Egypt has arrested two senior staffers of a prominent rights group after they briefed European diplomats, in what has been called a “chilling” and “dangerous” escalation in the crackdown on civil society.
Mohamed Basheer, an administrative manager for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), was taken by heavily armed officers from his home on Sunday and held on terrorism charges, just days after the group met with the ambassadors from over ten countries.
On Wednesday, National Security service agents then arrested Karim Ennarah, EIPR’s criminal justice unit director, while he was holidaying in the Red Sea resort of Dahab. His whereabouts remain unknown.
The group believes the arrests were in response to the 3 November meeting which was attended by diplomats from Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and Canada, among others, and focused on human rights.
Prosecutors and security agents questioned Basheer about EIPR’s work and the visit.
The foreign ministry of France, whose diplomatic representatives had attended the EIPR briefing, expressed its “deep concern” on Tuesday over Basheer’s detention.
Amnesty International condemned the arrests calling them “outrageous” and adding that they dealt a “heavy blow” to human rights work in the country.
Human Rights Watch said it was a “dangerous escalation” of the crackdown.
“The authorities should release everyone detained for their human rights work and end its harassment of independent activists and groups.” said Amr Magdi, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa researcher.
Civil society workers have long been subject to travel bands, assets freezes, office closures and active investigations.
But many fear the arrests are the start of an even tougher crackdown on dissent by Egyptian president and ex-army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in the years since he stormed to power following a 2013 military coup.
Minutes before Mr Ennarah’s arrest Egyptian newspapers affiliated with the Egypt’s intelligence branch including Youm7 and Saw al-Omma published articles attacking EIPR, accusing its staffers of plotting to cause chaos in the country, to harm its national security and to damage its reputation abroad.
The charges against Ennarah are unknown.
But according to Amnesty International Mohamed Basheer has been ordered to be detained for 14 days pending investigation into charges of terrorism and spreading false news. He was added to Case No. 855/2020 Supreme State Security, which involves prominent detained human rights defenders and journalists, including Mahienour el-Masry, Mohamed el-Baqer, Solafa Magdy and Esraa Abdelfattah.
Allison McManus , Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy., called it the most aggressive attack on civil society in years and said it was particularly concerning given the “strategic nature” of the arrests: the authorities first detained EIPR’s administrative director who would have access to personnel files, and financial workings of the organisation .
She said the timing was also worrying as the United States was in the grips of a difficult transitional period since incumbent President Donald Trump has refused to acknowledge the outcome of the recent presidential elections which Joe Biden won.
Mr Trump has been very friendly to the Egyptian government and President Sisi in stark contrast to Mr Biden’s team that has made “very strong public statements that it would not tolerate a similar type of abuse of human rights,” she said.
Biden was Vice President when then President Barack Obama froze aid to Egypt in 2013 over its terrible rights record.
She feared that Egypt may escalate its crackdown ahead of the change in administration in January.
McManus also said this is a period where the US is approaching holiday season and so after Friday Congress will be out of session.
“In the past we have seen that this November and December period tends to be one where there are more efforts to carry out these violations.”