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Cairo releases dozens of detainees

Egypt recently released dozens of activists and journalists who had been in pretrial detention for months in what some say is an effort to polish the Egyptian state’s image before the United States.

CAIRO — In less than a week, the Egyptian authorities released several prominent activists and dozens of young people detained in different cases related to political activism. Egyptian politicians and rights’ activists who spoke to Al-Monitor saw the move as a positive indicator for  Egypt improving its human rights record.

On July 13, the International Dialogue Group thanked the public prosecutor and security forces for releasing 46 young men who were detained for their political activism. 

On July 17 and 18, the prosecution released activists Esraa Abdel-Fattah, Mahienour el-Masry and Abdel Nasser Ismail as well as opposition journalist Gamal el-Gamal. 

The International Dialogue Group was established March 27. It includes independent parliament members and other politicians as well as human rights defenders lobbying for the release of political prisoners. The body aims to build trust on controversial issues, especially human rights, between the government and international partners.

Group member and parliamentarian Ihab Ramzi told Al-Monitor that his group has succeeded over the past few months in creating a mechanism for communication with the judiciary and security apparatus to obtain the release of political prisoners accused of nonviolent actions.

Ramzi added, “The authorities responded after they saw that it was time to improve the country’s human rights’ record."

Lawyer Ismail al-Rusheidi, a member of the defense team of the released activists, told Al-Monitor that the Cairo Criminal Court recently ordered the release of 128 people, adding that the court appears to be moving toward closing old cases.

On March 12, 31 countries addressed a joint statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council, expressing concern about human rights violations in Egypt. 

A few months prior, in October 2020, 222 European lawmakers sent a letter urging President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to “prioritize the rights of prisoners and immediately release those unjustly detained.”

Ramzi said, “There are many countries that consider the human rights situation in Egypt to be lagging behind. As an independent group, we are responsible for clarifying a picture that the government has failed to explain.”

He explained that his group met with most EU ambassadors in Egypt, as well as the US ambassador to Cairo. They discussed a number of issues, including young people and activists held in pretrial detention or intellectuals and dissenters who have been sentenced to prison, he said, adding that the issue of the “terrorist Muslim Brotherhood” was never brought up during those meetings.

Ramzi indicated that, over the past few months, the judicial authorities released activists and journalists such as Khaled Dawoud, Hassan al-Kabbani, Islam el-Kahly, Solafa Magdy and her husband as well as political science professor Hazem Hosny.

Meanwhile, charges against 63 organizations and NGOs and 160 people were dropped in the so-called foreign funding case.

“The situation has changed now … and it is time to improve the human rights situation in Egypt,” Ramzi said. 

In recent years, the Egyptian government is accused of massively cracking down on dissent, arresting many activists and journalists and blocking dozens of opposition websites. The government insists those arrested pose security risks, citing terrorist attacks that have claimed many lives.

The efforts of the International Dialogue Group have been welcomed by the opposition.

Medhat al-Zahed, head of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, told Al-Monitor, “We encourage a link to maintain dialogue with the government and relieve tensions.” Zahed considers the recent release of activists a positive step and hopes that other bigger steps will follow to make the public sphere accessible and end the political deadlock.

In May, five Egyptian human rights organizations announced a list of seven measures to stop the “unprecedented collapse” in the human rights situation in Egypt. First and foremost, political prisoners must be released, pretrial detention must end and the state of emergency imposed since 2017 must be lifted.

Mohamad Zaree, the head of the Egypt program in Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, told Al-Monitor that the government has not met any of the demands proposed in May. The measures being taken are superficial and do not really improve the human rights file, he said. Zaree added, “Human rights activists are still being pursued. For example, the case of human rights activist Hossam Bahgat reached court last week. Activists such as Ziad al-Alimi and Hossam Mones also face trial.”

He explained, “There were indications of de-escalation in the human rights file, but everything collapsed after the call between US President Joe Biden and his Egyptian counterpart Sisi, which Cairo exploited to cover up human rights violations.”

Zaree welcomed the efforts of the International Dialogue Group, saying the step “might help change the situation.” But he noted that there will be no breakthrough unless the government is pressured into taking real measures.

On May 20, Egypt brokered a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas after an 11-day conflict in the Gaza Strip. The cease-fire was followed by the first phone call between Sisi and Biden since the latter took office in January. The call seems to have thawed ties between the two presidents, as Biden had previously vowed “no more blank checks” to Sisi over the country’s deteriorating human rights record. 

Rakha Ahmed Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, believes that Biden's arrival to the White House changed Cairo's relations with the European Union and the United States.

Hassan told Al-Monitor that the latest releases are very positive and will make a major breakthrough in the human rights issue. It will also soften international criticism of Egypt and give diplomatic missions a better position to respond to criticism when the human rights matter is used against them.

Egyptian writer Abdullah al-Sanawi agreed that these positive developments will help improve the political climate, reduce tension and focus on external challenges facing the country, such as the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Ramzi said, “The government has a real political will to change the situation. This is the most important thing right now.”

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