The Vanishing: Why Are Young Egyptian Activists Disappearing?
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's security forces have been kidnapping scores of young activists in the country. They include former revolutionaries and Islamists who are, in many cases, being denied due process.
A paper sun hangs on the wall, and the dresser is covered with bottles of nail polish in all colors. The woman who used to inhabit this room, who has been in the hands of the government for the past three months, seemed to have a fondness for ladybugs. There is a stuffed animal ladybug on the bed, and a rug in the shape of a ladybug on the floor. "Her friends called her the ladybug of the revolution," Duaa El-Taweel, 22, says of her sister, who has disappeared.
El-Taweel says her sister Esraa was restless and constantly on the go, taking pictures wherever she went. The walls are covered with patches of dried adhesive. "We took down the pictures," she says, explaining that anyone depicted in them is in danger. El-Taweel pulls letters from her sister out of a cardboard box. They were folded to make them as small as possible, so that they could be smuggled out of prison. "I was blindfolded for 15 days," El-Taweel reads from one of the letters. "I felt as if I were in a grave. It was so bad that I prayed to God to allow me to be resurrected. But I couldn't kneel down. They kidnapped me on the last day of my period. I couldn't wash myself for 17 days."
Esraa El-Taweel, 23, a sociology student and freelance photographer, was abducted on June 1 of this year -- not by criminals or a terrorist organization, but by the police in her own country.
More than four years after the Egyptian revolution, the government headed by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is cracking down on unwelcome journalists, former revolutionaries and, most of all, Islamists. In the name of fighting terror, laws are enacted that limit freedom of the press and freedom of expression. In some cases, government forces are breaking the country's laws, in what sometimes feels like a retaliation campaign against those who drove out former dictator Hosni Mubarak and believed in democracy.
Kept in the Dark
Young people are being detained -- on the street, at work and at home. They are interrogated without arrest warrants or access to an attorney, and their family members are kept in the dark about their whereabouts. There were occasional cases like these already under Mubarak, but since Interior Minister Magdy Abdul Ghaffar came into office in March, the police are disappearing scores of people, especially members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the new regime collectively treats as terrorists. Human rights activists believe there are up to around 800 such cases in Egypt today.
Duaa El-Taweel looks tired as she sits in a café in Cairo's Gizeh district, wearing costume jewelry. It is still hot, even though it is already evening, and a song by Whitney Houston is blaring from the loudspeakers -- the louder, the better, to prevent others from listening in on conversations. El-Taweel can hardly concentrate on what she is saying, and her movements are erratic, her eyes constantly darting around the room.
"It was the worst when we didn't know anything at all," she says. "We didn't even know if she was still alive." Esraa had said goodbye to her sister at about 5 p.m. on the day of her abduction. She had plans to meet two friends for dinner at Chili's. They tried a new restaurant every week, eating everything from grilled chicken to Indian food. Esraa had left her crutches at home that evening, because her friends were able to help her walk. Her legs have been partially paralyzed since Jan. 25, 2014, the third anniversary of the revolution, when security forces shot her in the back during a demonstration.
She disappeared on that evening, along with her two friends. When they left the restaurant, several police officers dressed in civilian clothing pulled them into a minivan.
The family had no idea what had happened, and there was no news from her for two weeks. Esraa's father went on television to ask the public for help. They contacted an attorney, who filed a complaint with the attorney general. "Tell me where she is and we will investigate the case," the general prosecutor's office replied, suggesting that perhaps she had run off with a lover.
It was only by accident that the family learned what had happened to Esraa. A young woman who had seen her in prison contacted the family via Facebook.
Duaa El-Taweel says she talks in her sleep at night, constantly repeating the number of her sister's missing person report: 1191. The day before our interview, she saw her sister again for the first time since her disappearance, but only from a distance, beyond a barrier in front of the building that houses the prosecutor general's office. Esraa's detention was extended by 14 days, but the same thing has been happening every two weeks. She is charged with being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and of having disseminated false reports and provided information to other countries.
"Those are the top three charges if you want to arrest someone these days," says her attorney, Halem Henish. El-Taweel denies them all. Henish describes the enforced disappearances as a perfidious tactic, because "it allows the government to hide people from the law." A person who is officially arrested cannot be interrogated without an attorney present. The person's case would have to be presented to the public prosecutor within 24 hours, and the government would have to release him or her if there were no indictment, says Henish.
But the "disappeared" are stuck in a legal vacuum of sorts. They are initially taken to a building owned by the state security service. "Confessions are forcibly extracted from them there," sometimes through torture, Henish explains. Then an indictment is prepared. According to her attorney, Esraa El-Taweel was interrogated for 18 hours, and in the end she signed the minutes of the interrogation. The document also bears the signature of an attorney, but that lawyer wasn't even present, says Henish.
According to Henish, there is no legal basis for arresting people without an arrest warrant. "But the government doesn't have to amend the laws," says Henish. "It simply breaks them."
Esraa El-Taweel denies the claim that she belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood. Ahmed el Degwy, 23, however, was in fact a member of the political arm of the Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party, and headed its youth organization. He disappeared on July 16.
After the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood rapidly came into power and then suffered a brutal fall from grace. Because it was the most well-organized political force in a country with no experience with democracy, the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party won Egypt's first free elections.
But then it established a corrupt regime under then President Mohamed Morsi. Morsi seized more and more power by issuing constitutional decrees. The people protested, and Egypt seemed to be sinking into chaos. This is why a large share of Egyptians, anxious for stability, supported the military takeover, and the reason many still support Sisi today.
Thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested after Morsi's overthrow, and hundreds, including the former president himself, were sentenced to death by trial courts. Anyone who was a member of the Brotherhood is now in prison, has fled abroad or is in hiding.
The new government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and the Islamist community has since become radicalized. For years, al-Qaida cells and groups affiliated with the so-called Islamic State have been operating on the Sinai Peninsula, and Egypt has recently been shaken by a series of violent attacks. Because it is so difficult to come to grips with terrorism in the country, and the government is determined to produce successes, it has also taken a harsh stance against those who share Islamist or politically divergent views but are not prepared to commit acts of violence.
Reda Ghada Abassy, 49, the mother of Ahmed el Degwy, is wearing a purple niqab. She is afraid -- for her son Ahmed, for her three other children and for her husband. She doesn't want to meet us in her home, saying it isn't a safe place. She tells us that her apartment has been searched several times. First she proposes a recreational club, but then she changes her mind, because visitors are required to register at the front desk. In the end, we meet in a coffeehouse, where she sits in a corner and shows us photos of her son on her mobile phone: Ahmed as a little boy, holding a birthday present, Ahmed smiling on the beach in Alexandria, and Ahmed wrapped in a Palestinian scarf on Tahrir Square, an attractive man with amber eyes and wavy hair.
Before his arrest, he had been in hiding for two years, living in the apartments of various friends and constantly changing his whereabouts. His mother never knew where exactly he was at any given time. He communicated with her via WhatsApp. Sometimes they met in public places, like a café or a park. His clothes looked old and worn, and she tried to give him money. "He usually refused to take it," she says.
"Ahmed didn't want to leave the country," his mother says. "He always insisted that he had done nothing wrong." But soon the net began to tighten around him. Several of his friends were arrested. When he received a text message from the confiscated mobile phone of one of his friends, he began to worry that the intelligence service could locate his phone.
On July 16, the last day of the month of Ramadan, he had made plans to meet at a friend's apartment to play with his X-Box. He's been missing ever since. His friends say he is being held in a building owned by the state security service, but there is no official confirmation of his whereabouts, nor has an indictment been issued. "That's what is so dangerous," says his mother. "They could accuse him of all kinds of things, even of committing a terrorist attack that never happened."
Ahmed's mother has tears in her eyes. "May God return the apple of my eye to me, just as he returned Moses to his mother," she writes in a social media status update. She fears her son will be killed.
Civil Rights Under Attack
After the 2011 revolution, the constitution was amended to allow civilians to be tried in military courts, where defendants have virtually no rights. All terrorism cases -- and all it takes to classify a case as terrorism is damage to public property -- can be tried by military courts. This is one of the changes President Sisi issued by decree.
A new anti-terrorism law enacted by the Egyptian government has recently come under fire internationally, because it restricts freedom of speech. Under the law, journalists can expect substantial fines if their reports on attacks contradict the official government accounts. According to the government, the purpose of the law is to improve morals in the country.
A trial that came to a preliminary end on Aug. 29 demonstrates how harshly the regime takes action against media organizations. A Cairo court sentenced each of three employees of the Al Jazeera network -- Egyptian Baher Mohamed, Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Australian Peter Greste -- to three years in prison. They had been arrested in a luxury hotel on Samalik Island in the Nile River. They were accused of working without a permit from the Information Ministry, disseminating false information and aiding a "terrorist organization," the Muslim Brotherhood.
The situation is even more serious for three other Egyptians who were arrested in connection with the same case, because they allegedly supplied the network with material. One of them is political science student Sohaid Saad. "It's true that he worked as a freelance journalist," says his brother, Osama Saad, 26, "and it is certainly possible that he also supplied Al Jazeera with videos."
Osama Saad is sitting in an Italian restaurant in downtown Cairo. He doesn't want anything to drink, and he doesn't want to talk about Al Jazeera anymore. In a few days, his brother will be put on trial before a military court in a completely different case, in which he stands accused of being one of the country's most dangerous terrorists.
Torture with Electroshocks
Sohaib Saad was also abducted, while the official investigation against him and the other journalists was still underway. In other words, says his brother, it was at a time when he was already required to report to a police station every day. The family heard nothing from him for 15 days. During that time, Saad made a confession. The military published his statement in a video on "the arrest of the most dangerous terrorist cell, which is a threat to national security." In it, Saad appears with a pale face and dark circles around his eyes. He confesses to having received money and purchased a weapon. The television news programs depict images of machine guns, hand grenades and explosives. "They gave him a piece of paper and told him to memorize it," says his brother, who claims that Sohaib Saad was tortured with electric shocks, has a scar on his nose and gashes on his wrists, where he was allegedly bound and suspended from the ceiling.
The Italian restaurant is located near Tahrir Square. With the tents and crowds of people that once covered the square, along with the drums and graffiti, it was once the chaotic, pulsating heart of the revolution.
Today the square consists of a number of manicured lawns and flowing traffic. The Egyptian flag flutters on a flagpole in the center. The place where a regime was once toppled is now a symbol of its return to power.
When Duaa visits her sister Esraa El-Taweel once a week, they sit in a small room with a few chairs in it, and a guard listens to their conversation.
Esraa was in bad shape the last time she saw her, says Duaa. She had lost a lot of weight, her skin was covered with blisters, and she was feeling pain in her paralyzed legs because she was not being given physical therapy. Duaa had brought along a bottle of water, which her sister ripped from her hands and drank. She had been unable to buy any water in a week, says Duaa, and the tap water smelled of sewage. Merely using it for washing was enough to cause infections. Esraa fainted the day before due to dehydration.
"I still can't believe what has happened," Esraa wrote in one of her letters. "I wake up in a panic, and I don't know where I am."
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