Spotlight on Recent Developments in Egypt: Arrests and Detentions

In the past few days, two prominent Egyptian figures were detained on various charges. Rights activist and journalist Hossam Bahgat was detained by the military prosecution on charges of spreading false news and subsequently released, while businessman Salah Diab and his son were detained on charges of unlicensed weapons’ possession. Photojournalist Esraa al-Taweel was also reported to have confessed to plotting a suicide bombing, after over 150 days in detention.

Hossam Bahgat

Who is He?

Until 2013, Hossam Bahgat was the Executive Director of the human rights organization, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), which he founded in 2002. He is an investigative reporter with Mada Masr. In addition to investigative pieces, Bahgat writes a daily press review for the independent newspaper. He is also the recipient of the 2011 Human Rights Watch Alison Des Forges Award.

On October 14, Bahgat published a piece in Mada Masr investigating an alleged secret military trial of twenty-six army officers accused of plotting a coup against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Bahgat profiled the defendants and detailed the alleged charges brought against them

In his most recent press review, published on November 7,  Bahgat criticized Egypt’s media reporting on the recent Russian plane crash in Sinai for adhering to the government narrative. He said that Egyptian news outlets all agree that “the West is conspiring against Egypt” by suggesting that terrorism was the cause of the crash, and that the west is “punishing” Russia for its intervention in Syria and collaterally damaging Egypt.

What Happened?

Security sources said Bahgat received a summons on Thursday from Military Intelligence. He reported to the intelligence headquarters in Nasr City on Sunday at 9 am, where he was questioned on charges of publishing false information. According to EIPR Associate Director Heba Morayef, the interrogation lasted over seven hours. He was not allowed to bring a phone or lawyer with him, in accordance with standard military intelligence procedures.

They said he was arrested and transferred to the military prosecutor after questioning. BBC Arabic quoted an unnamed military source as saying that Bahgat had been summoned because the military believed his reports threatened national security.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said that six hours after arriving at military intelligence on Sunday, he made a phone call to a friend saying that he had been “transferred to military prosecution headquarters for questioning. One hour later, Bahgat called to say the initial charges against him included “publishing false information that harms national security.” Initial reports suggested he was also facing charges of sharing information that disturbs public peace.

According to human rights lawyer Ragia Omran, Bahgat’s October 14 article was the focus of the questioning. Human rights lawyer Karim Abdelrady attended Bahgat’s questioning after lawyers were allowed to enter the military prosecution headquarters (seven hours after Bahgat was summoned). He told CPJ that Bahgat faced charges of “publishing false news that harms national security” in relation to the October 14 article.

Adel Ramadan, one of the lawyers on Bahgat’s case, told AP that military prosecutors asked the journalist to promise to stop writing about the military. He refused, but offered instead to publish corrections or clarifications.

EIPR Director Gasser Abdel Razek told Mada Masr that military interrogators finished questioning Bahgat late Sunday, and that lawyers expected military prosecutors to issue a final decision by Monday morning.

Bahgat was released on Tuesday morning. According to Ahram Online, he was released without bail pending investigation. Mada Masr wrote that Bahgat was released after signing the following statement: 

 “I, Hossam Bahgat, journalist at Mada Masr, declare that I will abide by legal and security procedures when publishing material pertaining to the Armed Forces.”

The statement also said: “I was also not subjected to any moral or physical harm.” Mada Masr later published a statement by Bahgat in which he documented his interrogation and detention.

The Charges

On Monday, military prosecution ordered Bahgat detained for four days,pending investigation. “It is unknown where Bahgat is currently being detained or where his four day detention will be…his family is trying to find out to deliver his medications,” lawyer Hassan al-Azhary told Ahram Online at that time.

Mada Masr Editor in Chief Lina Attallah said that Bahgat was facing charges of “publishing false and inaccurate information that harms national security.” According to the Association for Freedom of Thoughts and Expression (AFTE), Bahgat had been charged with violating Articles 102 and 188 of the Penal Code. Article 102 stipulates an unspecified prison sentence and a fine of EGP 50–200 for deliberately broadcasting false information that disturbs public security, incites public panic,and harms the public interest. Article 188 stipulates a maximum one year sentence and/or  a fine of EGP 5,000–20,000 for falsely attributing sources or involuntarily disseminating false information or forged documents that disturb public order, incite public panic and harm the public interest.

Government Reaction

According to the NYT, prior to the military prosecutor ordering Bahgat detained for four days, Military Spokesman General Mohamed Samir declined to discuss the charges or the reason for Bahgat’s detention. He said, “You can ask him yourself when he gets out.” When asked if Bahgat would be released, Samir said, “I have no idea.”

Local Reactions

EIPR, together with sixteen other Egyptian rights organizations, issued a statement calling for Bahgat’s immediate release. The statement said Bahgat had been “arbitrarily detained solely for the peaceful expression of his views” and that his summons was “a form of direct intimidation that will have a chilling effect on any journalists seeking to somewhat push the boundaries of the limited space for expression in Egypt today.” The statement also noted that the military prosecutor’s refusal to tell lawyers where Bahgat was being detained was in violation of the Egyptian constitution and Egypt’s obligations according to international human rights treaties. The signatories included AFTE, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, and the Arab Network for Human Rights Information.

Several protests were organized in solidarity with Bahgat, including one at the Journalists Syndicate in Cairo, as well as protests in London, Tunis, and New York.

International Reactions

CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour called Bahgat’s detention a clear attempt to stifle reporting.” He called on the Egyptian government to release Bahgat immediately, saying, “The fact that he was questioned for so long without his lawyers present only heightens the outrage.”

Amnesty International Director of the Middle East and North Africa Philip Luther called Bahgat’s arrest “another nail in the coffin for freedom of expression in Egypt,” and called for his immediate release. Human Rights Watch also condemned the arrest. 

Several other international organizations criticized Bahgat’s arrest and detention, including the International Network for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the International Federation for Human Rights and the World Organization Against Torture. 

In addition, the Office of the Spokesperson for United National Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Bahgat’s detention was the “latest in a series of detentions of human rights defenders and others that are profoundly worrying.” The Foreign Ministry responded to criticism by Ban Ki-moon regarding Baghat’s detention. “Ban’s statements included individual cases and jumped to conclusions and assumptions regarding freedom of expression in Egypt, despite the clear violations Bahgat made according to the penal code,” the ministry said.

During a State Department briefing on Monday, Spokesperson John Kirby said the State Department was following Bahgat’s case carefully. “As we’ve said before, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and upholding the rule of law are crucial to Egypt’s long-term stability and prosperity. We continue to have frank discussions with the Government of Egypt about those issues,” he stated.

Dutch politician and European Union Member of Parliament Marietje Schaake was also among those who criticized Bahgat’s arrest.

A campaign was also launched on social media with the launching of a Facebook page, Free Hossam Bahgat, while the hashtags, #FreeHossamBahgat, #JournalismIsNotACrime, and #InSolidarityWithHossamBahgat circulated on Twitter.

Salah Diab

Who is He?

Salah Diab is one of the Middle East’s leading businessman and co-founder and part owner of the leading Egyptian daily newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm (AMAY). He is also the Chief Executive Officer and cofounder of the PICO Group, an Egypt-based multinational group of companies operating in Egypt’s food, agriculture, real estate, energy, engineering, and finance sectors. 

Diab’s assets were temporarily frozen on Friday following a decision by public funds prosecutor Ahmed Bahrawi over a 2011 case in which Diab was accused of obtaining large areas of state land at less than their real value. Bahrawi had told Aswat Masriya that the decision to freeze the funds was “precautionary.” The prosecution froze the assets of over a dozen others implicated in the case.

What Happened?

Diab and his son Tawfik were arrested early on Sunday on charges of possessing unlicensed firearms and ammunition after security forces stormed Diab’s house in Giza on orders from the prosecution, according to Diab’s family lawyer Farid al-Deeb. Deeb said Diab and his son’s arrest had nothing to do with the corruption probe that was launched against Diab or the freezing of his assets last week. “My sources are saying that Salah Diab and his son were arrested because of illegal possession of unlicensed weapons,” al-Deeb told AMAY.

Another one of Diab’s lawyer, Mohamed Hamouda, said the arrest unveiled “a vengeful desire to tarnish [Diab’s] reputation.”

AMAY co-founder Hisham Kassem told Mada Masr that he thought Diab’s arrest may have been caused by the newspaper’s content. AMAY Editor in Chief Mahmoud Mosallam resigned in October, and Kassem said the paper’s coverage has since become more critical of the Egyptian state.

The Charges

AMAY said its sources in the Giza Security Directorate confirmed that the businessman and his son were arrested on charges of possessing unlicensed weapons. The South Giza prosecution ordered the detention of Diab and his son for four days pending an investigation into the charges.On Tuesday, it was reported that Diab’s detention was renewed for fifteen days pending investigation. 

Local Reactions

Egypt’s business community was critical of Diab’s arrest.The Federation of Egyptian Industries issued a statement on Sunday criticizing the procedures involving the arrest and the way in which Diab was photographed in handcuffs. “These photos reflect a negative image for investment in Egypt,” the statement said. The statement also emphasized the Federation’s trust in Egypt’s judiciary and asked the Ministry of Interior to “preserve Egypt’s civilized image.” 

Chairman of the Federation of the Egypt Chambers of Commerce Ahmed al-Wakil said Diab’s arrest would have a “grave impact [on] the Egyptian economy”.

Media figure and journalist Ibrahim Eissa also criticized the arrest, saying it “confirms that Egypt has not changed” since the 2011 revolution. “The state is trying to tell you if you think yourself a media figure, a businessman, a politician, an MP or even a worthy human being, I can squash and humiliate you,” he said.  

International Reactions

Egypt’s benchmark stock index tumbled on Monday and further plunged 4.4 percent on Tuesday. According to Chairman of Egyptian brokerage firm Acumen Securities Osama Mourad, Diab and his son’s arrest spooked investor.“Definitely the arrest of a famous business men created a lot of negative sentiment in the market,”Mourad said. 

State Department Spokesperson Kirby said the State Department was following Diab’s case in Monday’s press briefing.

Esraa al-Taweel

Who is She?

Esraa al-Taweel is a twenty-three year-old freelance photographer and student. She was detained in 2014 by security forces during the dispersal of a protest marking the anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian uprising. Taweel was shot in the back, causing a debilitating spinal injury that left her legs temporarily paralyzed, confining her to a wheelchair for several weeks. Following medical treatment and physical therapy, she was eventually able to walk with crutches.

Taweel has been held for more than 155 days at the Qanater Women’s prison. She was missing for two weeks before she was reportedly seen at the prison. Taweel and two friends, Sohaib Mohamed and Amr Ali, were last seen at a Cairo restaurant in the Zamalek neighborhood.

Her detention was last renewed on November 2, 2015 for an additional forty-five days despite calls for her release by Taweel herself, her family, lawyers, and both local and international organizations for her release. Her family accused the Ministry of Interior of denying Taweel medical attention, causing her condition to worsen. They say she is at risk of becoming permanently paralyzed. The ministry denies the family’s claims.

What Happened?

On Monday, state news agency MENA reported that Taweel confessed to conspiring to assassinate an unidentified official in a suicide mission. She told the prosecution that she began working with members of the Muslim Brotherhood on a plot following the dispersal of Raba’a al-Adaweya square in August 2013. According to MENA, the plot was meant to avenge the death of Taweel’s friend Asmaa al-Beltagy, the daughter of Brotherhood leader Mohamed al-Beltagy, who was killed during the dispersal of Raba’a. Taweel also told prosecutors that a female Muslim Brotherhood member she met in the fall of 2013 proposed that she attend a wedding that the targeted official was attending with an explosive device hidden in her camera. Taweel reportedly said she initially agreed to the plan but objected to it being a suicide mission.

Taweel’s lawyer Taher Abul Nasr denied the reports, saying that his client did not confess during the hearings he attended. He added that she was charged only with joining an illegal group, in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, and of spreading false information.

In her last appearance in court on November 2, Taweel denied the charges against her and begged the court to let her return home and receive medical treatment.

The Charges

Taweel is being held on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and disseminating false information to foreign entities. Officials have insisted that Esraa’s detention is legal, however her family and friends deny all charges against her.

Government Reaction

Amid reports in July that Taweel had been detained and held without revealing her location, an Interior Ministry spokesman denied that the police would forcibly detain an individual in the manner that had been described, and added that police forces were at that time not targeting young people for arrest, regardless of their political stance.

Assistant to Interior Minister General Abu Bakr Abdel Rahim has alleged that Taweel has been receiving medical treatment, contradicting statements from both Taweel’s family and the Doctors Syndicate. “Esraa al-Taweel has been medically examined and has been receiving physiotherapy since October 20 of last year,” he said.

Local Reactions

In October, Egypt’s Doctors Syndicate published a letter directed at the Prosecutor General, Ministry of the Interior, and the National Council for Human Rights. The letter cited medical reports showing that Taweel suffered complications from the bullet wound she received during her arrest and that she needed continued physiotherapy and medical assistance to prevent her condition from further deteriorating. Taweel had previously said in a letter published by daily newspaper Shorouk that the prison doctor refused to continue her physiotherapy sessions under the pretext that her condition is permanent and therefore cannot be treated.

On November 3, popular media host Amr Adib criticized Taweel’s detention, stating that, “there are people who have committed crimes like murder, those deserve no mercy. But for a [23-year-old] girl who has a bullet wound, why detain her?” Adib went on to question the extension of her detention, saying “why extend her detention? At least make her stand a trial.” He added that Taweel had become a “symbol” of the growing number of activists and journalists that have been detained under the Sisi regime.

International Reactions

Taweel’s detention has garnered significant attention on social media, including Facebook and Twitter, with numerous hashtags trending both globally and within Egypt. The Twitter hashtag #اسراء_الطويل (Esraa El-Taweel) has served as a nexus for those following Taweel’s story, and was the top trending hashtag in Egypt on November 2, the day of Taweel’s most recent detention extension.

Amnesty International created a petition on their website calling for the authorities to release Taweel. Amnesty said in the petition that “the Egyptian prison authorities are preventing Esraa al-Taweel from getting medical treatment that could prevent her from becoming permanently disabled.” It calls for letters urging the authorities to either release Taweel, or charge her with a recognizable offense, for which she should receive a fair trial. They have also called on authorities to provide her with proper medical treatment.

Elissa Miller is a Program Assistant the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Brandan Martini is an intern at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

Image: Photo: Hossam Bahgat (US-Islamic World Forum/Flickr)