In an early morning raid on Wednesday 23 May, prominent government critic, Wael Abbas, ominously tweeted 'I am being arrested'. The following day, at the behest of Egypt’s security prosecutor, Abbas was detained for fifteen days on charges relating to publishing false news and involvement in an illegal organisation. Abbas was allegedly blindfolded by police, who presented no warrant for his arrest, and then taken to an unknown location, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. Abbas’ detention is yet another blow to journalistic freedom in Egypt, a state, under the rule President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, where a once-vibrant media has been largely muzzled, civil expression is largely absent, and freedom of association is virtually outlawed under the current administration.
President al-Sisi ascended to the Egyptian presidency in the 2014 presidential election. The former defence minister launched the revolution that replaced Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, following the June 2013 Egyptian protests. This year, al-Sisi was re-elected to serve a second term in an election with only one other candidate, Moussa Mostafa Moussa. Here, al-Sisi enjoyed a landslide victory of 97% of votes with a turnout rate of 41%. Human rights groups and media outlets levelled criticism at al-Sisi’s administration for its alleged use of intimidation and imprisonment to extract the withdrawal of five other candidates that had expressed their intention run for President.
Since 2014, al-Sisi’s administration has drawn criticism for trampling the rule of law in favour of political motivations and hounding civil and human rights groups that do not endorse his Orwellian narrative. Al-Sisi declared a nationwide state of emergency in April 2017 following the Palm Sunday church bombings, which were later claimed by the Islamic State. Under the 1958 Emergency Law, the security forces of Egypt are granted additional powers of arrest and detainment, while also permitting the censorship of media agencies. These counter-terrorism laws have provided a veil for security forces to silence social and political dissidents without due process. Al-Sisi has extended this state of emergency three times since its enactment.
Al-Sisi’s administration’s incarceration of critical journalists and bloggers has been systemic and well documented. Prior to Morsi’s short-lived tenure as President, at the end of 2012, only one blogger was behind bars. Alaa Abdel Fattah, a well-known government critic, had spent a number of months in prison the year prior. As at 2017, Fattah has been incarcerated for three years and he is sharing prison with a record number of journalists who are being held in connection to their reporting. Detaining without trial has become commonplace, such is the case of Ismail Alexandrani, a freelance journalist and expert on Jihadi extremist groups operating throughout the Sinai Peninsula. Alexandrani openly criticised Cairo’s efforts to combat extremist groups that are terrorising the Sinai Peninsula in Lebanese newspapers, al-Safir and al-Modon, as well as the Egyptian newspaper, al-Badil. Alexandrani was arrested in November 29 2015, questioned twice on December 1 and 7, and charged with belonging with the banned Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false news. Alexandrani currently resides in Cairo’s Tora prison, with no proposed trial date.
With 26 professional journalists being arrested in 2018 thus far, Alexandrani’s case is distressingly common and normative throughout al-Sisi’s tenure. Al Jazeera reporters, Mohamed Ali and Soheib Saad, were sentenced to life imprisonment by a military court in May 2016. Prior to their trial, the pair was held for a month and reportedly tortured. They later made a 'terrorist confession' in a defence ministry video. Reporters Sans Frontières purports that the disproportionate sentencing of critical journalists also typifies the al-Sisi administration. On March 3 2018, the Egyptian prosecutor’s office demanded the death sentence for over 700 defendants in a mass trial. Included in this group is photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, who on August 14 2013, was arrested while documenting the violent dispersal of pro-Morsi protestors.
Al-Sisi’s suppression of dissenting commentary and association is a tragic development for a nation whose calls for change and democratic freedoms echoed through the Arab Spring. Not only is the scale of security-enforced violence larger, but Egypt’s citizens are subject to increasingly draconian legislation. In a state where leadership and social relations are volatile, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi might be wise to learn from Egypt’s history, and note that over-zealous control may destabilise the state.
Tom Connolly is a recent graduate from the University of Melbourne, where he undertook a Bachelor of Arts with a double major focusing on International Politics and History.