Egyptian authorities arrested three human rights advocates this week in apparent retaliation for a meeting with senior Western diplomats — in an "unprecedented escalation," according to Egyptian and international rights groups.
"This is the first time we are facing arrest because we have talked to foreign diplomats," a civil rights lawyer in Egypt, who did not want to be named for security reasons, told DW. "Egyptian people always talk with European delegations, the US and British embassies, on various subjects as well as human rights, but this has not happened before."
The latest arrest came Thursday evening, when Gasser Abdel Razek, the director of one of Egypt's most prominent civil rights bodies, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), became the third senior member of his organization detained this week.
Human Rights Watch researcher Amr Magdi said on Twitter that the campaign of arrests was a "spit in the face of the foreign diplomats who met with the EIPR."
On Sunday, authorities arrested Mohamed Basheer, the administration manager of the organization. The EIPR released a statement Monday saying security forces questioned Basheer on the group's work and a meeting it held with 13 mainly European diplomats on November 3, where members discussed human rights in Egypt.
Abdel Razek told local media before his arrest that Basheer's detention was a direct response to that meeting, which included representatives from Canada, Germany, the UK and France, seen as important allies to Egypt.
On Wednesday, authorities arrested Karim Ennarah, the director of criminal justice at the EIPR, and took him to an unknown location before he faced prosecutors in Cairo on Thursday.
The EIPR's most recent report was on the subject of criminal justice, also published on November 3. It found an alarming rise in the use of the death penalty in the country, including 53 executions in October, where the carrying out of such sentences is often not made public.
Accused of undermining the state
The arrests come against the backdrop of a sustained crackdown on all forms of dissent and criticism of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi's government, with many facing charges relating to what authorities see as attempts to destabilize the state.
Basheer is accused of "joining a terrorist organization" and spreading "false news" that "undermines public security," and is being held in a 15-day pre-trial detention. The EIPR said the prosecution has not produced any evidence.
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Moments before Ennarah's arrest, media close to state security published reports claiming the EIPR aimed to "overthrow the Egyptian state."
"They hold dozens of conferences and meetings with decision-making circles in America and Europe, with the aim of tarnishing the reputation of the Egyptian state," online outlet "Youm7" quoted one researcher as saying.
Stephan Roll, the head of research at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs' Middle East division, told DW that for the Egyptian side, the meeting with Western diplomats was also an escalation, given it had made clear it sees organizations such as EIPR as "absolutely harmful."
"The arrests hoped to signal to Western embassies that they should even stop communicating with independent NGOs," Roll said.
'Direct challenge' met with 'deep concern'
Although Western and Egyptian officials traded barbs following the arrests, experts say that years of European and US tolerance of rights abuses, while maintaining trade and military relations with Egypt, have produced a situation where Egypt expects little real pushback.
France, the UK and US have expressed their "deep concern" over the arrests in recent days, while Egypt's foreign ministry responded Wednesday rejecting France's "interference in an Egyptian internal affairs."
"I would like to think that the Europeans will take a tough line on this because it seems to be in some ways a direct challenge to them," Anthony Dworkin, a senior fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations, told DW.
"But this comes against a background where European countries feel they need to do business with Egypt and that it's very difficult for them to really have any impact on the human rights situation in the country."
Back channel pressure and clear warnings of consequences have worked to overturn particular detentions in the past, Dworkin said. While such pressure may have worked in some high-profile cases, there are some 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt, according to Human Rights Watch.
Diplomats may now also have to adjust how they engage with Egyptian civil society and the regime, Dworkin said.
Escalation comes as little surprise
Egypt is also anticipating a changing of the guard in the US, Egyptian political scientist Taqadum al-Khatib told DW.
After US President-elect Joe Biden promised "no more blank checks for Trump's 'favorite dictator'" — the second biggest recipient of US military aid — el-Sissi also wants to signal he will not bend on political freedoms, fearing a repeat of the 2011 revolution, al-Khatib said.
The arrests are a "strong message to European ambassadors that they will not be able to practice any potential pressure over the regime under Biden's presidency," al-Khatib said. "I think the Egyptian regime will close the EIPR."
The US and Europe have been far too cautious in denouncing human rights violations and linking cooperation with demands, Stephan Roll said.
"We do exactly the opposite: at every opportunity, we even boost the standing of the el-Sissi administration," Roll said. "So, we should not be surprised if the Egyptians escalate the situation further and further."