(Beirut) – The Egyptian authorities in recent years have systematically refused to provide or renew the identity documents of dozens of dissidents, journalists, and human rights activists living abroad, Human Rights Watch said today. The refusal is apparently intended to pressure them to return to near-certain persecution in Egypt.
The inability to obtain birth certificates or renew essential documents such as passports and ID cards has hampered access to basic rights for dissidents abroad and their dependent family members. It has effectively undermined their ability to travel, live, and work legally and sometimes jeopardized their ability to obtain essential medical care and educational services or reunite with other family members.
“The government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been turning the screws on dissidents abroad by depriving them of essential identity documents,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “After sparing no effort to crush domestic opposition and public dissent through mass arrests, unfair trials, and rampant torture in detention, the government is ramping up efforts to punish and silence those abroad.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 26 Egyptian dissidents, journalists, and lawyers living in Turkey, Germany, Malaysia, an African country, Qatar, and another Gulf country from June to December 2022, and reviewed dozens of documents such as written correspondences, passports, and official forms relating to the cases of nine of those interviewed. Seventeen of them had some form of temporary or permanent residence permits, 3 have filed for asylum, 16 live with their spouses and children abroad, and family members of 10 were also denied documents.
Egyptian dissidents in Turkey have faced additional challenges because the Egyptian consulate in Istanbul has effectively closed its doors to Egyptians since around 2018. Interviewees said it only accepts requests for official documentation through its Facebook page, while requiring applicants for virtually all services to fill out extralegal, unofficial forms, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, requesting private details such as why they left Egypt and links to their social media accounts.
Consulate officials routinely informed applicants that security agencies in Egypt must approve all requests before the consulate would file them with the relevant authorities. This practice has blocked thousands of Egyptians in Turkey from filing routine requests for official documents, including passports and IDs.
Al-Sisi’s government’s zero-tolerance policy toward dissent has caused one of the largest politically driven outward migration waves in Egypt’s recent history. According to official government figures and estimates published in recent years, between 9 and 14 million Egyptians live abroad. Of these, tens of thousands have been living in exile to avoid repression at home, according to estimates by media and human rights reports.
Dissidents and activists interviewed said that it is nearly impossible to legally challenge Egyptian authorities’ refusals to provide official documents, especially when embassies and consulates refuse to process power of attorney requests to authorize lawyers in Egypt to act on behalf of those abroad. None of those interviewed received an official written rejection. Those who received a verbal response said embassy or consulate officials merely informed them that the security agencies had not approved providing the documents. Officials told some explicitly to go back to Egypt to “solve their problems” with security agencies. In other cases, officials gave no response or just said the requests were pending for months or years without explanation or formal rejection.
The majority said they had no pending criminal cases against them in Egypt. However, six said the Egyptian authorities had legally designated them as “terrorists” under an arbitrary and flawed process in Egypt, which automatically prevents the designated people from obtaining or renewing passports. Those designated as “terrorists” said that in addition to refusing to renew passports, the authorities also refused to provide other documents such as birth certificates and ID cards or refused to process a power of attorney, all of which are arbitrary measures not stipulated even under Egypt’s flawed and draconian terrorism regulations.
An Egyptian engineer living in Germany with his wife and children told Human Rights Watch that his naturalization process in Germany had stalled due to his expired passport, which also resulted in his residency permit in Germany becoming effectively invalid. He said that Egyptian authorities refused to issue him a new passport because he had been placed arbitrarily on Egypt’s “terrorism” list in 2018, as had hundreds of others, based on court decisions made without hearings or the ability of those designated to challenge the allegations in fair proceedings.
By arbitrarily depriving its citizens abroad from obtaining valid passports and other identity documents, the Egyptian authorities are violating both the constitution and international human rights law. Under international law, everyone has a right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law as well as a right to birth registration.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly should immediately order security agencies and diplomatic missions to end all extralegal impediments to issuing identity documents and facilitate such requests. Countries hosting affected dissidents should not deport anyone to Egypt who would be at risk of persecution, torture, or other serious harm upon return, and should allow people expressing such fears to apply for asylum. When assessing these asylum claims, governments, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), and other asylum adjudicators should take into consideration reports documenting ongoing repression in Egypt as well as the inability of many dissidents abroad to obtain identity documents.
“The Egyptian government’s export of repression via its embassies and consulates abroad seeks to destroy the livelihoods of Egyptians living in exile and has become an important aspect of its unrelenting assault on all forms of dissent,” Coogle said.
Since the military ousted the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsy in July 2013, President al-Sisi’s government has overseen a massive crackdown on critics that first targeted actual or perceived members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government outlawed then, before widening quickly to brutally stifle all forms of dissent.
The deprivation of passports, ID cards, birth certificates, and other civil documentation profoundly affects other fundamental rights such as access to health care, education, and work; the right to family life; freedom of movement; and the right to leave one’s own country. All countries are obliged to register children’s births and to ensure their right to a nationality. As passports are often treated as the main proof of nationality and identity recognized outside one’s country of origin, deprivation of passports can place people in a situation akin to statelessness.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is party, states that “Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.” The Human Rights Committee overseeing the interpretation of the Covenant said that the right to leave “must include the right to obtain the necessary travel documents.” The Committee also criticized bureaucratic hurdles and other obstacles to obtaining passports such as high fees, harassment of applicants, and, “refusal to issue a passport because the applicant is said to harm the good name of the country.”
In April 2022, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for a political dialogue “with all [political] forces without exclusion or discrimination,” but in the meantime the government has not eased its relentless crackdown campaign on opponents. Egyptian airport security authorities have arrested many dissidents, journalists, and human rights activists leaving or arriving in Egypt in recent years, while arbitrarily barring dozens from leaving the country for indefinite periods of time. In recent months, the authorities released a number of dissidents from prison and allowed a handful of human rights activists to travel abroad after years of barring them, but these remain minuscule improvements compared with the general oppressive trends.
Difficulties and Risks Abroad
An Egyptian activist in Istanbul with a two-year residence permit issued on humanitarian grounds told Human Rights Watch he could not obtain official Egyptian documents to confirm his marriage to a Sudanese woman.
Two fathers of two children born in Turkey who could not obtain passports or birth certificates said they were unable to get required vaccines for their children because they had no identification documents, even though others said they have not faced this problem. They said their children are also unable to access public health care services available for residents in Turkey. The two fathers fear that their children will also have problems when they are ready to enter school.
At least two men interviewed said they were briefly arrested in Turkey because of their expired passports and residence permits, and several others said they were interrogated at checkpoints and witnessed others being arrested because of their expired permits.
Several interviewees said that their Egypt-based family members could not visit them abroad because of fears of security harassment or travel bans, effectively cutting them off from in-person meetings for years.
Many of those interviewed said that without valid identity documents, they and their family members live in constant fear of deportation to Egypt, where they would likely be jailed because of their political beliefs and activities.
Turkey and Qatar have been hosting many Egyptians including Islamist activists who fled the Egyptian government’s repression and unfair trials since late 2013. Though Egyptians are not eligible for full refugee status in Turkey due to the country’s geographic limitations on its accession to the 1951 Refugee Convention, they can be considered for “conditional” refugee status or other complementary forms of protection under Turkey’s 2013 Law on Foreigners and International Protection.
According to a journalist and a lawyer interviewed in Istanbul who are leading associations in Turkey that mediate with Turkish authorities around such cases, Turkish authorities have, in recent years, granted hundreds of Egyptians in Turkey residence permits on humanitarian grounds or even Turkish nationality, acknowledging their special circumstances around fleeing oppression in Egypt. However, such residence permits frequently do not include work authorization.
As Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s and al-Sisi’s governments are becoming closer after years of political animosity, Egyptian dissidents in Turkey said they were feeling increasingly unsafe. “I’m a toy in a political competition,” said a 29-year-old man who lives in Turkey. He said that Egyptian security authorities arrested and tortured him twice before he left in July 2016 for Turkey, where he said he worked in physically unsafe conditions in tobacco factories and later had to pay bribes to open his own business because his passport had expired.
In October 2022, Turkish police arrested an Egyptian journalist, Hossam al-Ghamry, held him for a few days, then rearrested him in November for almost a month, reportedly because of social media posts he wrote supporting calls for anti-government protests in Egypt. He said that he was placed in a deportation center for foreigners then moved to a boarder area and was told by Turkish authorities he had to leave Turkey because “he was no longer welcome.” He then left Turkey. In early 2022, the Turkish authorities compelled several Egyptian opposition TV channels based there since 2013 to shut down and requested that a few of their prominent staff members leave the country.
Several countries have deported people to Egypt despite the serious risks of persecution and torture they faced there. Most recently in 2022, Saudi Arabia deported or extradited at least one Egyptian dissident and Sudan deported or extradited at least nine. In 2019, Kuwait and Malaysia similarly deported or extradited groups of at least four and eight Egyptian dissidents, who were later sentenced to years in prison in unjust trials. The Egyptian government has, based on media reports, repeatedly abused the Interpol red notice system to extradite or harass activists abroad, often based on false or politicized charges.
Difficulties obtaining or maintaining valid civil documentation have pushed many Egyptian dissidents abroad into risking dangerous or irregular solutions. Some of those interviewed said they were considering trying to migrate irregularly from Turkey to Europe, to apply for asylum. Several said that they paid hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars in bribes to obtain passports through Egypt’s diplomatic missions or in Cairo. Those who paid bribes said intermediaries dealing with officials had inquired about their legal situation in Egypt and set the amount depended on the seriousness of their situation.
Some of those interviewed were so desperate that they fell victim to scams. An Egyptian journalist in Turkey said that intermediaries convinced him in 2020 that they could get his expired passport “extended” at a diplomatic mission in another country in exchange for a payment. But he said when he tried to travel with this “extended” passport, security officials in the destination country questioned him, denied him entry, and deported him back to Turkey on the next flight. Human Rights Watch reviewed a copy of the “extended” passport, which carried an official stamp from an Egyptian mission abroad [location redacted] saying “validity was extended to [date redacted] on date [redacted].” However, the list of services offered by Egyptian missions abroad, as outlined on their websites, does not include extending passports.
Environment of Fear
In addition to not being able to obtain documents, interviewees described a general atmosphere of intimidation and threats by Egyptian officials when visiting Egypt’s diplomatic missions. Media reports said in recent years that the Egyptian authorities have been actively spying on dissident Egyptian communities abroad. Since 2020, at least two countries, Germany and the US, have arrested and brought charges against people for spying for the Egyptian government, including gathering information about dissenting voices there.
Amr Hashad, 29, is an Egyptian activist in Turkey who worked with several human rights organizations. Hashad said that authorities in Egypt prosecuted and jailed him several times between 2014 and 2019, over several charges including the alleged involvement with an illegal group and attempting to overthrow the regime. He described what he considered a possible attempt to interrogate or abduct him during a visit to the Egyptian consulate in Istanbul in September 2020 to request a document.
Hashad said that when he went to file forms needed to issue a power of attorney for his lawyers, a consulate guard photographed his passport and sent information over the phone to other officials inside the consulate, telling Hashad it was necessary for security clearance. Hashed said they instructed him to come back the next day.
He said that the next day, the guard told him that the consul wanted to meet him personally after other visitors had left, and he saw three men who looked like guards waiting for him. Hashad said he began to feel unsafe and decided to get his passport back and leave. When Hashad refused to meet the consul, the men made him talk with the consul over an internal phone. He said the consul told him that he had no rights and that he was not allowed to get any documents.
The consul also told Hashad that he knew he had been imprisoned before and that he was now on “Egyptian land.” Hashad said, “All what I could think of at that point was Khashoggi’s saw,” referring to the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and reports that his body was dismembered using a bone saw in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Hashad said he started to run toward the exit, and one of the three men ran after him, yelling at him to stop. Hashad managed to get out of the consulate, but without his passport.
Hashad said he stayed outside the consulate walls, demanding his passport back. Hashad said he showed a video to the guards on his phone depicting him handing over his passport earlier and told them he would call the Turkish police to report passport robbery if they did not give it back, after which they returned it.
Human Rights Watch reviewed copies of threats Hashad said he received on Facebook messenger and a handwritten note left at his door telling him to drop a legal complaint he filed with the Turkish authorities about the consulate incident. Eventually, the Turkish authorities dropped the investigation, but Hashad said that National Security officers threatened, harassed, and interrogated his mother and imprisoned brother in Egypt.
In September 2021, Ahmed Taha, an Egyptian TV anchor at Al Jazeera living in Qatar on a work permit, aired a video on Facebook showing Egyptian embassy officials in Doha while Taha spoke to the camera, saying that the officials had confiscated his passport when he requested a service at the embassy. After he aired the video and waited inside the consulate for two hours, two embassy officials handed the passport back to Taha and apologized. He said he managed to obtain a new passport in December 2021. In May 2022, a military court sentenced Taha to 15 years in prison in absentia in a politicized case involving 25 people including former presidential candidate Abd al-Moniem Abu al-Fetoh.
In recent years, Human Rights Watch has documented that Egyptian authorities have targeted dozens of the relatives in Egypt of dissidents who have left the country for arrests, house raids, interrogations, and travel bans. On some occasions officials have directly expressed hostility toward dissidents abroad. In 2019, the then-minister of emigration and Egyptian expatriate affairs told a group of Egyptians in Canada: “Anyone [referring to critics abroad] who says a word about our country will be sliced up.” The minister used a throat slash gesture while saying this.
Details of Some Cases Interviewed
“Mona T.” in Turkey
“Mona T.” (pseudonym), a 32-year-old woman with one son, works for a British media organization. She said that she left Egypt in August 2013 with her husband and then-two-year-old child after being threatened including by security officers, because of her political activities protesting the military removal of then-President Morsy.
She said they faced no trouble flying from the Cairo airport to Turkey with a tourist visa in 2013. Back then, she said, she thought they were leaving Egypt for “a couple of weeks until things calm down,” but they never went back as the crackdown on dissent widened. “I am still traumatized,” she said, describing her sudden exile, particularly because she did not speak Turkish. “Every time I think of relocation [to a new place] it causes me anxiety,” she said.
She said her Egyptian passport was stolen in 2019 in a shopping area. She applied for a new passport at the Egyptian consulate in Istanbul in 2020. Roughly 18 months later, she said, a consulate official told her: “They [security agencies in Egypt] want you to return to Egypt and your [one-time] travel document is ready for you to return.”
She said that the only personal identity document she has now is her Turkish driver’s license, and that she has been unable to renew her residency permit in Turkey since losing her passport. Mona does not know why security in Egypt is still interested in her even though she and her husband never faced criminal charges. She said that she ended her political activism after moving to Turkey.
Without civil documentation, she has faced multiple struggles in Turkey. When she had a car accident in 2021 and went to a police station, Turkish officers at first wanted to transfer her to a deportation center because her residency permit had expired. Eventually they released her after she told them she was going through the residency permit process.
She said she has a chronic autoimmune disease that requires weekly or monthly treatments, but she was removed from her husband’s health insurance plan due to her lack of a passport or residency permit. This situation has caused financial difficulties as they have paid hundreds of dollars out of pocket every month for treatment of her illness. As a result of her situation, her child also lost his residency permit and has no access to the health plan either, she said.
She said that her inability to travel hampered her career. Recently, she could not travel to the Netherlands to attend a Dutch University where she had been offered a position as a lecturer and PhD student.
She has not been able to see her siblings for years because without a passport she cannot travel, and her siblings fear that if they visit, it may attract the attention of Egyptian security. When a relative attempted to visit her in 2017, she said, officials intercepted the relative at Cairo airport, confiscated their passport, and kept them in an airport detention room for 12 hours. Officers in the airport questioned the relative about Mona and her husband, she said. Another relative who tried to visit her also was stopped at the airport in 2021. Officials took their passport and told them to collect it from the National Security Agency office in their town.
Mohamed Mohey in Turkey
Mohey, 39, is a TV anchor focusing on economic affairs. He has been working at an Egyptian opposition TV station in Turkey for several years and founded the Association of the Egyptian Media Workers Abroad, a Turkey-based professional association. He said the association played a leading role in mediating with Turkish authorities to obtain residency permits and Turkish nationality for hundreds of Egyptian media workers who were without civil documentation.
Mohey left Egypt following the August 2013 Rab’a massacre, when government forces killed likely at least 1,000 anti-government protesters in one day, saying he did not feel safe because he opposed the military removal from power of President Morsy. Mohey said his Egyptian passport was stolen in Istanbul in 2016. He applied for a new passport at the Egyptian consulate in Istanbul several times, but each time the process was delayed for months or years before officials eventually told him that security agencies blocked his applications and that he must go back to Egypt. Like others interviewed, Mohey said, the consulate required him to fill out a form with personal details about himself and his family. Mohey said he has no criminal cases against him in Egypt.
Without a passport, Mohey has faced problems dealing with banks and Turkish government entities. “I give cash to a friend every month so that he helps me with transactions through his account,” Mohey said. But what concerns Mohey the most is that he has been unable to see his 7-year-old daughter, who was banned from entering Turkey for five years in 2020 for overstaying her visa. She lives in Canada with her mother. Mohey could not obtain the appropriate visa for his daughter because he had lost his passport. “She has problems speaking and I need to be with her,” Mohey said.
M.B.A. in a Gulf country
M.B.A., a 46-year-old medical professional, migrated to a Gulf country (name redacted for security) in 2004 with his wife and children. His last visit to Egypt was in 2012. He used to live in the Gulf country under a work visa. He said he was politically active during former President Hosni Mubarak’s era and was arbitrarily arrested once about 20 years ago and summoned for extralegal questioning by the Egyptian National Security Agency several times in the early 2000s. M.B.A said that later he quit activism and security interrogations decreased.
M.B.A. said he approached the Egyptian consulate in the Gulf country where he lived in 2019 to apply for a new national identification card. He said he submitted all required documents, but he never heard back from the consulate. “I didn’t want to approach the consulate again to follow up in order not to bring more attention to me,” he said.
While in this country, M.B.A., who has several children, had another child in 2021. To obtain a birth certificate for his newborn, the Egyptian embassy required him to provide a recent version of his own birth certificate. A relative of M.B.A.’s wife in Egypt visited a civil registry office to obtain the certificate but the staff there told the relative that no documents of any sort could be issued for M.B.A. because it was “banned for security reasons.” A relative of M.B.A.’s wife said that security officers threatened to arrest the family member who approached the civil registry.
Without the birth certificate, M.B.A. has also been unable to obtain a passport for his newborn. The child remains de facto stateless, and the family was only able to obtain a temporary residence permit for him that is renewed every four months, based on a temporary birth registration from the Egyptian consulate that is issued for the same period. Human Rights Watch reviewed copies of these documents. “While issuing these documents, the staff treated me very badly,” M.B.A. said. M.B.A. said that in August 2022, consulate officials handed them a new, temporary four-month document for the child and told him they would not issue it again. Since then, the family said, the child has become de facto stateless in a country where the family can face legal consequences and a fine amounting to US$6 per day. He also said that officials refused to issue the child’s health insurance card was not issued because he lacked the residency permit.
In 2022, M.B.A. left the Gulf country for a European one with his older children, where they filed for asylum. However, his wife had to stay with their newborn baby in the Gulf, unable to travel. “I had to leave because my passport is about to expire and I don’t think I would have been able to obtain a new one at the consulate. […] My wife is in a very bad mental state because of this situation,” he said.
“Ahmed” in Germany
Ahmed, (pseudonym) a 38-year-old engineer, said he left Egypt in 2015 to go to Germany on an education visa because he did not like the political situation. He completed his master’s studies in Germany and obtained a Blue Card, a work and residence permit. He was able to visit Egypt normally until 2017, when he learned unofficially through connections that he could face a security problem. Ahmed said he was a member of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, and has several senior Brotherhood members in his extended family. In 2018, an Egyptian court designated Ahmed and about 1,550 other people terrorists without due process or hearings.
Ahmed’s passport expired in October 2021. He said that he already lost his legal status in Germany after he could not resolve the passport issue. He said that the foreigners’ office in the city where he lived in Germany refused to renew his residence permit and informed him that the authorities would take legal action against him including a fine and deportation if he failed to provide a passport by end of 2021. Ahmed hired a lawyer who has filed several legal proceedings, but Ahmed continues to live in a legal limbo. The German company where he works tolerated his situation, but Ahmed said that he oversees projects in sensitive government areas where an inspection could pose problems for him.
In May 2021, Ahmed filed the forms to obtain a new passport at an Egyptian consulate in Frankfurt and submitted all the required documents. In August 2021, Ahmed said consulate security personnel refused to let him in when he went to inquire about the status of his application. “Go solve your issues in Egypt,” Ahmed said the official told him. “If the consul knew you’re here, he would come confiscate your passport.”
Human Rights Watch reviewed copies of emails Ahmed sent to the consul requesting an official rejection letter, to which he received no response. The consulate in Frankfurt also ignored several letters from Ahmed’s lawyer.
Ahmed said the German authorities approved his naturalization to become a German citizen in April 2022, but the process was not completed because of his passport situation. The Egyptian authorities did not respond to his legal request to give up his Egyptian nationality, a step required by German law. However, his wife’s process was completed and she received her German passport. Until his situation is resolved, Ahmed said, he lives in fear. “Once I witnessed a car accident, and the police asked to include my testimony to their report. I was scared,” he said, explaining that he is trying to avoid dealing with any process that requires him to present a passport.
In Egypt, the authorities refused to issue a birth certificate for Ahmed when a relative went to request it in 2021. Ahmed said the relative told him that an official at a civil registration office replied, “You know what he [Ahmed] did. We won’t issue him any papers.”
Ibrahim Abouali, in Malaysia
Ibrahim Abouali, 29, said he left Egypt in early 2015 and travelled to Malaysia to study political science. In late 2015, a military court in Mansoura sentenced him in absentia to life in prison for violence-related charges in a case involving 30 other civilian defendants. Abouali said he had been close to several political groups in Egypt and participated in anti-government protests after the military ousted Morsy in July 2013, but that he quit all activism after leaving Egypt.
Abouali said his passport expired in March 2021. He had requested a new passport at the Egyptian embassy in Kuala Lumpur in 2020 and an official there asked him to prepare the required documents and submit them. He was not able to obtain two required documents, a document stating his conscription status and a valid national identity card. The Egyptian authorities did not allow his mother to request these documents on his behalf, even though he said he sent her a power of attorney he obtained from the embassy in 2020. He also applied online for a passport but authorities never processed his request. Abouali said an embassy official told him in 2021 when he requested a passport renewal: “You better go back to Egypt and appeal the court ruling.”
Abouali said he could not renew his residency permit in Malaysia nor pursue his postgraduate studies there after his passport expired. “I would like to have a normal life,” he said. “I’m an [undocumented] alien now.” Since his passport and residency permit expired, he has not been able to rent a home and has been moving between friends’ houses. He added that employers refused to hire him, even in jobs outside of his industry because of his legal status.
Abouali said he believed that the stress of his situation contributed to him developing diabetes. He said he experienced depression and anxiety and attempted to harm himself in 2020 and 2021. He applied for asylum with UNHCR’s Malaysia office in 2020 but only received a letter for an appointment in December 2022 after several interventions. In October 2022, he attracted a lot of attention by posting a video on Facebook saying he would attempt suicide. “I didn’t receive any kind of support from any kind of institutions that care about such cases… That’s why I made the video,” he said in the video. “It’s my last hope before I kill myself. Nobody would feel how it is unless you go through it.” After the video, a local nongovernment group helped him gain admission to a rehabilitation center.