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Prominent secular leaders detained in Egypt during Macron visit

French president has called for religious tolerance and better human rights while in Cairo, as Sisi's opponents are swept up in wave of arrests
French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi (R) take part in an official diner at Al Massah hotel, in Cairo, on 28 January (AFP)

Egyptian authorities have detained at least seven left-wing and secular activists in the second wave of arrests targeting leftist groups since last summer.

The crackdown has coincided with the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron, who has urged Egypt to imporove its human rights record and called for inter-religious dialogue.

On Thursday, security forces arrested Yehia Hussein Abdel-Hadi, a founding member and former spokesman of the Civil Democratic Movement (CDM) opposition group, an alliance of seven secular and left-wing parties.

Abdelhadi’s arrest came hours after the CDM published a statement condemning the recent arrests of six other activists.

According to the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Egyptian security forces arrested four leftist public figures on Sunday, including physician Gamal Abdel Fattah, lawyer Mohab al-Ebrashi, and activists Khaled Basyouni, Khaled Mahmoud and Mostafa Faqir.

Continuing arrests carried out by Egyptian security services without giving the detainees any rights is a clear and repeated disrespect for the Egyptian constitution

- Arab Network for Human Rights Information

Their arrests came one day after their participation at an event commemorating the eighth anniversary of the 2011 revolution that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. They have all been held incommunicado since then.

The event was organised by the leftist al-Karama party at its headquarters in Cairo last Saturday. The CDM also confirmed the arrest of Abdelaziz Fadaly, a member of the political bureau of Al-Karama Party.

According to ANHRI, the detainees have not had a chance to speak to lawyers since their arrest.

The CDM condemned the arrests as “an operation seeking to terrorise and take revenge against the 25 January revolutionaries and their children.”

Translation: “My son Khaled was attending a concert held at the headquarters of the al-Karama party on the anniversary of the 25 January revolution… Security forces were cordoning the place. They took copies of the IDs of Khaled and other young men. Today, he was arrested. I do not know anything about his whereabouts. It’s driving me mad. I did not imagine that an artistic event would be considered a crime,” Fayza Hindawi, Khaled Basyouni’s mother.

“Continuing arrests carried out by Egyptian security services without giving the detainees any rights is a clear and repeated disrespect for the Egyptian constitution that has safeguarded civil liberties,” ANHRI said in a statement, and called for the immediate release of activists.

Sisi has waged a relentless crackdown against both Islamist and secular pro-democracy activists since the 2013 coup he led against his predecessor Mohamed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now outlawed in Egypt.

While in Egypt over the past two days, Macron has criticised the number of political prisoners and human rights abuses. Too many people “who do not threaten the regime’s stability” have been imprisoned, he said.

"The search for stability cannot be dissociated from the question of human rights," Macron told Sisi at a news conference on Monday.

On Tuesday, Macron met Coptic Pope Tawardos II and stressed the need for "dialogue between religions", the AFP news agency reported.

Extended presidency in spotlight

The crackdown on al-Karama, one of the seven parties that founded the CDM, follows a number of media statements through which the movement and its members declared their opposition to amending the constitution to allow Sisi to stay in power beyond his second and last presidential term ending in 2022.

On 24 February, an Egyptian court is scheduled to hear a legal petition demanding parliament discusses a proposed amendment to Article 140, which limits presidents to two four-year terms. The amendment would allow Sisi to extend his time in office if voters approve it in a popular referendum. 

The CDM issued a statement on 13 January dismissing the proposed amendments as “a coup attempt against the constitution” seeking to strip Egyptians of their democratic gains.

This latest set of raids is the second-largest wave of arrests targeting leftist leaders since last August’s arrest of six prominent left-wing figures, including Maassoum Marzouk, who called for a snap referendum on Sisi's presidency.

Sisi won a second term in April last year, running virtually unchallenged in presidential elections after all candidates - except one, who publicly supported him - were arrested or discredited.