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Egyptian President Abdelfattah Al-Sisi. During his presidency, Egypt has harassed, prosecuted, arrested and seized the assets of dozens of human rights groups and defenders. © 2017 MENA via AP

Hasiba Mahsoob, a 50-year-old Egyptian businesswoman, was at a public place in Alexandria, Egypt, in November 2019 when security forces arrested her. They took her to an undisclosed location, probably one of the National Security Agency’s illegal detention sites where they routinely “disappear” dissidents.

Her whereabouts weren’t revealed until 67 days later, on January 27, 2020, when her captors finally took her before a prosecutor. Prosecutors, as usual, did not investigate her forced disappearance and ordered her detained pending “investigation,” rubber-stamping unsupported security allegations that she was a member of an unnamed “terrorist” group.

Hasiba Mahsoob, 50, an Egyptian businesswoman, has been in pretrial detention since November 2019. © Private

None of this is unusual.  

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s government has, since late 2013, arrested and prosecuted tens of thousands of peaceful critics, journalists, academics and human rights defenders in an “assembly line” of serious abuse. But Mahsoob was not targeted for any political involvement. She was apparently arrested only because she is the sister of Mohamed Mahsoob, the legal and parliamentary affairs minister under former President Mohamed Morsi, and a leader of the moderate al-Wasat Party. He is now based in Paris, fleeing persecution in Egypt after the military ousted Morsi in July 2013.

Mahsoob’s arrest is part of broader thuggish tactics against families of critics and opponents who now live abroad. This has been escalating in recent years. There have been dozens of home raids, arrests and travel bans targeting relatives in Egypt who are not involved with politics.

As those dissidents whose relatives are targeted live in almost every major city in Europe and the U.S., it is a shame that Egypt’s allies are not speaking out about these abuses. What’s particularly concerning is that governments know Egyptian intelligence has recruited spies to collect information about the activities of dissidents in their capitals. These secret agents come uninvited to seminars, workshops and protests to take photographs and notes of what’s being said.  

Here's why this is happening and why this silence needs to end.

The web of repression under el-Sisi has largely stifled peaceful opposition activity inside the country. Egypt under his rule has become one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists, after China and Turkey. His government has blocked about 600 news and human rights websites since 2017.

Many civil society organizations have either shut down, downscaled their operations, or relocated abroad. There’s not much space in Egypt for peaceful gathering, mobilization or free expression. Those who do so risk being jailed and labeled “terrorists,” as numerous United Nations statements have noted.

Nevertheless, a steady flow of critical and professional reporting reflects Egypt’s grim reality.  Despite the millions of dollars el-Sisi’s government has spent on public relations to whitewash its image, dire abuses continue to grab headlines in major news organizations, thanks to the admirably brave Egyptians inside the country who have, despite everything, continued to campaign peacefully for dignity and rights of their fellow citizens. Dozens of dissidents who left Egypt fearing persecution have also not been silent. Egyptian human rights groups in Europe and the U.S. have proliferated, and many activists living abroad use social media to shed light on what’s happening in the country.

El-Sisi’s security agencies know only one way to respond: harass, intimidate and arrest. If the activists are not reachable, arrest their relatives. This has caused great pain for activists abroad who see their relatives treated like hostages by ready-to-do-anything security forces. If the aim is to improve its reputation by silencing critics abroad, then the Egyptian government is far from succeeding, and the critics are instead firing back.

To understand what I mean see the frighteningly angry expressions on the face of the Chicago-based video blogger Aly Hussin Mahdy as he recounts on camera what recently happened to his family in Egypt.

Mahdy, who has over 400,000 Facebook followers, regularly releases videos criticizing the Egyptian government. In late January 2021, the police raided the homes of his father, uncle and cousin, arrested and forcibly disappeared them, refusing to reveal where they are. Mahdy went off the grid for a week, but on February 11 he broke his silence.

“They took my father from his wife and my younger siblings, terrifying and terrorizing them,” he told his followers. “They messed up the whole house and stole everything they found.”

Like Mahdy, many Egyptians abroad whose relatives at home have been targeted have never stopped their activism. One can look at U.S.-based human rights advocate Mohamed Soltan, whose jailed father has disappeared since June 2020, or Haitham Abu Khalil, the Istanbul-based TV presenter, whose brother Amr died in jail after months of unjust detention.

A judge conditionally released Hasiba Mahsoob, without trial, on December 13, 2020, but security forces rearrested her in less than 24 hours and added her to a new case with the same allegations. Mohamed Mahsoob continues to write about Egypt and the path forward it needs to take.

Egypt’s rulers, including President el-Sisi, should understand that by harming dissidents’ loved ones, they are only entrenching their government’s reputation as a cruel human rights abuser.

Such tactics are unlikely to work. As the damage has already happened, why would dissidents go silent? It is only by living through fear that one triumphs over it.

If the government’s goal is to improve Egypt’s reputation abroad, then that won’t happen until it ends the nationwide oppression, arrests and prosecutions of dissidents. Probably then those abroad can return home safely and help restore vividness and color to the country’s emaciated political life and civil society, which Egypt badly needs for its future.

Governments, particularly Western governments that supply Egypt with weapons and aid, should listen to activists and make the dignity and rights of Egyptians central to their relations with the Egyptian government.

Business as usual in the face of gross abuses, past experiences have proven, only emboldens abusers to continue the vicious circles of stalling the nation’s prospects for prosperity, democracy and good governance.  

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