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Egypt: Prisoner release amid new crackdown

October 26, 2022

With the release of political prisoners, Egypt seeks to improve its human rights record ahead of hosting the COP27 climate conference. Analysts though caution there is little actual change on the ground.

Ziyad el-Elaimy hugs his son after more than three years in prison
Ziyad el-Elaimy was released after more than three yearsImage: Ziyad el-Elaimy

After three years and four months in prison, Ziyad el-Elaimy decided to spend the first night as a free man not at his own house, but at his family home. "He will stay with us for a little while before he moves back into his own home," el-Elaimy's mother, Ekram Yousef, told DW on Tuesday.

Since the former Egyptian member of parliament and human rights lawyer is not allowed to speak directly to international media, he published a video message in Arabic on social media upon his release. The 42-year-old says that "there are people who end up in prison just because they express an opinion that differs from opinions that people like to hear. With our united effort, we will reinstate these people's freedom and we will return them to their rightful place among the people who believe in them." 

It's a message pointing at the thousands of other political prisoners in Egypt, among them Alaa Abd El-Fattah who has been on hunger strike since April 2.

Despite the concerns over her brother's health on day 207 of his hunger strike, Sanaa Seif, Abd El-Fattah's sister, celebrated el-Elaimy's release immediately on Twitter "Ziyad, our childhood friend, is finally free."

El-Elaimy's and Abd El Fattah's cases are somewhat similar, as in both cases, the verdicts accused them of "broadcasting false news", "terrorism" and "fomenting unrest against the state" — accusations the two men have categorically denied. 

While observers also expect the release of Abd El-Fattah soon, El-Elaimy's release came via a presidential pardon by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The president had followed the suggestion for pardon by the Egyptian Pardon Committee, a governmental body which was reinstalled this April.

Egyptian pro-democracy activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah holds his son outside the general prosecutor office in Cairo
Egyptian's pro-democracy activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah has been on hunger strike since April 2Image: Mahmud Khaled/AFP via Getty Images

Since then, just over 1,000 political prisoners have been released.

However, according to various human rights organizations, the number of imprisoned political detainees still remains close to 60,000. 

"While it is wonderful and long overdue that Ziyad el-Elaimy has finally been released after over three years of unjust imprisonment, there is little indication that the ongoing amnesty program is a sign that the Egyptian government is meaningfully transitioning away from its use of repression against political opponents and critical voices," Timothy E. Kaldas, a policy fellow who specialises in Egypt's transitional politics at the Washington-based think tank Tahrir Institute for Middle Eastern Politics, told DW.

"It is also worth noting that the release of so many political prisoners is clear evidence that the president's past claims that Egypt has no political prisoners was never true," Kaldas added.

Sanaa Seif, the sister of the hunger-striking prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah, moved into a tent outside the Foreign Office in London
Sanaa Seif, the sister of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, joined him in his hunger strike outside the Foreign Office in LondonImage: Stefan Rousseau/PA/empics/picture alliance

International pressure

The timing of el-Elaimy's release coincides with multi-faceted pressure on Egypt in the run-up to the upcoming UN climate conference, in short COP27, which is set to start on November 6 in Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh.

International human rights watchdogs have been calling on Egypt to end the clampdown on its civil society.

Also, economic pressure is fuelling Egypt's motivation to brush up its international reputation.

"Global concerns about Egypt's rights violations have not only marred the preparations for COP27 but have led the US to withhold a portion of its military assistance to Egypt," Kaldas said.

According to a report published in September by the news agency Reuters, "the Biden administration has decided to withhold $130 million (€129 million) of foreign military aid to Egypt over its failure to fulfill human rights conditions."

This equals 10% of the overall sum of $1.3 billion (€1.31 bn) which are annually allocated by the US for Egypt.

Meanwhile, inflation rose to 15.3% in comparison to 8% last September according to Egypt's Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), and due to low reserves, the country is struggling to keep up with repaying international loans.

"The Egyptian government is currently under severe financial pressure amid a quickly deteriorating economic crisis, heightened by the knock-on effects of Russia's war in Ukraine on food and energy prices and a waning appetite among allies to provide unchecked financial assistance," Mai El-Sadany, a human rights lawyer and Tahrir's managing director wrote in an essay for the online magazine World Politics Review.

In turn, El-Sadany follows that "against this backdrop, analysts suggest many Egyptian officials may try to use COP27 to portray the country as a climate leader in both Africa and the broader international community, in an effort to attract foreign investment and climate finance."

Releases and restrictions

Lina Khatib, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the London-based think tank Chatham House sees the treatment of civil rights defenders as "a real test of Egypt's commitment to human rights."

For her, only if an independent civil society was allowed to operate freely, it would demonstrate seriousness on the part of the Egyptian state to improve its human rights record, she told DW.

However, latest restrictions by the Egyptian government suggest that that's not the case.

Earlier this month, the government increased restrictions on environmental groups who were planning to host events during COP27.

According to a recent report by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, "arrests and detention, NGO asset freezes and dissolutions and travel restrictions against human rights defenders have created a climate of fear for Egyptian civil society organizations to engage visibly at the COP27."

View of a COP27 sign on the road leading to the conference area in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh
While political prisoners are being released ahead of COP27, there's now a crackdown on climate activistsImage: Sayed Sheasha/REUTERS

While the Egyptian government called the report "misleading", Egyptian civil society organizations already had to cancel events at the UN-secured "blue zone", which is the area where international representatives meet for the summit.

Meanwhile, it is safe to say that human rights lawyer Ziyad el-Elaimy won't have to look far to find new cases to work on.

However, as for now, he will prioritize his health before he returns to work, his mother told DW.

"He needs to see some doctors as he has high blood pressure and some lung problems due to the long time in prison," she told DW, adding that "at least, I am full of hope that this time is over, for once and all."

Edited by Andreas Illmer

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa