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In Egypt, fearing the worst

Naomi Conrad, Cairo June 23, 2015

The Egyptian authorities are increasingly cracking down on activists and students. Hundreds have been detained in recent months and dozens disappeared. Naomi Conrad reports from Cairo.

Policeman stands guard outside the police academy (Mahmoud Khaled/AFP)
Image: MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images

When Esraa disappeared without a trace, Duaa Mahfouz El-Taweel said she immediately knew what to do: The next day, she ripped off all the photos decorating her elder sister's bedroom walls. Three weeks later, Duaa, a softly-spoken 22 year-old student, reached for her mobile phone and scrolled through her pictures. She pointed to a grainy, slightly skewed shot showing several colorful collages of her sister smiling into the camera, laughing and hugging friends. Today, only a few shreds of blue-tack remain stuck to the walls.

Sitting on her sister's bed in a small flat in a lower class neighborhood in Cairo, the many cuddly toys Esraa loved so much lined up neatly beside her, Duaa shrugged. "Everyone knows you have to do that."

It was, she said, the normal thing to do once a relative or friend went missing: "We try to hide as much stuff as possible that tells you what kind of a person this really is." Otherwise, she added matter-of-factly, the intelligence services might decide to abduct anyone else shown in the photos. Three of her close friends and about a dozen of her acquaintances had been detained in recent months and she was taking no risks.

Disappearance and detention "systematic tool"

In Egypt today, abductions and disappearances are becoming common place, human rights activists say. Leaning on a slightly grimy desk in his office in Garden City, a leafy neighborhood in central Cairo, Mukhtar Muneer explained, his voice sounding weary, that they had become the regime's a "systematic tool", employed by the government of former career army officer turned President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to intimidate any who might oppose it.

Esraa's sisters and her mother (photo: Naomi Conrad/DW)
Esraa's family is afraid for her safetyImage: DW/N. Conrad

"The period we're living through is just like the period Argentina lived", he said, referring to the former junta's practice of "disappearing" activists during the country's military rule. The 24-year old lawyer, dapper in a stylish brown suite and checkered shirt, a cigarette in his hand, sighed: He was convinced, he said, that the regime had compiled a blacklist of activists, including those active in the 2011 revolution, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, even independent-thinking journalists. It was clear, he said, in "the way they arrest and detain people, especially the very well-known political figures. That shows you that they're working according to a strategy."

The point, Muneer, who works for the human rights association AFTE (Association for Freedom and Thought) said, was to intimidate people and ensure that they stayed away from any kind of political activism. Most of the students and activists, he said, were detained on fabricated charges, often of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood of former President Mohamed Morsi, which the current regime recently designated a terrorist organization.

Was anyone safe? He shrugged: "Yes. Those who are already dead."

Hundreds detained

It is unclear how many activists and students have been arrested in recent months. According to figures compiled by the Egyptian NGO Freedom for the Brave, at least 600 students have been detained since last October and some 163 people have disappeared since early May of this year, compared to some 260 who have disappeared since August 2013. While some have been released, many still languish in prison. This comes at a time when hundreds of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have been sentenced to death in mass trials in recent months.

DW was unable to independently verify these numbers, given that there are no official government figures. In an interview with AFP last week, an official from the interior ministry was quoted as dismissing allegations of state-sponsored disappearances as "baseless and false".

But other human rights activists DW interviewed agree that they are on the rise and that activists are increasingly picked up from their homes in the middle of the night. Some point to the two-year anniversary of former President Morsi's deposal in early July, which could spark anti-regime protests, others to a general climate of impunity. They all agree that detainees, many arrested under fabricated charges, stand little chance of a fair trial in Egypt's notoriously corrupt legal system.

Mukhtar Muneer (photo: Naomi Conrad/DW)
Muneer: "Like Argentina during the junta"Image: DW/N. Conrad

Mother: "I never imagined I would see her in prison"

Esraa's lawyer, Halem Henish, whom DW met in a cluttered office near Tahrir Square frequented by a motley group of anti-regime activists, was convinced that his client only reappeared 17 days after her disappearance, because her family mounted a successful social media campaign, which was picked up by many media outlets. The media attention, Henish said matter-of-factly, probably also prevented her from being tortured and mistreated in jail.

Others are less fortunate: It took a month to find Ahmed Ghonim, a student of Arabic and religion at Cairo University who was picked up by security forces in early May, according to his father Mustafa whom DW reached by phone. Ahmed, whose younger brother was also abducted this year, is likely to stand trial in a military court on charges of espionage and being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ahmad, his father conceded, had acted as spokesman for the Anti-Coup Alliance, an outlawed coalition of various Islamist parties formed after the deposal of Morsi. Ahmad was taken, his father said, "because he was against those in power."

It's still unclear why Esraa was picked off the street by police in early June. Her family described the 23-year old as a warm-hearted, bubbly free-lance photographer who dreamed of traveling around Europe. By all accounts she had given up on political activism after she was shot and badly injured while covering protests in January of 2014.

Esraa's family emphatically denied that she was ever a member or even supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, but concede that some of her friends may be sympathizers.

Sitting on her daughter's bed, her mother Hanaa shook her head in disbelief: "I never ever imagined that I would see her in prison one day. I never thought she would wear white other than on her wedding day", she said, referring to the uniform of Egypt's prisoners. But, she added, she wouldn't give up until her daughter had been released.

Beside her, her younger daughter Duaa piped up: "Or until all of us have been arrested."