(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities have unlawfully prevented scores of citizens from traveling outside the country over the past year. Security agencies are increasingly putting in place restrictive and intimidating measures that include confiscating passports.
Among those who have been denied travel are leaders and members of political parties, youth activists, people associated with nongovernmental groups, and a former aide to ousted President Mohamed Morsy. Egyptian authorities should end these non-judicial restrictions, give citizens recourse to challenge travel bans, and return their passports.
“The Egyptian authorities have jailed thousands of dissidents in the past two years and are now turning the country’s own borders into de facto prison walls,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The total lack of checks on the power of the National Security Agency leaves citizens without recourse.”
Many of those who experienced travel restrictions told Human Rights Watch that they were stopped at the airport while passing through passport control and interrogated by agents of the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency, formerly known as State Security. The agents then barred them from leaving the country, rarely offering a specific reason and often confiscating their passports.
Based on news reports and accounts from activists who spoke with Human Rights Watch, officers of the Interior Ministry’s Passport and Immigration Authority at Cairo International Airport have wide authority to require any citizen to obtain a security clearance to leave the country, no matter their destination or the purpose of their visit.
Human Rights Watch documented at least 32 cases in which airport security officers confiscated the passport of political activists and workers in nongovernmental groups and told them that national security agents “would call them.” The majority have not been able to get their passports back.
Responding to complaints from political parties about these restrictions on their members, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi promised in May 2015 to intervene. But the restrictions appear to remain in effect and many party members have not been able to retrieve their passports. Egypt’s Prosecutor General’s Office has not taken action when people tried to challenge travel bans, activists and lawyers told Human Rights Watch.
The National Security Agency has prevented politicians from traveling to political conferences and activists from attending workshops. In one example, on October 4, national security agents in Cairo International Airport stopped and interrogated a group of young women traveling to Germany on the invitation of a European organization for training on combating violence against women. Suzanne (pseudonym), who works at a humanitarian organization, said that passport control officers told her she had been under a travel ban since September 8. Security agents searched her and her luggage, questioned her, and confiscated her diary and phone.
Agents then halted five other women traveling with her who had been waiting to board their plane, interrogated all of them, and looked briefly into their phones and laptops. The officials returned all her colleagues’ belongings but confiscated their passports, along with Suzanne’s, refusing to give a reason. Suzanne said that the agent told them that each woman would receive a phone call from the National Security Office in their city to get their passports back, but that they have not.
“I was never mistreated verbally or physically, but I was shocked when they said I was on the travel ban list,” she said. “I did not hide anything nor travel secretly.”
On August 31, 10 bloggers and youth activists who were going to a youth conference organized by the Arab Network for Civic Education in Jordan had a similar experience. Mahmoud Abd al-Zaher, a blogger and member of the Constitution (al-Dostour) Party, told Human Rights Watch that passport control questioned them about the purpose of their trip and allowed them to go to the boarding area after they showed invitations to the conference. But at the gate, Abd al-Zaher was asked to go back to “talk with a National Security officer.” A man in civilian clothes interrogated him in a room in the airport’s garage and then brought all of Abd al-Zaher’s colleagues, interrogated them, and confiscated their passports. A few days later, each of them received a phone call from the National Security office in their hometown. Officers interrogated them but have yet to give them back their passports, Abd al-Zaher said.
Abd al-Zaher said that the officers told his colleagues that the travel ban was for “security reasons” and refused to give them written confirmation that the passport had been confiscated. He quoted one officer as saying, “If your father tells you not to travel now, you wouldn’t travel.”
Suzanne, Abd al-Zaher, and Abd al-Zaher’s colleagues filed complaints with the Prosecutor General’s Office about the situation but have received no response.
News media have reported several other cases. On July 15, 2015, the BBC reported that Cairo Airport Security stopped Sheikh Mohamed Jebril, an imam of the historic Amr Ibn al-As Mosque in Cairo, and barred him from traveling to London days after he led a prayer in which he spoke out against “unjust rulers” and prayed for “imprisoned youth.” The Awqaf Ministry, the government body that oversees Islamic affairs, said that Jebril had violated the ministry’s regulations and attacked the state. On October 27, the Cairo Administrative Court, responding to his appeal, ordered his travel ban lifted, and said that the executive authority cannot prevent someone from traveling without a judicial order.
In May, the authorities prevented Saif Abd al-Fattah, a political science professor who had served briefly in 2012 as an adviser to then-President Morsy, from traveling to Malaysia, giving no reason. Other cases cited by local activists and the media include Mohamed al-Qassas, a political activist, in January; Asma’a Mahfouz, a member of the April 6 Youth Movement, in October 2014; and two daughters of Khairat al-Shater, the jailed Muslim Brotherhood deputy leader, in October 2014.
In addition to specific bans, local media have reported that the authorities introduced a new policy in late 2014 requiring all citizens between 18 and 40 years old to obtain a “security approval” before traveling to certain countries, including Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, with some officials claiming the restriction was designed to target potential recruits for armed extremist groups. But one person who was prevented from traveling because he could not obtain permission told Human Rights Watch that he believes they did not give him permission because of his work for a nongovernmental organization. Those who were denied the security approval said they had no judicial or administrative recourse to appeal the decision.
The government never officially announced the details of this policy and the full list of countries affected, but Human Rights Watch documented the policy through the people affected as of December 2014. The Egyptian government’s opaque travel restriction policy violates both the Egyptian constitution and international human rights law.
Article 62 of the constitution guarantees freedom of movement and states that “no citizen may be prevented from leaving the state territory … except by a reasoned judicial order for a specified period of time and in the cases defined by the law.” Article 54 states that anyone “whose freedom is restricted … shall have the right to file grievance before the court against this action.” Egypt has no laws that specifically regulate travel bans, but various decisions by the interior minister, some of which have been ruled unconstitutional, give unchecked powers to security agencies to stop citizens from traveling.
Article 12 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a state party, states that “everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.” Restrictions to this right must be provided by law and be “necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.” Nevertheless, these restrictions “must not nullify the principle of liberty of movement and are governed by the need for consistency with the other rights recognized in the covenant.”
Egypt’s lack of a clear travel restriction policy runs counter to the principle endorsed by the UN Human Rights Committee, the body tasked with overseeing the ICCPR, that it is of “the utmost importance” for governments to make clear in public all of the legal and practical restrictions on the right to leave and that those laws “should use precise criteria and may not confer unfettered discretion.” In 1999, the committee further stated that any restrictions “must be necessary in a democratic society for the protection of these purposes and must be consistent with all other rights recognized in the covenant.”
In 2011, the committee stated that restricting the movement of journalists and others within or outside their country, especially for the purpose of attending human-rights-related meetings, undermines the freedom of expression that is essential to protect human rights.
“Under Hosni Mubarak’s long rule, security agencies used to punish some high-profile activists and Islamists with travel bans, but the travel restrictions practiced under Sisi’s government go much further. It’s so broad that almost any opponent could be affected,” Houry said.
Sweeping Security Powers
Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of movement, but various governments have failed to reflect the constitutional guarantee in law. Travel bans are regulated by a 1994 decision by the interior minister, No. 2214, regarding “regulating (travel) bans list,” which was amended several times, most recently in January 2013 and May 2014. The 2013 amendment added an “investigating judge” to the list of people who can send travel ban requests to the Passport and Immigration Authority. In addition to courts and prosecutors, the list includes the interior minister’s liaisons for the National Security and General Security Agencies, heads of Military and General Intelligence, and several others. The 2014 amendment stated that bans are lifted automatically after three years if the requesting body does not extend them.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent rights group, filed suit in January 2013 at the Administrative Court to challenge the interior minister’s decision and seek a requirement for a judicial order and time limit on any individual ban.
In May 2012, the first post-2011 parliament discussed a draft law that would have required any travel ban to be issued through the judiciary, setting a penalty of a fine and/or imprisonment for anyone who unlawfully prevents a citizen from traveling. The parliament was dissolved before it adopted the law. In July 2015, newspapers reported that the then-Transitional Justice Ministry was preparing a new draft law that addresses “the legal vacuum regarding travel bans regulation in the light of Constitution Article 62.” However, the ministry was abolished in the most recent cabinet reshuffle, in September.
In 2000, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional Articles 8 and 11 of the Law 97 of 1959, which covers issuing passports. These articles gave the interior minister the authority to dictate conditions when issuing passports, and to deny a person a passport or passport extension or to withdraw a passport. Other Administrative Court rulings on the 1994 decision acknowledged the lack of legislation to regulate travel bans and said that it should not be left to executive authority.
In 2009, one Administrative Court ruling, based on the 2000 Constitutional Court ruling, said (in case No. 3259 for the judicial year No. 50) that only a judge or prosecutor can order travel bans. It also said that decision 2214/1994 has no legal basis. In its most recent ruling regarding travel bans, on October 27, 2015, the Administrative Court said that travel ban without a judicial order is “a violation of one of the fundamental rights and freedoms.”
Travel Restrictions, Harassment:
Egypt’s travel restriction policy has affected pro-democracy activists, academics, journalists, students, judges, and politicians. The bans have been applied so broadly that they have even affected some commentators and politicians perceived as pro-Sisi.
National Security agents at Cairo International Airport barred a group of political party leaders and members from traveling on May 16 to the Czech Republic for a conference on political participation. The group included members of the Social Democratic Party, the leading secular opposition party in Egypt’s former parliament, and the Constitution Party, founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei. It also included two parties that generally support al-Sisi, the Reform and Development Party (liberal) and al-Nour Party (Islamist Salafi), and one opposition party, Strong Egypt.
The private Shorouk newspaper reported that when the group arrived at the airport, national security agents confiscated their passports and canceled their trip, citing an account by Hassan Kamel, an official with the Reform and Development Party. The news website Masr al-Arabia reported that members of former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa’s Conference Party and the Conservative Party were also involved. Both news reports said that the national security agents did not give them reasons.
In a statement reported by the news website DotMasr, the Justice Party said that it raised the incident with al-Sisi in a meeting with party leaders on May 27, and that al-Sisi “promised to intervene immediately to solve the problem.”
However, a leader from the Social Democratic Party, who asked not to be named told, Human Rights Watch that one party member who was on the trip had to wait months to retrieve her passport, and only then after party leaders intervened.
Abdallah Wagih, a leader from the Strong Egypt party, told Human Rights Watch that he has not been able to retrieve his passport. Wagih said that when he was stopped at passport control, “A State [National] Security official in plain clothes asked me about my job, home, affiliation, and the purpose of travel and my phone number – and then left,” he said. “I kept asking why they were holding me, but no one answered.”
A half an hour after his flight departed, an officer told him to leave the airport. Wagih insisted that officials return his passport or give him an official document showing that they had confiscated it, but he said they refused.
“The officer told me that they would call me, but no one ever did,” he said. “I feel I am in a political prison, but one that’s a bit large.”
Despite al-Sisi’s promise to intervene, another group was banned from travel on September 6. The ban involved 10 members from four parties. A Constitution Party member, Taher al-Refaei, said that the Swedish organization Olof Palme and the Swedish International Liberal Centre had invited them to participate in an event. He told Human Rights Watch that he passed through passport control without any questions, but was stopped at the gate and taken to be questioned by national security agents.
“They then started interrogating us in groups of three,” he said. “He only asked me about my job and phone number and asked me to leave the airport.”
Citing unnamed “security sources,” several newspapers reported that the 10 had been banned from traveling “for security reasons,” and because they did not have security clearance from Egyptian Security agencies to travel to Turkey. But Al-Refaei said that the group, which actually consisted of 15 people, were only transiting in Turkey, which does not require security clearance.
“Why did they allow the other five to travel, and why did they take our passports?” he said.
Al-Refaei said that the travel ban did not seem based on political affiliation. He said that a group of about a dozen Egyptian women traveling to the same conference via Copenhagen were allowed to leave Egypt.
“I kept asking the officer if they had any charges against me, and he said that if they had something against us, they wouldn’t allow us to go home,” al-Refaei said. Three colleagues of his retrieved their passports days later but his has not been returned.
New Blanket Restrictions to Certain Countries
On December 5, 2014, the privately-owned al-Masry al-Youm newspaper, citing Cairo International Airport security sources, reported that airport officers had received “supreme orders” to prevent anyone ages 18 to 40 from traveling to Turkey, Iraq, or Syria without “sovereign approvals,” a standard reference to Egypt’s intelligence agencies.
The report said that the National Security and Military Intelligence Agencies had approved a new policy under which all citizens traveling to those countries must obtain security approval. The security sources claimed that about 700 Egyptians had already left to fight in the war in Syria for the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, or other groups, al-Masry al-Youm said. However, it said that other unnamed officials denied the existence of any such travel restriction.
Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of the form to request security approval from a person who had to fill it out to travel to Turkey on December 4, 2014, the day the Interior Ministry spokesman, General Hani Abd al-Latif, denied to Anadolu Agency that there were any such procedures. The form includes questions about education, occupation, and the detailed purpose of the trip. The government did not officially announce any new procedures, but the person who provided the December 2014 form to Human Rights Watch said that airport security authorities denied him permission to travel until approving his request.
On December 7, Gen. Abd al-Latif told Al Arabiya news network that all Egyptians between 18 and 40 needed to obtain security approval before traveling to Turkey, and that this policy would also be applied to those traveling to Libya, Iraq, and Syria. Al Arabiya said that Cairo airport authorities had prevented 200 passengers from traveling to Turkey in “the prior 24 hours.”
The lack of an official government statement led to confusion. Several other newspapers published contradictory statements about which countries were included and whether the policy included women. The government-owned Ahram newspaper quoted the Interior Ministry’s spokesman on December 14, saying that approval would be required to travel to 16 other countries witnessing “armed political conflict,” including Qatar, Jordan, Lebanon, and Yemen. He did not provide the full list or say when the procedures started.
On August 25, the privately owned al-Youm al-Sabaa newspaper reported that the Interior Ministry’s Passport and Immigration Authority added Sudan to the list. The article named 14 “most prominent countries that need National Security approval to travel to,” including Israel, Indonesia, Thailand, and “South Africa and its neighboring countries.”
People who had to obtain the security approval to travel to Turkey told Human Rights Watch they had to submit the form to the Passport and Immigration Authority at a central government building in Tahrir Square, known as the Mogama`, and return after 48 hours for a decision.
However, a former employee of an Egyptian nongovernmental group who left that job and later tried to travel to Turkey for an academic course at a European university said that he never got the permit. After two days, the government employee told him to come back after another 15 days, but the permit was still not ready. The person was told his permit was with the National Security Agency and there was nothing the employee could do about it. The person said that he believed it was policy not to approve travel for workers for nongovernmental groups. He said that a friend who had faced the same situation and contacted a National Security officer to ask why her request was never approved was told: “They do not reject your request, neither do they approve it.”
A former professional chess player who was going to Lebanon for a championship wrote on his Facebook page on October 6 that employees of Passport and Immigration Authority in Mogama` building told him he was not allowed to travel because his occupation appeared in his passport as “holder of a bachelor degree,” and that he must be “a student or an employee.” Others reported that government employees have rejected other applicants who seemed to be unemployed and out of school. This violates the UN Human Rights Committee’s principles that restrictions must be consistent with the “fundamental principles of equality and non-discrimination.” The committee previously criticized bureaucratic obstacles that make it more difficult for citizens to leave their countries.
Activists and Workers for Nongovernmental Groups
Several activists and workers for nongovernmental groups told Human Rights Watch that they are stopped routinely and sometimes interrogated by security agencies each time they return from trips abroad. But some have faced additional harassment and travel bans:
On July 9, Cairo airport security held Khaled al-Sayed, a political activist and former member of the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution, for more than 24 hours without informing his lawyer or his family of his whereabouts. Al-Sayed was on his way to visit his wife, who lives and works in Qatar. His lawyer, Halim Hanish, told Human Rights Watch that al-Sayed sent him a text message shortly after al-Sayed arrived at the airport, around 5:30 a.m., saying he had been arrested.
Hanish went to the airport and inquired about al-Sayed in the offices of the Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency, but both denied they were holding him.
Hanish said that he checked with the Passport and Immigration Authority, which confirmed that al-Sayed was not on any travel ban list. He also said he checked whether there had been any criminal charges against him, but found nothing that prevented al-Sayed from traveling.
He said that the National Security Agency, which had been holding al-Sayed, released him the next afternoon, July 10, and that he told Hanish that he had been taken to several police stations and National Security headquarters, but that they all had said there was no reason to keep him. Al-Sayed never met with a prosecutor. Eventually, following a social media campaign, National Security agents took him back to the airport and released him. Al-Sayed was able to travel to Qatar on July 11.
“There are no legal measures at all,” Hanish said.
Mohamed Lotfy, the head of the independent Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, was prevented on June 2 from traveling to Germany to meet with members of parliament as part of his group’s advocacy work around al-Sisi’s visit to Germany later that week. Lotfy told Human Rights Watch that once he arrived at passport control, security agents confiscated his passport and canceled his flight. They told him he was barred “for security reasons” and said they would tell him more when they called him for a meeting. Lotfy, who is also a Swiss national, said that he has not recovered his Egyptian passport. He said he planned to file suit at the Administrative Court, along with others, to challenge the government’s arbitrary travel bans. He sent a complaint to the Prosecutor General’s Office, but received no response.
Official Travel Bans
In other cases, judges or prosecutors had ordered travel bans, Human Rights Watch found. But even in such cases, several were not consistent with international standards on restrictions on freedom of movement, including travel.
On January 13, Esraa Abd al-Fattah, a political activist and a former employee and co-founder of the Egyptian Democratic Academy (EDA), was not allowed to travel to the United States, where she had received a scholarship to study at Stanford University. Abd al-Fattah told Human Rights Watch that she only found out about the ban after she arrived at the airport, when security officers told her there was a judicial order.
“My lawyer and I managed to get a copy of the Interior Ministry’s decision that refers to another judicial order, but we never managed to get the judicial order itself,” she said.
Abdel Fattah later found out that a judge had issued the order over her involvement in an investigation regarding the foreign funding of independent groups in Egypt. The investigation led in 2011 to the conviction of Egyptian and foreign workers for nongovernmental groups and the closure of several foreign nongovernmental groups. But the authorities announced in 2013 that the investigating judge was still looking into the involvement of Egyptian organizations in the case. At least two other Egyptian groups have also been under investigation recently. In December 2014, the head and deputy head of the EDA faced similar travel bans.
Abd al-Fattah shared with Human Rights Watch a letter from the Interior Ministry’s legal division to the Administrative Court stating that she has been placed on a departure and arrival “travel watch” list based on a National Security Agency decision on November 16, 2013, and a separate order to ban her from travel by an investigating judge on December 24, 2014. In June, the Administrative Court rejected a lawsuit by Abdel Fattah to cancel her travel ban, though her lawyer had told the court that she had not been called in to answer any questions or charged during the investigation and that the investigating judge refused to meet with them. Abdel Fattah said she has filed a new lawsuit to challenge her travel ban.
Security prevented Abd al-Halim Qandil, editor-in-chief of the privately owned Sout al-Omma newspaper, from traveling twice in 2015, most recently on August 8. Both Qandil and a liberal politician, Amr Hamzawy, won a case in October 2014 in Cairo Criminal Court, which ordered the lifting of travel bans imposed in January, 2014. Both are facing accusations of “insulting the judiciary” in a case that also involved former President Morsy and other Islamist and secular figures.
Qandil, a strong supporter of al-Sisi, told al-Shorouk newspaper that he called the Prosecutor General’s Office before traveling on August 8, to make sure that he had no travel bans, but that “some (official) bodies throw judicial rulings in the trash.”
A Criminal Court ordered the cancelation of travel bans of three more defendants in the ”insulting judiciary” case in July, including the well-known activists Alaa Abdel-Fattah and Mostafa al-Naggar.
Al-Naggar, a political activist and a former member of the first post-2011 parliament, told Human Rights Watch that he only learned about the charges against him by reading about them in newspapers in January 2014. He said that the prosecution placed a travel ban on him starting in January 2014, though he and his lawyer were not informed of any details concerning the case until shortly before the trial started in May 2015.
- In August 2013, an investigating judge issued travel bans for 75 judges, including Talaat Abdallah, the former prosecutor general appointed by Morsy. The 75 were accused of “involvement in politics” and prejudice over a statement they released after Morsy’s ouster opposing his removal by force and calling on political powers to carry out a dialogue. Fifty-six of the judges had been sent to a disciplinary court, which forced 41 of them into early retirement in March, a decision strongly denounced by 12 Egyptian NGOs, which said the judges were punished for expressing their opinion. A new court is reviewing the judges’ appeals.
The UN Human Rights Committee has said that “the application of restrictions in any individual case must be based on clear legal grounds and meet the test of necessity and the requirements of proportionality.” The principle of proportionality has to be respected not only in the law that frames the restrictions, but also by the administrative and judicial authorities in applying the law. Proportionality means that those measures must be appropriate to achieve their protective function; they must be the least intrusive instrument to achieve the desired result; and they must be proportionate to the interest to be protected. In several cases of travel bans ordered by judges or the prosecution, it seems that authorities use the travel restrictions as a punishment rather than a protective measure, Human Rights Watch said.
In June 2015, the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), an Egyptian independent group, documented the banning of university professors from traveling to academic conferences unless they get security permission for the visit. The AFTE said that they found out about this restriction when Higher Education Ministry officials told a Cairo University science professor, Nabil Labib Yousef, that he would need security approval for a trip to Hungary to supervise the joint PhD dissertation of an Egyptian student even though the university had approved his mission.
On July 4, AFTE lawyers filed a lawsuit in the Administrative Court, saying that Yousef’s travel ban undermined academic independence and violated university regulatory laws. The AFTE documented several other restrictions imposed by the Foreign Ministry and security officials on academic travel missions, especially to Turkey.
In May 2014, Cairo airport security banned Abdallah Assem, a 17-year-old high school student who became known for his inventions, from traveling to California to represent Egypt in an international scientific conference. Assem had been arrested two weeks earlier and faced charges related to protesting and belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said at a news conference the evening he was stopped from traveling that officials would allow Assem to travel “on the condition that he comes back.” After he left, his family said he was going to seek asylum in the United States, and he did not return.
The authorities have also prevented Khaled al-Qazzaz, a former foreign policy adviser to Morsy, from traveling outside Egypt. The military arrested al-Qazzaz, along with other Morsy aides, on July 3, 2013, and held them incommunicado for more than five months. Al-Qazzaz was never charged with a crime, and was released in January 2015 on medical grounds after the Prosecutor General’s Office cleared all the charges, his family said.
Al-Qazzaz and his family members have subsequently been prevented three times from traveling to Canada, where he plans to seek advanced medical care for a spinal injury for which there is no equivalent treatment in Egypt, his family told Human Rights Watch. Al-Qazzaz is a permanent resident of Canada and is married to a Canadian woman, who moved with their four children to Canada while he was in prison, and returned to Egypt when he was released.
His family told Human Rights Watch that on two occasions, when he tried to travel to Canada with his wife and children in March and again in April 2015, he was told he was not on a travel ban list, but needed security clearance to travel. On both occasions, the authorities held al-Qazzaz and his family for several hours in the airport, took his passport, and only returned it weeks later.
Before a third attempt, in August, al-Qazzaz sent requests to multiple ministries asking for clearance to travel, but the Interior Ministry said he could not travel. Al-Qazzaz’s wife said that their children were not able to go home to return to school and that al-Qazzaz’s health is deteriorating.
On June 4, Al-Qazzaz filed a lawsuit before the Administrative Court. Late in October, his lawyers were able to obtain a copy of a letter from the Interior Ministry to the court, which they shared with Human Rights Watch, saying that the prosecutor general placed him on the travel ban list on June 25. The letter is dated September 2, and the al-Qazzaz family said that they were never told about this and that a prosecution order should not be retroactive. The court is still reviewing the case, his family said.