Chairman of Strong Egypt party, Abd al-Moneim Abu al-Fotouh, speaks during a news conference in Cairo, February 4, 2015.  

© 2015 Reuters

(Beirut, February 26, 2018) – Egyptian authorities carried out a series of arbitrary arrests in late January and February, 2018, in an escalating crackdown against political opposition, Human Rights Watch said today. Among those arrested is Abd al-Moniem Abu al-Fotouh, a 2012 presidential candidate and the head of the Strong Egypt Party.

The intensifying repression and the use of terrorism-related charges against peaceful activists are emblematic of a government strategy to silence critical voices ahead of the planned presidential elections on March 26-28. Human Rights Watch and 13 other rights organizations have said that they lacked “the minimum requirements for free and fair elections.”

“Abu al-Fotouh’s arrest underlines the government message that criticizing President al-Sisi in the lead-up to the presidential elections is forbidden,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Elections should stimulate political debate and reflect the popular will, but al-Sisi’s government wants to ensure with its heavy-handed repression that this is not the case in Egypt.”

Following his arrest, a court placed Abu al-Fotouh and 15 members of his party on the country’s terrorism list based on flawed laws, without hearings or due process, for alleged contacts with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian authorities should annul these arbitrary terrorist designations and immediately release Abu al-Fotouh and all those arrested solely for expressing criticism or participating in peaceful activism, Human Rights Watch said.

Authorities also arrested Mohamed al-Qassas, the Strong Egypt Party’s deputy president; Mohamed Abd al-Latif Talaat, secretary-general of the centrist Al-Wasat Party; and Hesham Geneina, former head of the Central Auditing Agency. All remain in detention.

On February 14, security forces raided a party meeting at Abu al-Fotouh’s house in a Cairo suburb, arresting him and six other party leaders, who were subsequently released, media reports said.

The Interior Ministry said in a February 15 statement that they arrested Abu al-Fotouh with the Supreme State Security Prosecution’s “permission” based on “information” from the ministry’s National Security Agency (NSA) claiming that he held secret meetings with Brotherhood members in London and gave media interviews as part of a plot for “stirring chaos and instability.” The statement also alleged that police confiscated documents with “assignments” for Abu al-Fotouh, including on “how to mobilize crowds” and “bringing down the political and legal state’s legitimacy.”

Abu al-Fotouh’s lawyers and family said in separate statements that the police did not show any search or arrest warrants when they raided his house. Abu al-Fotouh’s son Houzaifa told Human Rights Watch that the family had “a sharp conversation” with the police because they refused to allow police to search the house without a warrant. He said that the police, including National Security agents, left without confiscating anything.

Abu al-Fotouh, 66, was arrested a few hours after he returned from London, where he gave interviews to Al Jazeera, BBC Arabic, and Al Araby TV,  in which he criticized al-Sisi and called for boycotting the presidential elections due to the “absence of competition.” State Security prosecutors held him for 15 days in Cairo’s Tora Prison complex, pending investigations of accusations that included “spreading false news” and “leading an outlawed group.” Abu al-Fetouh, was transferred to a hospital at least once during interrogations, media reports said.

The Interior Ministry released a statement on February 21 saying it had arrested six wanted Muslim Brotherhood members possessing three rifles on a farm belonging to Abu al-Fotouh in Beheira governorate. His family told Human Rights Watch that he does not own a farm and that while his wife owns land in Beheira, the family had rented it out since 2013. The family also said they knew nothing about the six people the ministry identified.

State Security prosecutors used the same accusations to place al-Qassas in pretrial detention following his February 9 arrest.

Talaat was arrested at his home on January 22 on charges of “inciting chaos” and prosecutors extended his detention since then. The Al-Wasat Party said in a January 24 statement that when Talaat was arrested, “official bodies” told a party leader that it was a “misunderstanding” and that Talaat would be released “within hours.” The statement said the party was considering suspending its activities because of “the environment hindering political work.”

On February 13, military prosecutors ordered Geneina detained, pending investigation, after he gave a media interview in which he said that the former Chief of Staff Sami Anan – who had announced his candidacy for president and is also being detained – possessed evidence on army leaders’ involvement in violent events following Egypt’s 2011 uprising. Geneina also said that “sovereign bodies” were behind an attack on him a few days earlier that he said was an “assassination attempt.”

The Huffington Post journalist who published the interview with Geneina, Motaaz Wednan, was  arrested on February 17, and State Security Prosecutors ordered him detained on accusations of “spreading false news” and “joining a banned group.” Authorities are holding him, and al-Qassas in the Maximum-Security Scorpion Prison, where Human Rights Watch has documented abusive and degrading detention conditions.

On February 20, the South Cairo Criminal Court ordered Abu al-Fotouh and 15 members of his party placed on a “terrorism list.” According to the 2015 Terrorist Entities Law, criminal courts can place individuals and entities on the country’s terrorism list based on memos presented by prosecutors and without any due process or hearings. According to media reports, the prosecutors’ memo was merely based on the NSA’s allegations of “leading an illegal group.” The designation’s immediate effects include a travel ban, an asset freeze, the loss of political rights, and passport cancellation.

Human Rights Watch has previously said the Egyptian Parliament should cancel this law and urged prosecutors to reverse the flawed, indiscriminate terrorism designations on hundreds of people. The Egyptian 2015 counterterrorism law criminalizes activities that go far beyond the description of terrorist acts in United Nations Security Council 2004 resolution 1566. It also runs counter to a basic principle in international human rights law that requires laws to be precisely drafted and understandable as a safeguard against their arbitrary use. The designations also do not follow minimum requirements of due process and are made without hearings or substantial evidence.

Human Rights Watch has documented a host of serious abuses by NSA officers, including the routine torture of political detainees, typically in NSA offices, which are used as secret detention facilities to forcibly disappear people.

Egypt’s silencing of critical voices and opposition parties is not only a violation of its own constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought and opinion in article 65 and its citizens’ right to participation in public life in article 87. It also disregards Egypt’s obligations under regional and international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). Articles 19, 21, 22, and 25 of the ICCPR and Articles 9, 10, 11, and 13 of the ACHPR guarantee the rights to the freedoms of expression, participation, peaceful assembly, and association.

“The arrest of leading figures, apparently for their peaceful activism, doesn’t just undermine rule of law, but also could further the instability that Egypt’s government is using to justify more repression,” Whitson said.