Egyptian security forces arrest senior staff members of rights group

Man sets himself ablaze in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest corruption

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (photo credit: PAVEL GOLOVKIN/POOL VIA REUTERS)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Security forces in Cairo arrested Gasser Abdel-Razek, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a human rights group, on Thursday.
According to EIPR, Abdel-Razek was led from his home in the city’s Maadi neighborhood and taken to an unknown location.
It added that its director of criminal justice, Karim Ennarah, appeared on Thursday before the Supreme State Security Prosecution in the city, 24 hours after he was arrested while vacationing in Dahab, on Sinai’s eastern coast.
EIPR added that on Sunday, its office manager, Mohamed Basheer, was arrested in Cairo on charges including “joining a terrorist group” and “spreading false news.”
Amnesty International condemned what it called the “chilling escalation” of a crackdown on civil society in Egypt.
“These arrests, following a meeting at EIPR with Western diplomats, serve a heavy blow against the legitimate work of human rights defenders,” Amnesty said on Twitter.
EIPR is an independent human rights group whose work covers a variety of political, civil, economic and social issues.
According to Egyptian activists, human rights and freedom of expression have deteriorated in the country under President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.
Political analyst Ashraf Rady told The Media Line the political situation in the country has not changed in decades.
“The main characteristic of the current political situation is the continuance of the same formula as under the regime of [former president Hosni] Mubarak: The systematic destruction of any possible and viable political opposition and controlling the media and public sphere, and applying harsh, forceful means to thwart any such movement,” Rady said.
Sisi came to power in a military coup, overthrowing his democratically elected predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013, following protests against the latter’s rule.
Meanwhile, in an incident that shocked the country, an Egyptian in his 40s set himself ablaze in Cairo last Thursday to protest against graft.
Mohamed Hosni al-Gharib attempted to self-immolate in Tahrir Square during a live broadcast on Facebook after first screaming in protest against the deterioration in his living conditions as a result of conditions in a country he called the “State of Corruption.” He was treated for burns at a hospital, where he told officials he worked at the country’s Central Auditing Organization.
“I was fired from my job after I uncovered corruption in the Export Development Bank of Egypt and was behind the return of 25 million pounds [about $1.6 million] to the state, and now they are trying to imprison me due to my inability to make car payments,” Gharib said, accusing security authorities of persecuting him after his disclosure of corruption in the state-owned institution.
“They want to imprison me after I spent 29 days in the [hands of the] National Security Agency, and I owed my relatives 15,000 pounds,” he stated.
According to a 2019 World Bank report, nearly 60% of Egyptians are either poor or belong to the poorest groups, and inequality is on the rise. The national poverty rate was 32.5% in 2018, up from 24.3% in 2010.
Sisi has spoken many times since he came to power about fighting corruption. For example, he said last May: “Security is found not only in arresting terrorists; security is found in thwarting the corrupt.”
Egypt ranks 10th in the Middle East and North Africa in its perceived level of public-sector corruption (106 out of 198 globally), according to Transparency International’s 2019 report.
State-owned television and some government-affiliated media claim that Gharib is a terrorist who belongs to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and is “psychologically disturbed.” But many have shared a photo on social media of him accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of corruption under Morsi, who was a leader of the organization.
Merna Shalash, executive director of Partners for Transparency, called Gharib’s attempted self-immolation “unfortunate” in humanitarian terms.
“There are a number of factors involved in this incident, especially in light of his family’s statements, and it may be that a psychological problem led him to such an act – and for sure, the right to life is one of the basic rights that should not be sacrificed,” she told The Media Line.
“With regard corruption in general, the Administrative Control Authority was able in the recent period to address a large number of cases. One of the issues is holding those responsible accountable, and we find that in the current period, there is a general trend to fight corruption in Egypt,” Shalash noted.
“We recommend activating channels of communication between citizens and regulatory agencies to investigate and address all types of corruption, and to further integrate civil society organizations to make citizens aware of the national anti-corruption strategy,” she said.
Moustafa Khalil, a development scholar at the University of Manchester in the UK and a former monitoring and evaluation officer in the Cairo office of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), told The Media Line that despite apparent improvements in the economy, Egyptians have yet to feel their impact.
“According to official figures, 60% of Egyptians are living in poverty. In some rural areas of the countries, three out of four people are poor. The stunning figure includes 10% of university graduates,” he said.
The troubled economy is changing the socioeconomic makeup of Egyptian society, Khalil observes.
“A staggering rise in the cost of living, not helped by a rise in the cost of most public services and utilities, has not been reflected at all in the level of wages,” he said. “This has dropped millions of middle-income households into poverty over the past few years.”
In September 2019, peaceful demonstrations took place after Mohamed Ali, a building contractor who had worked for the Egyptian army and was now living in self-exile in Spain, called on Egyptians to protest against the “corrupt regime.”
Thousands were arrested during demonstrations in several governorates in the first real challenge to Sisi since he came to power.
On September 20, the anniversary of Ali’s call to protest, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in even more governorates. Sporadic demonstrations broke out in Cairo’s poorer neighborhoods and in the countryside over worsening economic conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Testimony by lawyers, relatives and human rights organizations indicate that more than 2,000 people have been arrested since that date.
“It is not new for any person to commit suicide as a result of any pressure and conditions of life, but what is new here is that the state-owned media, directly and indirectly, dealt with the incident as a political act by the Muslim Brotherhood designed to embarrass the regime and disturb public security,” said Ayman Hadhoud, economic adviser to Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat, chairman of the Social Democratic Reform and Development Party.
“For the first time, the regime is afraid of people’s suicides because it feels that it is driving people to commit suicide. I have no other explanation,” Hadhoud said.
Rights groups estimate that some 60,000 detainees in Egypt are political prisoners. They include secular activists, journalists, lawyers, academics and Islamists arrested in a sweeping crackdown against dissent under Sisi.
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