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PoliticsMiddle East

For dissidents, Egypt casts a long shadow in the West

Lewis Sanders IV
July 15, 2020

Under the guise of national security, Egypt's secret service has kept tabs on critics abroad in a bid to silence criticism. Experts says Western states like Germany are complicit due to security cooperation and training.

Double silhouette in a Berlin government office
Image: picture.alliance/dpa/C. Soeder

Egypt's security apparatus has a reputation abroad, and it's not a good one.

Government officials, diplomats and agents of the state routinely document the activities of those who criticize the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, according to testimonies provided to DW. They regularly exert pressure on dissidents residing in foreign countries and even try to recruit spies.

Although Egypt's intelligence services have indulged in foreign operations for decades, their activities gained a significant boost following the 2013 coup that unseated Mohammed Morsi, the country's first democratically elected president, and installed Sissi as its leader.

Berlin a refuge

Since the coup, Berlin has become a refuge for activists, writers and journalists who have been targeted by Sissi's regime. For them, it came as no surprise that the German Interior Ministry said last week that it had caught an alleged spy in Chancellor Angela Merkel's press office. According to the ministry, an Egyptian-born German citizen working at the press office is believed to have operated as an agent for Egypt's secret service. A report detailing the case said "there are indications that Egyptian services are trying to recruit Egyptians living in Germany for intelligence purposes."

"With more Egyptian dissidents and critics of the Sissi regime arriving in Europe since the military coup, it seems that the Egyptian government has stepped up their surveillance and disinformation efforts in order to counter these critical voices from abroad," said Ilyas Saliba, researcher on human rights and democracy at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin.

'The game changed'

On the other side of the Atlantic, the long shadow of Egypt's security apparatus has also left its mark. Last year, Egyptian Immigration Minister Nabila Makram made clear how the government would like to treat dissidents during a private event in the Canadian city Toronto.

"Anyone who says something about our country — what happens to them?" Makram said, gesturing towards her neck. "We cut."

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi addressing a conference
Berlin has become a refuge for activists, writers and journalists who have been targeted by Sissi's regimeImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Macdougall

For critics, the message was unmistakably clear: Those who refuse to fall in line would meet the same fate as Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi, who was brutally killed in October 2018 by a team of Saudi agents after entering the Saudi consulate services in Istanbul.

"It was a message to dissidents like myself that the game had changed. No longer were dissidents living abroad safe," said Amr Khalifa, an Egyptian journalist and political analyst residing in the US. "It has been read as a carte blanche by autocracies like Sissi's, especially after the incredibly docile reaction of the Trump administration."

Life under surveillance

Khalifa cited at least three instances when Egyptian agents had actively involved themselves in his life, including a dinner five years ago in which an agent had pursued him "under the guise of friendship."

"After a very pleasant evening, he leaned in to give an Egyptian goodbye kiss on the cheek. He said something I'll never forget," Khalifa said. "Abdel Fattah says, 'Swim gently so you don't sink.'"

Another instance included a tip that embassy personnel were in attendance at a New York City lecture Khalifa was giving with renowned Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy on Italian student Giulio Regeni, who was tortured to death in Egypt while allegedly in police custody. Under national security laws, a recording on that topic could land a person in jail, Khalifa said.

Read moreEgypt's prisons not fit for humans

The other involved a visitation at a cafe Khalifa frequents, only minutes away from where the Egyptian dissident resides. "For there to be a targeted scenario in which a person is following you, that means they know where my home is."

Responsibility to protect

Ongoing security cooperation between Western countries and Egypt has led to little fallout over the targeting of government critics. Instead, Trump has called Sissi his "favorite dictator," while Germany approved arms transfers valued at €290 million ($330 million) earlier this year.

Germany's Interior Ministry has even gone as far as providing counterterrorism training for some of Egypt's most notorious security bodies. Given that counterterrorism measures are often used to silence critics, GPPi's Saliba said Western governments have a responsibility to support those targeted by the regime.

"Support the remaining independent Egyptian civil society and media organizations and publicly voice support for wrongfully criminalized individuals and organizations in Egypt," Saliba said.

"Halt the security cooperation with Egyptian security forces guilty of systematic human rights abuses, such as torture and wrongful imprisonments, and adhere to the European Parliament's resolutions to cease weapons exports to Egypt."

Egypt in the age of el-Sissi

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