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Egypt jails human rights lawyer for possessing five yellow vests

Mohamed Ramadan posted a Facebook picture of himself with a yellow vest days before his arrest
Human rights lawyer Mohamed Ramadan (Facebook)

Egyptian authorities have ordered pre-trial detention for human rights lawyer Mohamed Ramadan days after he posted a picture of himself on Facebook wearing a reflective yellow vest, in reference to the French “gilets jaunes” anti-austerity protests.

The news was announced by a rights group and his lawyer on Tuesday. Ramadan's friends say the Facebook picture was a satirical one. 

According to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), Ramadan was arrested on Monday on his way to his home, after he attended an investigation with one of his clients in Alexandria.

On Tuesday, according to Ramadan’s lawyer, the Montaza prosecution ordered the detention of Ramadan for 15 days pending investigations into charges of possessing five yellow vests with the intention of holding anti-government protests similar to the French protests against the government of Emmanuel Macron.

Ramadan, also known as Abu Beibers, denied the charges. His lawyer Mohamed Hafez said that his client did not possess any yellow vests, but even if he did, Egyptian law does not criminalise the possession of yellow vests.

The charges against Ramadan show that “Egyptian security services are frightened of the prospect of French-style protests taking place in Egypt,” said Hafez in a statement published by AFTE.

The lawyer’s arrest came as Egypt has reportedly moved to restrict the sales of yellow vests for fear of people using them in anti-government protests around the January anniversary of the 2011 revolution that toppled former autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Nagwa Shams Eldin, a friend of Ramadan's, condemned his arrest as well as the authorities' inability to understand any form of satire. 

"Our regime is scared of even the shadow of any movement, even if it's just a picture that they considered a form of incitement. They thought he was not joking," she wrote on Facebook.

Ramadan faces a range of other charges, including “joining a terrorist group and promoting its ideas; publishing false news; and using social media to propagate the goals of a terrorist group.”

Ramadan had previously been fined 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,800) on charges of participating in protests in June 2017. He was later acquitted of the charges at the end of that year, according to AFTE.

'Yellow vests' paranoia

Security officials have warned retailers in Cairo and Alexandria that they should not sell bulk quantities of yellow vests, which have become a symbol of anti-austerity protests in France, to walk-in customers, according to reports on Tuesday by Al-Jazeera and the Associated Press news agency.

Sales to wholesale businesses would require a police permit, officials told AP, with the restrictions set to remain in place until the end of January.

Owners of industrial safety equipment shops in Cairo were also asked by police officials to report any individuals seeking to buy large numbers of vests, Al Jazeera reported.

The move highlights Egypt’s anxiety over possible anti-government protests on the eighth anniversary of the 2011 "Arab Spring" revolution.

The revolution led to the adoption of a new constitution and democratic elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi was elected president.

But Morsi was overthrown in a military coup in 2013, which brought President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then the head of Egypt's armed forces, to power. 

Fear of contagion

Every year, although a virtual ban on protests remains in place, Egypt deploys army and police forces on the streets to prevent any popular marches in commemoration of the 25 January anniversary.

The Egyptian media, largely a mouthpiece of the government since the 2013 coup, has dedicated significant airtime to warning against the damaging consequences of the French yellow vests movement.

French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to raise the minimum wage and introduce tax cuts in response to the protests.

Amr Adeeb, a popular pro-Sisi TV host, took aim at the French protests as “indefensible”, and declared his opposition to the movement.

"Some people have been trying to blackmail us by saying that people who eat croissants are braver than the people who eat falafel. But I will not be blackmailed, I am sorry I will not do like them," he said.

He said he supports the government of France against the protesters, whose movement has only “destroyed tourism” and “turned the country upside-down”.

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