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Trump's silence fuels Sisi's human rights abuses

The US's tacit support has emboldened the Egyptian leader to crack down harder on dissent

In the past three weeks, Egyptian security forces have been on a rampage. It began with the arrest of satirical video blogger Shady Abu Zeid on 6 May. Then came the interrogation and subsequent arrest of leftist activist Shady Al-Ghazaly Harb on 15 May, which followed the arrest of activist Amal Fathy, her husband and three-year-old-son a few days earlier.

Then suddenly labour lawyer and member of the Revolutionary Socialists movement Haytham Mohamadeen was arrested on 18 May; and most recently prominent blogger and anti-torture activist Wael Abbas was detained on 23 May.

The latest arrest came on Saturday night when Hazim Abdelazim, a prominent Egyptian opposition leader, was arrested at his home in Cairo on suspicion of publishing false news and inciting against the state, according to security sources.

The same scenario

Each time the scenario is the same: a squad of national security and police forces storm the home, usually at dawn, detain their target without an arrest warrant, confiscate computers, books and phones, and allegedly steal cash. Before they know it, the detainees are slapped with stock charges of spreading false news and belonging to an "outlawed group", code for the non-existent Muslim Brotherhood.

In each case the arrest is provoked by either a comment they shared on social media or a YouTube rant spanning a broad spectrum of topics from the social and economic to the political and ideological.   

Technically, Abbas was the subject of an enforced disappearance, as he had gone missing for over 24 hours before either his family or his lawyer were notified of his whereabouts. At about 6pm the next day Abbas's lawyer tweeted that he was officially remanded in custody for 15 days, pending investigations, in case No. 44/2018, on charges of belonging to a “terrorist organisation and using the internet to spread the ideas of that organisation and to spread false news”.

In each case the arrest is provoked by either a comment they shared on social media or a YouTube rant spanning a broad spectrum of topics from the social and economic to the political and ideological

Not only has Abbas disappeared from his physical space literally in the blink of an eye, the 2007 recipient of the Knight International Journalism Award's entire social media existence has also been snuffed out, leaving no trace of him on Facebook, for instance.

In December, Twitter had suspended his account, which boasted 350,000 followers, without an explanation. But it was understood that it must have been related to his relentless criticism of the military coup since 2013, and his fearless advocacy on behalf of victims of human rights violations no matter where they stood on the political spectrum.

Crackdown on dissent

This heightening of the Egyptian regime's crackdown on dissent is not happening in a vacuum. In the lead-up to the holy month of Ramadan, which began on 17 May, increases in food prices and a poorly timed decision to hike fares on Cairo's subway by almost threefold, has led to open clashes between protesting ordinary citizens and security forces during which 21 people were reportedly arrested.

Wael Abbas was blindfolded and arrested by Egyptian police on 23 May (Facebook)
The protests were a rare occurrence since the passage of a 2013 law that practically outlawed demonstrations. The overall rise in the cost of living is part of broader austerity measures designed to meet the IMF's $12bn bailout loan conditions that hinge on the government's commitment to remove subsidies on basic needs such as fuel, electricity and water, as well as the introduction of value-added taxes. 

In a country where the average monthly income is barely $230 and where public services and infrastructure are in constant deterioration, it seems that it is only a matter of time before the frustration starts to spill onto the streets, which is precisely why this is happening now.

In a country where the average monthly income is barely $230 and where public services and infrastructure are in constant deterioration, it seems that it is only a matter of time before the frustration starts to spill onto the streets

Wael Abbas's arrest in particular is indicative of the dangerously fast corrosion of the rule of law and civil rights in Egypt. He began his cyberactivism under the Mubarak regime through his popular blog Misr Digital. His publication of a video showing the police torture and sexual assault of microbus driver Imad al-Kabeer led to the 2007 three-year conviction of the perpetrators in a landmark case that inspired a wave of virtual activism.

This included the Facebook page "We Are all Khaled Saeid" which galvanised youth on 25  January 2011, first to draw attention to police brutality on Police Day by remembering Alexandrian victim Khaled Saeid, but soon after sparking the mass protests that ousted Mubarak in 18 days. 

US silence

While Abbas did face a brutal character assassination at the hands of the Mubarak regime's hired pens and talking heads on national television, and was constantly harassed, his YouTube channel and email accounts shut down intermittently, he was never arrested or charged with a crime.

This did seem to be a bit of a mystery, but within the wider context of the Mubarak-era repression strategy, it made sense. Mubarak was acutely aware of the changing times and allowed his detractors to let off steam in order to keep up appearances in front of an international community that was increasingly breathing down his neck.

Today, no such pressure is on the radar of the current president and coup leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In fact, as I was writing this article, the US embassy in Cairo retweeted a post by Vice President Mike Pence where he says that he spoke to the Egyptian president to "reinforce the strong partnership between the US and Egypt and express our support for the release of Ahmed Etiwy, an American citizen who was imprisoned in Egypt".

Ironically the tweet was published almost exactly at the moment that news of Abbas's 15-day detention and the charges he faced were announced. While Etiwy's release after an illegal five years in jail is cause for celebration, it does not ameliorate the US's silence on Egypt's unconscionable human rights crimes and its complete disregard for due process.

Egyptians queue for bread in Cairo (Reuters)
But this is no surprise. Egypt's practical silence on the US's provocative decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and its shameless official participation in Israel's national day festivities in Cairo - as the world condemned the killing of peaceful Palestinian protestors mourning the Nakba a few miles from its own borders - is enough to prove that no meaningful pressure will be applied by the current US administration.

In fact, this administration has openly empowered dictatorships across the Middle East.   

At a public event on Wednesday, 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl revealed candid remarks made to by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump about his combative attitude towards the media. He said: "I do it to discredit you all, and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you."

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In just a few simple words, Trump summarised the playbook of the authoritarian ruler of the Arab world's most populous country. No doubt thousands of Egyptians are convinced that Abbas along with all the 20 imprisoned journalists and countless prisoners of conscience in Egypt are pawns in an international conspiracy against the country.

No matter how many international human rights organisations condemn and pontificate, their cries will continue to fall on deaf ears. Sisi's regime has proven time and again that there are no limits to its callous contempt for human rights simply because it has deliberately and systematically trampled them for five years with impunity.

If there is a silver lining in this ominous picture, it is that social media will keep them alive on the social media grid. No one ever saw 25 January coming. The only hope is that we get it right this time.

Rania Al Malky is the former editor-in-chief of Daily News Egypt (2006-2012), which was the local publishing partner of the International Herald Tribune. She is currently a freelance contributor for various publications.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A member of the Egyptian special forces stands guard in front of the National Election Authority in Cairo (AFP)

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