First: A reading into the state of freedom of expression
The first section of the report focuses on the analysis of the political context affecting the state of freedom of expression, and highlights pressing issues through which public policy towards the freedom of expression and circulation of information could be understood. The first section starts with the consequences of the September 20th demonstrations, and the subsequent wide crackdown which extended to journalists, human rights defenders and political activists.
- September demonstrations: Massive violations of the right to freedom of demonstration, freedom of expression and the right to privacy
Dozens of citizens demonstrated in downtown Cairo in the evening of September 20th, in response to a call by the contractor Mohamed Ali to demonstrate in protest of the rule of president Sisi and to call on him to leave power. Also, demonstrations erupted at night in other cities, including Alexandria, Suez, Damietta and Mahalla. Security forces responded by arresting some demonstrators, as well as passers-by in the streets surrounding the demonstrations. They used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators, resulting in casualties among the demonstrators.
The manner in whick the security forces handled the limited demonstrations shows the continuation of the policy formulated by the current regime since 2013. The protest law was issued and the regime responded violently to the opposing protests especially that the Egyptian authorities have restricted the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, and required a prior notice. Also, despite attempts by opposition parties over the past years to comply with these restrictions that contradict international standards, the Egyptian authorities did not allow the opposition parties to demonstrate.
In addition to the suppression of demonstrations, police forces continued to arrest protesters in Suez on the evening of September 21st, police forces also arrested citizens from the streets and some activists from their homes, till the 27th of September. This period witnessed massive violations of the right to privacy, as the police forces set up checkpoints, especially in the vicinity of downtown Cairo. They stopped the pedestrians and checked their mobile phones, arresting whoever posted content that is critical to Sisi’s regime on social media.
On September 27th, the police forces closed the main streets in downtown Cairo and set up several checkpoints in several governorates such as Cairo, Giza, Alexandria and Suez. The heavy security presence has prevented citizens from gathering in the streets, and in some cases, when small gatherings occurred in Giza and Alexandria the demonstrators were quickly dispersed using tear gas, but small demonstrations erupted in Qena and Luxor in southern Egypt. Despite the limited demonstrations on September 27, the police forces continued to arrest citizens, activists and human rights defenders in the days following the September 27’s demonstrations.
- Investigations by the Supreme State Security Prosecution: Repeated accusations and imprisonment pending investigations for all demonstrators
The Supreme State Security Prosecution interrogated the citizens arrested during the September demonstrations. The majority of those arrested were included in the case 1338 Supreme State Security, which included hundreds of defendants. Despite the different circumstances of the arrest of these suspects, including their spread in various governorates, the Supreme State Security Prosecution decided to accuse them of the same charges related to the misuse of social media, participating with a terrorist group, spreading false news, and demonstrating without a permit. Not only has the state security prosecution arbitrarily accused hundreds of citizens, but its decisions were to imprison the defendants pending investigations and to renew their detention throughout the month that followed the demonstrations.
The Attorney General issued a statement concerning the arrested, in September 26, 2019, in which he acknowledged that the public prosecution interrogated no more than a thousand demonstrators. This was the first official statement that acknowledges what was monitored by human rights organizations concerning the wide crackdown that led to the arrest of hundreds of citizens. The statement by the Attorney General said: “Some of the defendants admitted their involvement in demonstrations in some areas in five governorates. Their confessions revealed different reasons that led them to demonstrate, including the poor economic conditions, while some of them said they were deceived by some pages on social media claiming to belong to some government entities; these pages called on citizens to demonstrate. According to the defendants they later discovered the invalidity of those pages. Others said they demonstrated because they oppose the current regime. Some defendants confessed that they met some unknown elements in Tahrir Square that incited them to film some scenes in the field to broadcast them via satellite channels to incite citizens to demonstrate. Other defendants confessed that some criminal elements and others aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood participated in the demonstrations”.
The General Prosecution’s statement also stated that many defendants defended themselves saying they were present in demonstrations’ locations to find out the truth after the media published conflicting reports of the demonstrations and the size of participants. Others said there were calls to celebrate the victory of Al-Ahli club in a football match, while some said they were accidentally present at the demonstrations’ sites. But despite the lack of evidence of the validity of the charges against the accused, the Supreme State Security Prosecution decided to imprison all the accused. This statement has provoked widespread criticism of the investigating authorities; hence the public prosecution later issued statements over last October, in which it announced the release of hundreds of defendants, while hundreds others are still in pre-trial detention. Public prosecution statements lacked any detailed information on the number and the names of the detainees, as well as those released.
Human rights defenders faced a fierce crackdown in conjunction with the September demonstrations; blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah, lawyer Mohamad Al-Baqer and activist Esraa Abdel Fattah were arrested. Alaa Abdel-Fattah and Al-Baqer were assaulted and tortured in prison, while Esraa Abdel Fattah was tortured in one of the headquarters of national security, after she was kidnapped from the street, and before being presented to the prosecution. The three human rights defenders accused the security authorities of torture; Esraa Abdel Fattah started a hunger strike to demand an investigation into the charges.
Before the report was released, the crackdown on human rights defenders has increased furiously; Amr Imam, the lawyer at the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), was arrested, also unidentified persons attacked the director of (ANHRI), Gamal Eid, near his office, his car was stolen, then the car of a lawyer at (ANHRI) –which Eid had borrowed- was smashed.