For Egyptian activists abroad, a growing fear

For Egyptian activists abroad, a growing fear
4 min read
28 February, 2021
Family members of Egyptian activists now living abroad are being targeted by security forces and arrested on vague charges, as an effort by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to muzzle critics
Sherif Mansour was first summoned by Egyptian security at age 17 [Getty]
When Sherif Mansour was first summoned by Egyptian security at age 17, he recalls how his father, who had plenty of firsthand experience, gave him directions on how to go to the interrogation.

Mansour has been living in the United States for 15 years. But he remains an activist and is again feeling the heat from Egyptian security, this time through the targeting of family members.

Mansour's cousin, Reda Abdelrahman, was detained in August and is due in court on March 2 on vague charges of supporting a terrorist group, part of what human rights campaigners say is a growing extraterritorial effort by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to muzzle critics.

"After managing to silence everyone else inside the country, controlling media organizations' editorial lines and forcing many people into exile, they are trying to pressure those of us who managed to escape and seek a safe haven," Mansour, 41, told AFP in a park near his home in the Washington area.

Mansour, who has a relaxed demeanor and sees his future for now in the United States, says his cousin is now allowed monthly visitations but has health problems and is regularly interrogated about his family's activities.

A foreign ministry spokesperson in Cairo was not available for comment when contacted.

Mansour said at least four other Egyptian families overseas have faced similar predicaments since last year.

In one case raised by the State Department, US citizen Mohamed Soltan, who has filed a lawsuit alleging torture in Egyptian custody, said that plain-clothes officers raided the homes of six family members.

Soltan is the son of a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the now-banned movement of elected president Mohamed Morsi who was deposed by then general Sisi in 2013.

'They fear the future'

Mansour sees common cause with Soltan even though he comes from a different background, describing himself as non-religious and a supporter of separating religion and state.

Mansour's father, Ahmed Sobhy Mansour, who has also resettled in the Washington area, was a scholar at Al-Azhar in Cairo, the premier university of Sunni Islam. There, he was a leading voice of Quranism, which deviates from much mainstream thought by deriving religious authority only from the Muslim holy book - not hadiths, the sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed.

Successive Egyptian governments' targeting of the family "shows that they fear the future that we represent, a future that allows inclusion of everyone, allows freedom and equality for everyone and, from within the traditions of Islam, provides the basis for this for the general public," the younger Mansour said.

President Joe Biden has vowed a forceful line on human rights with Arab allies, a shift from his predecessor Donald Trump who famously was quoted as calling Sisi "my favorite dictator" and saw shared interests in targeting the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State group as well as working with Israel.

In a first telephone call with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken "raised concerns over human rights, which he emphasized would be central to the US-Egypt bilateral relationship," the State Department said.

Biden is "basically not giving a blank check for Sisi," Mansour said.

The Biden administration has nonetheless maintained defense ties, including approving a $200 million purchase of missiles - in line with the massive military aid packages to Egypt that largely go back into the coffers of US contractors.

Read also: A decade later: Arab Spring exiles look back on Egypt uprising

New US actions

In a new act that is welcome news for Egyptian activists, the State Department announced Friday that it will ban entry to foreigners who harass dissidents or journalists.

The step came after Biden declassified intelligence finding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the grisly killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based commentator for The Washington Post who was lured into the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul.

Khashoggi's murder is an extreme case of silencing critics abroad but one that was closely followed by Mansour, who heads the Middle East and North Africa program of the Committee to Protect Journalists after previous work with Freedom House.

According to the committee, Egypt as of December was jailing 27 journalists, more than any country except China and Turkey.

Mansour returned to Egypt after the Arab Spring revolution of 2011 and was tried as part of a case against non-governmental organisations accused of a purported US and Israeli conspiracy.

He was acquitted but the space has shrunk for non-governmental groups. Staff from a leading local group, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, were detained last year but freed following a global outcry.

Mansour voiced hope that Biden would lead a more concerted global campaign on human rights in the Arab world. France in December rolled out the red carpet for Sisi.

Mansour said he wanted an Egypt that exits "the self-fulfilling prophecy, it's either the army or the Muslim Brotherhood, it's either us or the Islamists."

"We want to break out of this equation."

Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram to stay connected