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Supporters hope jailed activist will benefit from Egypt-Palestine warming

Egypt's increasingly harmonious ties with Palestinians are raising hopes that prominent activist Ramy Shaath will be removed from Egypt's terror list and released from prison.

Egypt's Court of Cassation will rule March 10 on an appeal to remove Palestinian-Egyptian political activist Ramy Shaath and 11 other detainees from Egypt's terrorist list.

Shaath, the son of prominent Palestinian politician Nabil Shaath and the leader of the Egypt branch of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was arrested at his home on July 5, 2019, and has been detained in Cairo's notorious Tora prison since, pending investigation. 

He faces accusations of "assisting a terrorist group to achieve its goals" in relation to what is known in the Egyptian media as the "Hope Plan” case, in which a group of secular politicians were arrested in June 2019 and charged with "involvement in a Muslim Brotherhood plot to bring down the state."

He and the other defendants are accused of being part of a so-called Coalition of Hope, a political alliance of liberal parties, former legislators, journalists, businesspeople and labor and youth leaders that had sought to field candidates in the 2020 legislative elections.

Hisham Kassem, an analyst and former newspaper publisher who himself was a member of the now-dissolved alliance, says that the defendants were not part of the Hope Coalition. He insists that the bulk of the detainees in the case "had nothing to do with our coalition."

"Only two of those arrested in the case were actually members of our group: Zyad el-Elaimy and Hisham Moenes," he told Al-Monitor. El-Elaimy is a human rights lawyer, a former member of parliament and one of the leaders of the liberal Social Democratic Party. Moenes is a journalist who served as campaign manager for Nasserite candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi in the 2014 presidential election that brought current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power. 

"The rest — including Shaath — were tossed in by prosecutors to punish them for their peaceful dissent. They had neither attended our meetings nor were aware that such a coalition even existed, as we had yet to announce its formation when the arrests were made." 

Some of the defendants, like Omar El Shenety, are business owners who face additional charges of funding Muslim Brotherhood enterprises.

In April 2020, a Cairo court added Shaath, El-Elaimy and their co-defendants to Egypt's terrorist list in absentia. The ruling involves a freeze of their assets, a five-year travel ban and their prohibition from participating in a political party.

Members of Shaath's family have denied the accusations leveled against him, insisting that he was being punished for peaceful activism. Shaath had been vocal in his opposition to the US-led peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians. He had also criticized Egypt's participation in the US-led "Peace to Prosperity" workshop held in Bahrain in June 2020. The gathering promoting a US peace plan that sought to resolve the decades-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the basis of economic prosperity for the Palestinians rather than a political solution, was boycotted by the Palestinian Authority for allegedly favoring Israel.

Egyptian and international rights organizations such as the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and Amnesty International have called for Shaath's "immediate and unconditional" release, calling him a prisoner of conscience. Bahey eldin Hassan, founder and chair of the institute, told Al-Monitor, "Ramy's case is a striking example of how Egyptian security bodies purposely and systematically misuse the counter-terrorism framework to prosecute peaceful dissidents." 

Defense lawyer Khaled Ali, who filed the appeal to remove Shaath from the terror list, insists the charges against him are baseless, telling Al-Monitor, "Shaath has been in pre-trial detention for 19 months pending investigation and so far no date has been set for a court hearing."

Ali denied reports that Shaath has had his Egyptian citizenship revoked and hailed a recent decision by prison authorities to allow Celine Lebrun, Shaath's French wife (who was deported in the wake of his arrest), to visit her detained husband. Lebrun, who has been campaigning for her husband's release, was finally granted permission to visit Shaath in mid-February for the first time since his arrest. 

"I was able to visit Ramy in prison after more than 19 months of forced separation," Lebrun told Al-Monitor. "Ramy is in good health and high spirits despite the terrible conditions in which he is being held." 

She also said the visit was "a step in the right direction, coming after many months of a growing international campaign calling for his release — a campaign that led French President Emmanuel Macron himself to raise the case publicly last December." 

Some analysts like Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University, agree that the change of heart on the part of prosecutors and prison authorities "is related to international pressure on the Egyptian authorities, especially pressure from the new US administration on Egypt to improve its human rights record."

In a Feb. 24 telephone conversation with Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that US and Egyptian "shared security interests must align with respect for democracy and human rights including the importance of a strong civil society."

The change also comes against a backdrop of warming Egyptian-Palestinian ties, particularly with Hamas, which has been on Egypt's terror list since 2015 on accusations the Palestinian group was supporting the insurgency in North Sinai. Egypt also accused Hamas of involvement in the 2015 assassination of Attorney General Hisham Barakat.

In early February, security sources announced the indefinite reopening of the Rafah border crossing, allowing Gazans passage to the outside world. Egypt had largely kept the crossing closed, opening it intermittently for periods of no longer than three or four days as Israel maintained a siege on the enclave.

The opening of the crossing coincided with reconciliation talks brokered by Cairo to iron out internal divisions between rival Palestinian factions including Fatah (which runs the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank) and Hamas. The talks were intended to pave the way for Palestinian legislative and presidential elections in the West Bank planned for May 22 and July 31, respectively, the first such elections in 15 years.

Egypt has also taken steps to ease Gaza's energy crisis. The state-owned Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company, EGAS, and the Palestinian Authority's sovereign wealth fund signed a memorandum of understanding in Ramallah to develop infrastructure for the Gaza Marine gas field, located off Gaza's coast in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and containing an estimated trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

An Egyptian energy official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, "The agreement to help Gaza extract and export natural gas will go a long way toward ensuring energy security for the Palestinians, especially Gaza's two million residents, whose energy supplies fall well short the needs of the coastal enclave."

Nevertheless, the accord has irked Gaza's ruling party (which was excluded from the deal) and has only served to deepen tensions between it and the PA. Hamas has accused the PA of "acting in an authoritarian way" and said that Ramallah was wrong to manage the nation's resources without consulting them.

It remains to be seen whether Egypt's rapprochement with Hamas, an Islamic resistance movement that sometimes employs violence, will extend to Shaath, whose BDS movement is based on peaceful resistance. Lebrun hopes it will. She also hopes that the court's decision to put him on Egypt's terrorist list will be overturned March 10."I hope to see Ramy free very soon and our family reunited," she told Al-Monitor. "I won't rest until this happens."

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