Presidential Pardons Leave Many Dissatisfied

When news of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s plan to pardon prisoners convicted on charges of breaking Egypt’s protest law leaked prior to the official announcement, expectations ran high. The official announcement on June 17 revealed that 165 prisoners, mostly young men, would be released, with unconfirmed promises from unnamed presidential sources that more were to follow.

Several secular parties had campaigned for young men and women who have been imprisoned on charges of breaking the protest law, but only two out of nearly 120 were among the 165 released. 

In fact, the vast majority of those released were arrested during demonstrations held by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, according to the list released by the Interior Ministry, showing they were mostly held while taking part in demonstrations supporting former President, and Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi. The presidential statement announcing the pardon stated that the 165 also included five minors and four students.

This is the third batch of prisoners pardoned by Sisi since his election. In March, the president pardoned 68 prisoners, while another 106 were pardoned in April. Per presidential decree, not all prisoners are eligible for a pardon. They have to have served at least half of their final sentence, and cannot have been convicted of violent crimes or vandalism.

This latest positive move, which was welcomed by the grassroots movement, Freedom for the Brave, was however marred. The group said they were happy that prisoners were released, but added that they also had serious questions on the standards used in selecting the pardoned prisoners. While official statements implied all those released were convicted with violating the Protest Law, Freedom for the Brave noted that 104 of those released were arrested before the law was issued. Additionally, while officials have previously stated that the president can only pardon those who received “final” sentences, or after going through two stages of appeal, in reality, this was the case for only three out of the 165 released. “What we want is freedom for all, and justice for all,” the group said. The group also criticized what it described as “double standards” by several secular parties who concentrated on certain “well-known” or prominent activists while disregarding the suffering of thousands of other detainees held in prison unjustly.  

The news of the prisoner release was also marred by a video that emerged showing a plainclothes officer instructing one of the young released prisoners to kneel on the ground, showing gratitude for his release. The officer is also heard instructing photographers to make sure that he, and his officers, do not appear in the photos. An Interior Ministry spokesman has said the case is being investigated, and confirmed that the ministry does not approve of this behavior.

This latest release of prisoners has also done little to satisfy the highly polarized political camps in Egypt—whether Islamist or Secular.

Abdullah Sinnawi, a prominent columnist who has met with Sisi several times, and is known for campaigning for the release of youth activists, told EgyptSource that the failure to include nearly any of the January 25 Revolution youth activists in the latest presidential pardon “confirms a growing feeling that June 30 was a counter revolution by supporters of the former Mubarak regime.” Sinnawi has campaigned in particular for seven young women who were arrested exactly a year ago. Among them are prominent activists and human rights defenders Sanaa Seif, Yara Sallam, and twenty-two others, sentenced to two years in prison for taking part in a small peaceful protest near the Ittihadeya Palace in Heliopolis, demanding the release of prisoners detained for breaking the protest law. Sinnawi said that Sisi had personally promised a few times he would look into the release of the seven young women in the Ittihadeya case, “whose only charge is that they carried banners in front of the presidential palace denouncing the Protest Law. This confirms that security bodies carry more hatred to these youth than the Muslim Brotherhood group.”

Seif and Sallam join a long list of secular activists behind bars because of Egypt’s protest law. The list includes prominent activists such as Sanaa’s brother, Alaa Abdel Fattah, and the co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, Ahmed Maher. On June 21, women activists held a small protest in front of the presidential palace to mark one year since Sallam and the other activists were arrested.

The fact that all these activists were strongly opposed the Brotherhood during ousted president Mohamed Morsi’s year in power, and were involved only in peaceful protests, led many politicians and columnists, including some known for their strong support for Sisi, to call for their release. However, these calls have been in vain. Security agencies were reportedly firm in refusing to recommend the release of any activists convicted with violating the Protest Law, alleging this would open the door for more protests, according to informed sources.  

The Brotherhood was also not satisfied with the presidential pardon, saying that the number was too small compared to the thousands who have been imprisoned over the past two years. Brotherhood supporters claim there are 40,000 currently in prison, while Interior Ministry spokesmen insist the number is far smaller. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, however, was recently quoted as saying that the total number of prisoners is around 8,000, all held legally.

The presidential pardon also came a few days after a criminal court sentenced Morsi and several key Muslim Brotherhood leaders to death after they were convicted with espionage and plotting their escape from prison a few days after widespread protests broke out against Mubarak. As a result, the pardon did little to allay the Brotherhood’s anger, or to deter calls by their youth to continue their daily protests.

While hosting a Ramadan iftar at an army hotel on June 24, Sisi announced a plan to release another group of prisoners, who he recognized could be facing injustice. He added, however, that these things were unavoidable considering the ongoing war against terrorism. “We had to arrest some people so that the rest of the country could survive,” he claimed. Who will be released, and which groups they belong to, however, were not a part of the president’s speech, and remain to be seen. .

Image: Photo: Interior ministry officials accompany a pardoned prisoner (AMAY video screenshot)