Despite release of at least 96 detainees, calls for more ‘open’ political process, tense security situation highlighted by arrest of lawyers persists
 
 
Courtesy: Basma Mostafa
 

At least 96 detainees, including 20 minors, swept up following the September 20 protests in the largest arrest campaign since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came into office, were released from police stations in the governorates of Suez, Alexandria, Damietta and Port Said on Monday, according to lawyers and rights groups. 

The families of several other detainees arrested in the far-reaching campaign told Mada Masr that dozens of detainees were also released from police stations in the governorates of Matrouh and Daqahlia. 

The number of those detained after the September 20 protests rose to exceed 2,200 people over the last two weeks,1859 of whom have appeared before the prosecution, according to a tally by the Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights.

Despite the decision to release detainees, which lawyer Mohamed Fathy told Mada Masr might be a political concession, the security situation in Cairo and throughout the country remains highly restrictive. 

On Monday, the Lawyers Syndicate released a statement expressing concern over the “recent arrests” of lawyers who were attending investigation sessions with detainees swept up in the post-September 20 campaign. And throughout the country, officers continue to illegally stop and search passersby, forcing people to unlock their phones and reviewing their social media posts for political content.

Nonetheless, in the face of these measures, several prominent writers and political actors, including the speaker of Parliament, have suggested that the protests indicate a need for a more open political process and room for debate in the media. 

Release of prisoners

The release of prisoners began on Tuesday, nearly 12 days after protests broke out on September 20. 

The protests were sparked by accusations of corruption made by former actor and contractor Mohamed Ali against Sisi and the Armed Forces. Ali, who is now in Spain, published a series of videos on social media in which he accused Sisi and the army of squandering billions on vanity real estate projects, including presidential palaces and a luxury hotel built exclusively for Military Intelligence Directorate officers in a Cairo suburb.

After the videos went viral, Sisi was prompted to respond directly in a hastily organized youth conference and nearly called off his visit to New York to attend the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

In the lead-up to last Friday’s anticipated second week of protests, the number of detainees steadily climbed. On Friday, security forces were deployed in force across the country, closing down thoroughfares and maintaining a heavy presence, which succeeded in suppressing any potential for mass protests or displays of dissent.

On Tuesday, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms documented the release of 60 detainees from two police stations in Alexandria, the director of the organization Mohamed Lofty told Mada Masr. 

Lawyer Mohamed Awad told Mada Masr that an unspecified number of protesters were released from Alexandria’s Attarin Police Station. 

In Suez, where protests spanned two days and erupted into clashes between riot police and demonstrators on September 21, 16 detainees were released from the Arbaeen Police Station, according to lawyer Nasser Amin. Amin added that other police stations in the city released detainees, but he was not able to confirm the exact number of those freed. 

The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights documented the release of dozens of detainees in Suez, Alexandria and Beheira and Daqahlia, a lawyer from the center told Mada Masr, without specifying the exact number. 

According to lawyer Mohamed Farahat, at least 20 minors were released from police stations in Suez, Damietta and Port Said, after parents made pledges to “properly oversee” their care and education.

Despite the decision to release at least 96 detainees, the security crackdown has persisted, as arrests continue, and hundreds of others remain behind bars or missing.

At least 45 people in Aswan were handed 15-day detention orders by the South Cairo Prosecution on Tuesday, according to a Facebook post by lawyer Mohamed Fathy.

On Sunday, the State Security Prosecution renewed the detention of labor activist Kamal Khalil for 15 days, according to lawyer Mohamed Abdel Aziz.

Alongside the hundreds of persons missing, Bread and Freedom Party founder Mohamed Walid Saad Amin disappeared from Cairo International Airport yesterday, the official Facebook page announced on Tuesday. Amin was planning to fly to the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh to resume his work there after taking a month’s leave in Cairo.

In its statement, the Bread and Freedom Party placed responsibility for Amin’s safety on airport security authorities and the Ministry of Interior, demanding information on the circumstances of his disappearance. 

Meanwhile, the whereabouts of Abdallah Ghoneim, a content editor for a number of websites, remains unknown. According to his brother, Ahmed, Ghoneim disappeared last Tuesday from the city of Mahalla al-Kubra while he was on his way to Shoon Square, where he was planning to take a bus to return to Cairo, where he lives. Ahmed told Mada Masr that he learned from someone working inside the Mahalla Police Station that his brother was transferred with other people arrested in the city to the headquarters of the National Security Agency last Sunday, instead of being referred to the prosecution. 

Syndicate expresses worry over arrests of lawyers

In the chaos ensuing from the staggering arrest campaign and disappearances, lawyers have been the primary source of information on the number of arrests, often by directly attending investigation sessions. 

However, a statement from the Lawyers Syndicate on Monday has made it clear that this has come at a cost to legal representatives’ safety.

On Monday, the Lawyers Syndicate released a statement, expressing “extreme concern” over the recent arrests of lawyers who were attending State Security Prosecution investigation sessions of defendants arrested in the aftermath of the 20 September protests. 

While it did not disclose how many lawyers have been arrested, the syndicate’s statement condemned what it described as an “expansion in arrests to include those performing their duties as lawyers by attending interrogations of defendants, regardless of the charges, and proof of the victimization lawyers experience while doing their jobs.”

The statement, which came after the syndicate received criticism for not taking action to defend several well-publicized arrests of lawyers, represents a break with its previous position, which was articulated by the syndicate’s head Sameh Ashour on Thursday. 

“The syndicate won’t pay the bills for those who seek to overthrow the regime and won’t be dragged down by them,” Ashour said. 

Lawyer Mahienour al-Massry was arrested on September 22 outside the courthouse, where she was attending defendants’ interrogations.

The most recent such arrest came on Sunday, when lawyer Mohamed al-Baqer was also arrested while attending the State Security Prosecution investigation of writer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah.

Abd El Fattah was arrested on Sunday morning at the close of his daily probation detention period, part of his conditional release after 5 years in prison that requires him to spend 12 hours per day in police custody.

Baqer and Abd El Fattah were handed 15-day detention orders pending an investigation into charges of spreading false news and joining an illegal organization.

Demands for more open political environment?

Despite the continued security crackdown, several political actors and media figures made gestures toward the need for a more inclusive political landscape over the last two days in the wake of the September 20 protests.

Chief among them was Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel Aal, whose legislature faces a presidential directive to freeze its activities due to dissatisfaction with its performance, with the NSA being tapped to form a new roster of MPs from among regime loyalists.

In the opening session of the fifth and final parliamentary session on Tuesday, Abdel Aal announced that today’s session would aim to bring about “national cohesion,” while standing behind the political leadership, the Armed Forces and the Egyptian police. 

Parliament, the speaker said, would not allow the country’s problems to be foisted onto the president.

Abdel Aal went on to extol the need to build up Egypt’s infrastructure, even going so far as to reference the gains made by Nazi Germany in developing a modern transportation system.

“Building countries in transitional periods requires harsh measures. It is the period in which institutions and infrastructure are built. No country progresses without infrastructure,” Abdel Aal said. “Hitler had his mistakes. What allowed him to expand eastward and westward was the existence of infrastructure, including the railroads that, to this day, allowed Germany to be among the top countries.”

Abdel Aal’s message was echoed by MP Mostafa Bakry, who criticized what he called media propaganda and urged Sisi to hold a national reconciliation session.

Bakry also called for the return of the “opposition” to the political and media spheres, warning against a repetition of the January 25 Revolution, which came about, in the MP’s opinion, as a result of ignoring the problems of the people. 

In the increasingly politicized legislative body, Abdel Aal made a key appointment preventing the transfer of a close ally to Fayoum.

In Tuesday’s session, Abdel Aal appointed Mahmoud Fawzy as the Parliament’s secretary general, replacing Ahmed Saad Eddin who had served in the position for more than three years. 

According to parliamentary procedure, an appointment of the secretary general is ratified by the Parliament’s bureau based on the nomination of the speaker of the legislature. The secretary general attends all parliamentary sessions, supervises all departments of the Parliament’s General Secretariat and is accountable to the speaker for the smooth functioning of the parliament’s operations.

Fawzy’s closeness to the speaker can be seen in comments Abdel Aal made at the close of Parliament’s fourth legislative session on July 15, where he praised a number of his advisors, most notably Fawzy. 

“If you put the entire Parliament on one side of the scale and [Fawzy] on the other, his side would prevail. All of the legislation that has my fingerprints on it also has his. He has special skills outside of his legal ability. Due to his experience in the legislative committee of the State Council, he has political, linguistic and interpersonal skills and understands how laws are drafted.” 

Abdel Aal also praised his other advisors, calling them a “strike force selected by the State Council,” the body which notably struck out against Sisi’s decision to transfer sovereignty of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, in a move met with popular resentment and a protracted legal battle. 

Prior to his selection as the new secretary general, Fawzy was set to become a member of the Fayoum Administrative Court at the beginning of the next judicial year. However, his new full-time post prevented the transfer. 

Judicial sources from the State Council told Mada Masr that Fawzy had filed an appeal against the decision to transfer him from the Technical Inspection Department to the Fayoum Administrative Court. However, the source said that this appeal was denied.

Political figures were not the only ones to issue calls for greater political openness. 

Al-Shorouk editor-in-chief Emad Eddin Hussein wrote of the “danger of the absence of politics” in his daily column on Monday, adding that he believes that “if there were legitimate civil political groups that were actually able to function, no foreign media company or fake social media accounts would have been able to create such an uproar after the protest of a few hundred people.” 

For Hussein, the recent events are evidence that “citizens aspire to participate in a normal political process, within the framework of the law and Constitution, but they can’t find formal channels for that.” 

Hussein placed the blame for the “death of politics” on former President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, adding that the “current government” is responsible in so far as it does not allow political parties to “function normally.” 

Speaking to the Egyptian Effendi TV show broadcast on Al-Qahera wal Nas channel, Akhbar al-Youm chief editor Yasser Rizk said more freedoms are necessary, “because the press and media can only bloom where there is freedom of opinion and expression.”

As for political life, Rizk said it was a “grave mistake” to eliminate all political factions that took part in the alliance – spearheaded by the National Salvation Front – that formed to defeat former President Mohamed Morsi’s 2012 constitutional declaration.

“It is required that the space for freedom of opinion and expression, which is the pillar for political reform, be expanded. Political reform is what the president is about to do in the coming period, I believe,” added Rizk.

Rizk was also critical of the arrest of leading political figures in the fledgling Alliance for Hope coalition in June. 

The Coalition for Hope included MPs, political party leaders, youth and journalists who were looking to enter the political arena and prepare to run in the upcoming 2020 parliamentary elections.

Former Member of Parliament Zyad Elelaimy, journalist Hisham Fouad, Multiples Group investment firm founder Omar El-Shenety, former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi’s campaign manager and journalist Hossam Moanis, Mostafa Abdel Moez Abdel Sattar, Independence Party supreme committee member Osama Abdel Aal Mohamed al-Aqbawy, Ahmed Abdel Galeel Hussein Ghoneim, and labor activist Hassan Mohamed Hussein Barbary have been held in remand detention since June, pending investigations before the State Security Prosecution. 

Despite these calls, the Supreme Judiciary Council instructed the Supreme Media Regulatory Council (SMRC) to prohibit media coverage of cases under investigation without prior permission from the public prosecution or a relevant court.

The council announced the decision in a statement released on Monday, citing the need to curtail “fake news” being reported around the death of the child named Ganna, who was reported to have been killed and raped by her uncle, allegations which the prosecution found to be false.

Citing an official source in the SMRC, the official Middle East News Agency reported that the council intends to inform all media outlets that the decision by the Supreme Judicial Council must be followed.

Meanwhile, Gamal Shawky, the head of the complaints committee at the SMRC, said that the committee had identified 128 pages and channels on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube that “incite violence, spread lies, fabricated stories and are connected to terrorist groups.” Shawky said he sent a report listing these pages to the council in order to refer them to the public prosecutor.

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