s leaders have professed their commitment to working for the common interests of Egyptians and Europeans, including speaking out in defence of human rights. But it’s far from clear how this definition of common interest is being extended to ordinary Egyptians.
What common interests did the Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz and European Council President, Donald Tusk have in mind when they praised Egypt as an exemplary partner in the region for having assisted in preventing migrants from reaching Europe’s shores?
An exemplary partner is one that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms, which are essential elements in the Association Agreement between Egypt, the EU and its member states.
Likewise, whose interests are served when European states allow their trade or other considerations to override the human rights of Egyptian citizens?
Even when abuses by the Egyptian government extend to European citizens, these common interests seem unaffected.
Almost three years after the body of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni was found in the desert with gruesome marks of torture, no suspect was brought to justice and the truth has yet to emerge. However, Italian prosecutors recently listed Egyptian security agents as possible suspects in Regeni’s death because of the lack of progress in the investigation.
Perhaps it is also these interests that guide some European countries’ apparent blind faith in the Egyptian authorities’ farcical “efforts to address human rights”. Whether it is Egypt’s promise to cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms, while at the same time arbitrarily arresting, intimidating and forcibly evicting those who engaged with the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing during her visit in October. Or Egypt’s claims to have established government affiliated bodies to respond to human rights complaints, while limiting the role of these bodies to denying any government wrongdoing and discrediting human rights organisations.
As European leaders prepare to discuss their relations with Egypt at the next EU-Egypt Association Council, it is worth pondering with whom and on which common interests they seek to build this partnership. European leaders would be well advised to recall some of the fundamental lessons of the Arab Spring, which taught us that any policy that ignores human rights is unsustainable. They also showed that, in the end, those who dare to speak up for their human rights will remember not the words of their oppressors, but the silence of their friends.
Mohamed Lotfy is an Egyptian human rights defender and Executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF))
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.