Egypt’s release of political detainees could signal reform, or merely an economic crisis

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi acting in a bid to court international donors, democracy activist says.

A general view of the Nile River during a cold weather around country in the capital of Cairo (photo credit: REUTERS)
A general view of the Nile River during a cold weather around country in the capital of Cairo
(photo credit: REUTERS)

[Cairo] Last Saturday, Egyptian authorities embarked on a wave of prisoner releases. The Coptic Easter weekend saw the liberation of nine Copts from the Minya Governorate in Upper Egypt. This led to a fury of speculation over what it meant.

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Amnesty International noted that the nine Coptic Christians had been “arbitrarily detained after peacefully protesting against the authorities’ refusal to rebuild a church that had burned down more than five years ago.”

Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa research and advocacy director, said three months ago, “The Egyptian authorities have for years ignored calls to rebuild the church, leaving around 800 Coptic Christians without a place to worship in their village [of Ezbet Farag Allah]. Now, in their shameful efforts to silence these calls, they are arbitrarily detaining villagers, criminalizing peaceful protests, and slapping ludicrous charges on those who dare to speak out.”

There are tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt, rights groups estimate. They include secular activists, journalists, lawyers, academics, and Islamists arrested in a sweeping crackdown against dissent under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. But the government always denies that there are any political prisoners. Some sources told The Media Line that only a few hundred such individuals are currently detained.

Last May, five leading Egyptian human rights organizations published a list of seven measures to be taken to stop the erosion of human rights that Egypt has witnessed over the past years. The first and most urgent was to free all political prisoners. The demands included an end to the state of emergency and to unlimited pre-trial detentions.

 Tourists ride on camels next to Pyramid of Khufu on Great Pyramids of Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY) Tourists ride on camels next to Pyramid of Khufu on Great Pyramids of Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY)

Last October, Sisi announced he would not extend the state of emergency across the country, proclaiming that Egypt had become “an oasis of security and stability in the region.”

The spokesman for the US Embassy in Cairo spokesman told The Media Line, “We welcome President Sisi’s announcement ending the State of Emergency in Egypt, in place since 2017. We look forward to seeing the effects of this decision, including ending civilian trials in emergency state security courts.”

Ezzat Ibrahim, the spokesperson for the National Council for Human Rights, told The Media Line, “There is a very big shift in the political discourse.”

Pointing toward a new phase in Egypt’s development, he added, “We must reach all groups in Egyptian society so that they can have an active and real role in this political dialogue. Since the announcement, all parties have started preparing themselves.”

After last weekend’s releases, many Egyptians posted on social media speculating and hoping for the release of their family and friends.

Since Sunday, about 24 people were confirmed released, including Walid Shawky, a dentist and a former member of the April 6 Youth Movement, whose arrest dates to October 2018, and Radwa Mohamed, who was arrested in November 2019 after she published a video criticizing the Egyptian president.

Hossam Moanis, a journalist and former director of Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi’s presidential campaign, was pardoned after Sabahi attended the presidential iftar.

During the iftar, Sisi made 13 promises. They included the reactivation of the Presidential Pardon Committee that was formed by the National Youth Conference. “I cannot conceal my immense joy at the release of a batch of our sons over the past days, telling them that the homeland embraces all of us and that differences of opinion do not spoil the homeland’s affairs,” Sisi said in his speech.

Hisham Kassem, a democracy activist and a former publisher of the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, told The Media Line, “I know that citizens are imprisoned through the law and released according to the law. What I have seen during the past days is a new way to deal with people’s freedoms. We have a lot of prisoners of conscience, politicians, and activists, and they must be released. It is not right for public figures like Hamdeen Sabahi to attend an iftar party with the president, and then they release his presidential campaign manager. Is it reasonable to see the rule of law − which is one of the pillars of human civilization − trampled on like this?!”

Sisi went on to note that he has directed the National Youth Conference to coordinate with all youth movements and political parties, to conduct political dialogue surrounding the national priorities, and to “submit the results of this dialogue to me personally, and I promise to attend these dialogues in their final stages.”

Tarek Radwan, chairman of the Human Rights Committee in the Egyptian House of Representatives, told The Media Line he welcomed the return of the work of the Presidential Pardon Committee. Radwan added that the president’s assigning the National Youth Conference to coordinate with all political parties and youth currents to conduct political dialogue and giving the matter his personal attention confirms his eagerness to bring all Egyptians together. 

Sisi continued in his remarks, saying, “On a personal level, I desire political reform and am keen to achieve it, but the priorities had been postponing this matter. But now we are releasing [detainees] and allowing dialogue for all political forces without exception or discrimination. After that, the outcomes of this dialogue will be presented to Parliament in both chambers for approval and work on the required laws.”

Ibrahim added, “President Sisi was very clear about the necessity of political reform. And that it was a priority after eliminating terrorism.

“There are specific criteria established by the National Human Rights Strategy, which include the release of those who did not adopt or practice violence,” Ibrahim said.

Radwan explained that “the new republic welcomes a constructive national political opposition, which works for the advancement of the Egyptian state,” adding that the series of releases that took place and additional ones that are expected confirm that Egypt is a state that respects rights and freedoms.

Kassem argued, “Sisi and the political system are strangled. There is an economic and political crisis as a result of his lack of experience and poor statesmanship. His international image has become that of a pariah. And this image will not help him navigate the economic crisis that he dragged the country into.

“No one from the international community will help him. And in order to improve the economic situation, the international community must help him. We are on the cusp of the complete collapse of the public sphere and increased suppression of freedom of opinion and expression,” Kassem said.

Ibrahim noted that “political transformation is not an easy issue, and it is a continuous process. All free and democratic countries talk about political reform when new issues emerge, such as the reform of the electoral system and the party process. We need all the different and diverse voices, and benefit from the experiences of other countries.”

Ibrahim maintained, “There are some who talk about external pressures such as the war in Ukraine and economic causes, but if we go back to 2021, we will find that there is a clear vision regarding progress in the file of civil, political, and economic rights.”