A single security official was behind the decision to arrest three staff members at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in mid-November, multiple security and government officials tell Mada Masr, which triggered an 18-day saga of international condemnation, diplomatic intervention and internal discussions within the Egyptian government that ended with the detained staff walking free.
According to informed government sources who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, the security official who ordered the arrests expected a degree of blowback given the high profile of the organization but was prepared to withstand it for as long as possible, even though they didn’t consult any other security agencies on the plan. In the official’s calculation, keeping the three EIPR staff locked up for as long as possible would quash any hopes among local civil society of capitalizing on Joe Biden’s election to the US presidency. The official also believed the crackdown would thwart any potential attempts to exploit the transition of power from Trump — a vocal supporter of the current Egyptian regime — to Biden to organize public assemblies or protests to mark the tenth anniversary of the 2011 revolution in January.
The response to the arrests was strong enough to upset these calculations and compelled a reconsideration of the strategy. Substantial diplomatic pressure was leveraged both behind the scenes and through a torrent of public statements, as well as internal pressure from some Egyptian state agencies and embassies. A wave of international anger took the form of solidarity statements and campaigns from civil society organizations, lawmakers and celebrities from around the world.
The entire 18-day affair ended when the presidency intervened with orders to release the three EIPR directors with as minimal punishment as possible, two separate government sources tell Mada Masr. The task of defusing the crisis was handed to a security agency, working in concert with Senate head Abdel Wahab Abdel Razeq and former MP Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat. Ultimately an understanding was reached, in which EIPR would submit a written pledge to comply with the 2019 NGO law, although the law’s executive regulations have yet to be issued. EIPR has publicly stated that it applied for NGO status on multiple occasions since it began operating in 2002. Receiving no response from the relevant authorities, the organization has been operating as a limited liability company that offers legal and research services.
The crackdown began at dawn on November 15 when security forces arrested Mohamed Basheer, the administrative director of the organization, from his home. He was held for 12 hours in a National Security Agency facility, where he was questioned about a meeting between EIPR staff and 13 foreign diplomats and ambassadors at the organization’s office on November 3, according to an EIPR statement.
Basheer was then brought before the State Security Prosecution, which charged him with joining a terrorist group and spreading false news and ordered him to be held in remand detention for 15 days pending investigation in Case 855/2020, in which several journalists, lawyers and activists have been charged.
Three days later, security forces arrested Karim Ennarah, the head of EIPR’s criminal justice unit, from a restaurant in the South Sinai resort town of Dahab while he was on vacation. Ennarah was added to the same case on similar charges and ordered detained for 15 days pending investigation.
A source close to the security agencies says that Basheer’s arrest was a trial balloon. The initial tepid response encouraged security forces to move forward with Ennarah’s arrest. Since his work focuses on detainees and prison conditions, Ennarah had already been the subject of police attention and surveillance, according to the source.
The Foreign Ministry, caught off guard by the rising condemnations, recommended stopping the detentions at Enarrah, according to several official sources. But the security official went ahead and ordered the arrest of EIPR Executive Director Gasser Abdel Razek, who had a higher domestic and international profile than his colleagues. Abdel Razek was arrested from his home on November 19 and faced the same charges as Ennarah and Basheer. He later testified that he was held in solitary confinement and denied warm clothes, blankets or a mattress to sleep on.
But according to an informed government source, the “unprecedented outcry” and global solidarity campaigns that followed Abdel Razek’s arrest led the security establishment to shift gears and begin looking for a way out of the crisis.
Two days after Abdel Razek’s arrest the security official who had ordered the arrest held two successive meetings at the National Security Agency headquarters with representatives from all the security agencies and the Foreign Ministry to plan an exit strategy, according to the same government source. Attendees sketched out three scenarios. First, the three EIPR staff could be released in 15 days after their first pretrial hearings on steep bail with additional penalties like asset freezes or travel bans. Second, they could be held in remand for two additional 15-day periods prior to release. Or third, their 15-day pretrial detention could be renewed 10 times before the State Security Prosecution, after which they would be brought before a criminal court and held another 45 days then released. This plan would have seen the three staff released several months after Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
According to the two separate government sources, the third scenario was favored and may have come to pass if not for the “unprecedented pressure.” Egypt’s embassies in Paris and Washington sent cables to the president’s office, the Foreign Ministry and the security agencies, urging a resolution, which proved to be key to the intervention to settle the crisis.
An Egyptian diplomatic source tells Mada Masr that Egypt’s embassy in Paris warned that failure to resolve the crisis prior to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s scheduled visit to France would occasion demonstrations and scathing criticism of the Egyptian regime by the French press and rights groups. The source says that the French Foreign Ministry informed Egypt’s ambassador in Paris, Ehab Badawi, that the French presidential palace was coming under fire for its relationship with Egypt and action was needed to help France preserve the partnership between the two countries.
Similar warnings came from Egypt’s ambassador in Washington, according to another Egyptian diplomatic source. The ambassador stressed the danger of disregarding international appeals for the immediate release of the three EIPR staff. A lobbying firm Egypt hired to promote its interests in Washington had cautioned that if the EIPR crisis continued, Egypt’s image in Washington would be tarnished just as the presidential transition was underway in the capital.
Less than a week before Basheer’s arrest, on November 9, the Egyptian embassy in Washington closed a deal with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a lobbying group and law firm, for “government relations services and strategic consultation in matters before the US government” pertinent to Egypt for $65,000 per month, according to Foreign Lobby, a news outlet that tracks foreign political lobbying in Washington. Although Egypt had been in talks with the firm for months, the contract was signed just two days after Biden became the president-elect.
Warnings from Egyptian diplomats were coupled with foreign diplomatic pressure, both in public and behind the scenes. On November 22, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry received a letter signed by 19 ambassadors in Egypt — including the US ambassador, who did not take part in the November 3 meeting at the EIPR office, and the Italian ambassador, who signed on condition that the letter would not be published — urging the Egyptian government to act promptly to resolve the crisis.
In the wake of persistent pressure and warnings of the consequences of the continued detention of the EIPR directors, the security official held two more meetings at the National Security Agency headquarters to discuss the issue and prepare a report for the president’s office which subsequently ordered the release of the EIPR personnel with minimal further punitive measures.
To bring the crisis to a close, Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, the head of the Reform and Development Party, began mediating between the head of the Senate and the security agencies on one hand, and the families of the arrested EIPR personnel and the organization’s founder Hossam Bahgat* — who returned as acting executive director following Abdel Razek’s arrest — on the other. They began exploring an appropriate exit that could justify a hasty release of the three staff while covering up the role of international pressure in the crisis, according to several informed sources from the field of human rights who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.
Sadat does not believe that international pressure was a major factor in the EIPR case. Although this pressure brought global attention to the situation, it was not the primary reason for the release of the three directors, he tells Mada Masr. “You can’t twist people’s arms here,” he says. “Many times, states and global institutions have spoken about detainees and their words have changed nothing.”
In Sadat’s view, the main reason for their speedy release is that channels had recently been opened between the authorities and certain opposition groups in cases where the latter can offer smart proposals that can be responded to.
Sadat — who parliamentary sources tell Mada Masr is a favorite to succeed Mohamed Fayeq as the chair of the National Council for Human Rights after the new House of Representatives is seated in January — says that he worked with the Senate leader during the crisis to work for the release of the EIPR personnel.
“I seized on the opportunity that Farida al-Naqqash, Gasser [Abdel Razek]’s mother, is a member of the Senate and the heart of the Senate’s work in democratic life and human rights, and I asked the Senate president to intervene,” Sadat says. The former MP then met with Naqqash and the Senate leader to discuss the situation, after which, the latter intervened with the security agencies to secure the release of the three men.
“We sat and thought about what the problem was in talks,” Sadat says. “Does the state think that EIPR is a terrorist group or that they’ve joined a terrorist group? It turned out that the state did not think EIPR is a terrorist group, even though they were charged with terrorism. The security officials responded that the state knows that the people who work at EIPR are mostly on the left.”
Sadat says that security agencies informed him and the Senate leader that a charge of joining a terrorist group does not necessarily mean that it is the Muslim Brotherhood or an Islamist group. In this case, they said, it meant that they “interact with foreign entities through funding and these entities may have ties to terrorist entities.”
The security agency representatives told Sadat that its issue with the initiative is that the organization must operate in accordance with the NGO law and its executive regulations. He was told that, otherwise, the authorities have no problems with the EIPR and the crisis could be defused if the organization pledged to operate under that law.
After the meeting, Sadat met with Bahgat, the acting director of the EIPR, along with lawyer Negad al-Borai, who was part of the detained staff members’ defense team. Together they drafted a letter proclaiming EIPR’s readiness to become a civil association. Sadat submitted the letter to the head of the Senate, who delivered it to the relevant security agencies, who in turn allowed the families of the detained staff to visit them in prison the day before their release.
Yet the letter has no official weight in regularizing EIPR’s status as a civil association because the 2019 NGO law has not yet entered into force. According to a source at the Ministry of Social Solidarity, applications to regularize the status of EIPR or other civil society organizations and associations can be submitted starting the day after the law’s executive regulations are issued. Although the Cabinet announced on November 26 — eleven days after the start of the crackdown on EIPR — its approval of the regulations, they have yet to be issued.
On December 3, three days after the letter by EIPR was delivered, the security agencies abruptly informed Sadat that it intended to release Basheer, Ennarah and Abdel Razek without bail or other release conditions. Two hours later, the three EIPR staff walked directly out of Tora Prison Complex.
In their last days in detention, EIPR’s lawyers learned that a terrorism circuit court froze the assets of the defendants. On December 6, the court upheld the freeze and confirmed that it is restricted to the individual assets of the three men, and does not extend to EIPR itself.
A few hours after their release, the French President Emanuel Macron invited Sisi to Paris. During the visit, which began on December 6, Macron said he would not condition arms sales to Egypt on human rights. Macron also gave Sisi France’s highest state honor, causing an uproar among human rights groups and in the French press, none of whom was notified of the ceremony beforehand.
*Hossam Bahgat is also a journalist at Mada Masr on unpaid leave.