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Ahmed Tantawy. © Ahmed Tantawy/Facebook

(Beirut) – The Egyptian authorities have since late April 2023 arrested at least 12 family members and perceived supporters of Ahmed Tantawy, a former parliament member who said in March that he would run for president in the 2024 elections, Human Rights Watch said today.

The arrests appear to be solely based on the individuals’ relationship with Tantawy, preempting his announcement that he would return to Egypt from abroad on May 6. The authorities should immediately release all those detained merely for exercising their basic rights to free association and expression or because of their relationship with Tantawy, and present anyone for whom there is evidence of wrongdoing before a judge to review the legality and necessity of their detention.

“The arrests of relatives and supporters of Ahmed Tantawy demonstrate that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government is determined to stifle peaceful dissent and label all critics as threats,” said Amr Magdi, senior Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Such abuses infringe on the rights of those targeted and severely reduce the country’s prospects for democratic and human rights for many years to come.”

Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the authorities arrested two of Tantawy’s uncles at their homes in Kafr el-Sheikh, a city north of Cairo, on May 2 and 3. The lawyers said that security forces also arrested at least 10 other men perceived to be supportive or friends of Tantawy. Prosecutors ordered the detention of all 12 people for 15 days pending investigation on the charge of “joining a terrorist group,” while some of them faced additional charges of financing that group, “possessing publications that undermine public security,” and possessing fireworks, explosives, or firearms.

An Egyptian human rights lawyer, Nasser Amin, tweeted that some of those arrested have been in custody since April. Tantawy said in a Facebook video on May 5, recorded in Lebanon, where he has been living for several months, that this arrest campaign is the third time authorities have targeted his family and supporters to silence him in recent months.

Tantawy announced that he plans to return to Egypt on May 6 and run for president in 2024. He is the former head of the leftist al-Karama Party, and was one of the very few critical voices between 2015 and 2019 in the parliament, which was and remains overwhelmingly dominated by supporters of the president.

In August 2022, Tantawy left Egypt for Lebanon after he resigned from the al-Karama Party. Members of his party said in local media reports that he resigned and left Egypt under pressure from security agencies. “When the closest and most beloved people in my social circle are harmed, this is definitely a type of indirect pressure. It is definitely painful,” Tantawy said in a BBC interview in September. Security forces have in recent years arrested several members of the party over their political activities.

Human Rights Watch has documented a clear pattern of Egyptian authorities’ reprisals against families in Egypt of activists and critics living abroad, using unlawful home raids, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and prolonged detention of family members without trial or charges.

Two lawyers who attended the prosecution interrogation session with the two uncles, Mohamed Naguib Tantawy and Mohamed Sayed Attia, said that National Security agents held the two at a National Security Agency building in Kafr el-Shiekh for about 24 hours with no communication with the outside world before taking them to the Supreme State Security Prosecution in Cairo.

The lawyers said that prosecutors ordered the uncles detained for 15 days on Security Agency allegations that the men, ages 71 and 61, were distributing publications calling on people to meet Tantawy at Cairo airport upon his arrival on May 6 and use “force” to release him if security arrested him.

The National Security Agency is an Interior Ministry division involved in widespread abuses, some of which have most likely amounted to crimes against humanity. Members of the Supreme State Security Prosecutions in Egypt typically remand people in custody for months or years without trial, and frequently base their decisions on unsubstantiated security allegations. International human rights law necessitates taking anyone detained before a judge or the equivalent, not a prosecutor, swiftly – within 48 hours – to review their detention and assess whether they should be released.

Lawyers said that prosecutors presented 20 pieces of fireworks and 70 leaflets as the material evidence to support the detention of Tantawy’s uncles. The lawyers said that security forces who arrested one of the uncles knocked on his door at dawn, asked for his national identification document, and then escorted him away without searching his home.

President al-Sisi won 97 percent of votes in unfair and unfree presidential elections in 2018. In the weeks and months before the election, the authorities successively eliminated key challengers who announced their intention to run for president by arresting two of them, placing one under house arrest, and pushing another two to withdraw due to concerns over the safety of their supporters and government manipulation. In the end, al-Sisi ran against one of his own supporters with no real competition.

“There will be no fair or free elections in Egypt as long as authorities continue to stifle basic freedoms and crush the rule of law to intimidate critics,” Magdi said.

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