By Muhammad abd al-Salam
This January, Egyptian authorities prevented the academics Atef Botros and Amel Grami from entering Egypt on the basis that they “represented a danger to national security”, according to security sources at Cairo Airport. This raises a number of questions concerning freedom of movement and the right of individuals with non-Egyptian citizenship, but who are of Egyptian origin, to enter Egypt as well as more broadly about the environment of freedom of expression in Egypt and the attitude of the Egyptian authorities towards the opinions of non-Egyptian academics and researchers.
This article discusses the most notable cases in which non-Egyptian researchers and academics have been prevented from entering Egypt and aims to shed light on their common features and clarify how they violate international agreements. It also presents AFTE’s recommendations to the Egyptian government regarding the steps necessary to create an environment that promotes freedom of expression in Egypt guaranteeing the participation of specialist academics and researchers and the exchange of ideas and knowledge which is in turn beneficial to Egypt.
Banned from entry: Five cases
Atef Botros al-Attar
Atef Botros al-Attar, an Egyptian academic with German citizenship, was subjected to detention in Cairo Airport upon his arrival in Egypt on 29 January 2016. Representatives of state security informed officials at the German embassy that al-Attar had been given a lifetime ban from entering Egypt and he was deported to Germany the following morning.
The Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Yaum cited a Cairo Airport security source saying that “Cairo Airport is an executive body. It is not possible to ban anyone from entering the country without a court order or a request from the security forces or judiciary. National security forces issued a command banning Dr Atef Botros al-Attar from entering the country”.
During a phone conversation with AFTE, al-Attar said that he was detained in Cairo airport for over 24 hours and that he was interrogated by the national security service. He was stopped and required to purchase a visa for the first time in his life before being given an entry stamp. He was then interrogated for 7 hours and put under psychological pressure to give the names of some of his friends and relatives as well as details about their activities in the Germany-based Mayadin al-Tahrir Association, of which he is a founder. After they had obtained the information they wanted, security forces informed him that he was prohibited from entering Egypt and began to discuss returning him to Germany.
At that point al-Attar revealed that he had previously been unlawfully detained in Alexandria in March 2015 for 10 hours and interrogated in a secret building belonging to one of the security organs as well as subsequently in Bab Sharq police station with the intention of keeping him away from the opposition.
Al-Attar is known to split his time between Egypt and Germany in terms of both his academic work at the University of Marburg as well as his involvement in establishing the Mayadin al-Tahrir Association which organises cultural events for Egyptians in Germany. He is also known for his opposition to the human rights violations that continue to take place in Egypt.
The Egyptian authorities prevented the Tunisian academic Amel Grami from entering Egypt on 3 January 2015, after detaining her in Cairo Airport for 16 hours and questioning her about the reasons for her visit to the country. She was deported to Tunisia on the morning of the following day, 4 January 2015, from Cairo Airport after airport security forces informed her that the reason for her being barred from entering Egypt was that she “posed a threat to national security and would not be permitted to enter the country again”, according to statements made by Grami in a television interview.
Grami, an academic at Manouba university in Tunisia, had been invited by the Alexandria Library to participate in a conference on the topic of extremism and terrorism. Attempts were made by a representative from the library as well as by the Tunisian Foreign Ministry and embassy in Cairo to convince the security forces to allow Grami to enter Egypt, however they insisted on her deportation to Tunisia after she had been detained in the airport and questioned about the reasons for her visit to Egypt and the title of the talk that she was going to give at the conference.
In the wake of this incident the Tunisian Writers Union described Qurami’s detention and prevention from entering Egypt as an “indignity”, denouncing the attitude of the Egyptian state towards Arab writers and thinkers. Grami is one of the most prominent writers for the Egyptian newspaper Shorouk, for which she has written articles covering political and social issues in Tunisia since the end of 2012.
The American researcher Michelle Dunne was prevented from entering Egypt and deported to the country from which she had travelled, Germany, on 13 December 2014. Security forces at Cairo Airport informed Dunne that she was “banned from entering Egypt”, according to statements she made in a television interview. Dunne, a researcher at the Carnegie Centre for World Peace, had been invited by the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs to attend a conference organised by the council on Egypt’s relationship with the world in the light of political developments in the Arab world.
The front page of al-Ahram newspaper cited a source in the security forces stating that Dunne was on a “list of people banned from entering Egypt produced by the Agency for National Security”. The vice-president of the council for the administration for the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs, Muhammed Ibrahim Shakir, attributed the ban on Dunne entering Egypt to a decision by the security agencies that assess the risk of this type of situation.
Dunne presented criticism and her thoughts on the performance of the current Egyptian regime in her writing with regard to a number of areas such as counter-terrorism, human rights and political reform.
Kenneth Roth and Sarah Leah Whitson
Cairo Airport security prevented the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, and the executive director for the Middle East and North Africa, Sarah Leah Whitson, from entering Egypt on 10 August 2014 after detaining them in Cairo Airport for 12 hours. Egyptian newspaper Mada Masr cited a source saying that Roth and Whitson were “subjected to interrogation lasting several hours at Cairo Airport before being deported”.
They had come to Cairo in order to present a report produced by the organisation on “mass killings in Egypt in July and August 2013” and to discuss the report with a group of diplomats and journalists in Cairo.
This was the first time that the Egyptian authorities had prevented representatives of Human Rights Watch from entering Egypt, including during the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak.
These cases represent prominent examples of the way in which the Egyptian Security forces treat academics with non-Egyptian citizenship. It is possible to draw out some general observations from these events in order to specify their common features. They are:
(1) Prior knowledge of the activities and opinions of the researchers: statements from the security forces in each case make it clear that there is a “blacklist of individuals banned from entering Egypt”. In the case of Michelle Dunne, Muhammad Ibrahim Shakir, vice president of the administrative council of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, alluded to the idea that her invitation to attend a conference organised by the council was an attempt to change “her negative attitudes and opinions towards the current regime”. In the case of Atef Botros al-Attar, the security forces had previously detained him in March 2015 and questioned him on his activities and opinions and attitude towards the current regime in Egypt.
(2) Invitations from Egyptian institutions: in the cases of Michelle Dunne and Amel Grami, Egyptian institutions had invited them to participate in conferences. In both cases, the institutions would not in any way be considered as connected with the opposition: the Alexandria library is legally affiliated with the presidency and had invited Grami to attend a conference on fighting terrorism and extremism; the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs is an independent civil society organisation that works on development and discussion of Egypt’s foreign policy and had officially invited Michelle Dunne.
(3) Obtaining a visa and the possibility of obtaining a visa at the airport: Amel Grami had a visa to enter Egypt which she had previously used and foreign citizens are able to obtain visas from Cairo Airport in order to visit Egypt, as happened in the cases of Dunne, Roth and Whitson. Al-Attar also had the right to enter the country with a visa obtained in the airport in addition to the fact that he is of “Egyptian origin”. This highlights the discrimination faced by researchers who hold opinions contrary to those of the Egyptian authorities. If we consider similar cases where people have been allowed to enter Egypt normally, a number of foreign researchers were able to participate in the conference held at the Alexandria Library, with Amel Grami being the exception. Botros on the other hand was accustomed to visiting Egypt without being stopped or asked to obtain a visa from the airport prior to his deportation. American citizens enjoy the freedom to enter Egypt with a visa from Cairo Airport.
(4) Detention, interrogation and psychological intimidation: detention and questioning by the security services in Cairo Airport were common to all five cases. Of these, Botros’ case is perhaps the most dangerous because he is of Egyptian origin and was questioned about his relatives and friends in a manner clearly intended to send a threatening message about their safety. Grami, meanwhile, was questioned about the title of the talk that she was to give at the Alexandria Library conference and the security forces did not inform her that it had already been decided that she would be denied entry and deported until after several hours of detention and interrogation. Questioning went far beyond confirming her identity, the legitimacy of her invitation and the purpose of her visit.
It can be said that the security forces have restricted the entrance of academics and researchers on the basis of an evaluation of their attitudes and opinions and are, ultimately, attempting to restrict freedom of expression since Grami and Dunne were travelling to participate in conferences in Egypt, Roth and Whitson had been invited to speak to journalists and diplomats at a conference, and al-Attar was banned from entering Egypt due to opinions he had expressed about the policies of the current regime.
Impact on freedom of movement and freedom of expression
In al-Attar’s case, paragraph 4 of article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country”. Furthermore, the UN Committee on Civil and Political Rights explains in general comment 27 that the meaning of the expression “their country” is broader than “country of citizenship” and is not limited to citizenship in the strict sense of the term, that is to say citizenship gained through birth or later acquired. It also includes any person that cannot be considered merely an alien, on account of their special link with a particular country or their entitlement to it.
The committee emphasised “arbitrariness” to stress the necessity that any intervention, even if sanctioned by law, be in agreement with the provisions of the covenant and its goals. The committee considers that there are only rarely conditions – if ever – that can be considered reasonable grounds for banning a person from entering their own country, and that it is necessary for states to not arbitrarily prevent people from returning to their country – whether by rescinding their citizenship or expelling them from the country.
Therefore, banning Atef Botros al-Attar from entering his country, Egypt, constitutes a violation of international agreements ratified by Egypt, especially since he has a stamp in his passport stating that he is “of Egyptian origin” which permits him to enter Egypt without obtaining a visa in advance.
In the case of the Amel Grami, who obtained a visa before entering Egypt, security forces in Egypt broke the law, since the Egyptian Embassy had granted Grami an entry visa, establishing her position in law. The security forces did not hesitate in breaching this legal position and preventing her from entering Egypt despite the fact that she had all of the necessary documentation.
If international agreements, from the outset, grant states the power to decide who is permitted to enter their territory, this is connected with national security considerations. They cannot be used to justify these cases, however, since these bans targeted researchers and academics that had come to Egypt in order to express their opinions and discuss issues of importance to Egyptian society.
Interfering in the private affairs of researchers during the period of their detention constitutes a breach of international agreements since general comment 15 by the Committee for Civil and Political Rights stipulates that “[aliens] should not be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with their privacy, family, home or correspondence”. Al-Attar mentioned in his testimony to AFTE that he “was questioned by security officials in Cairo Airport about his laptop computer and phone, so that they could be confiscated, but he did not carry either of these devices”. The security forces had already decided not to permit the researchers to enter Egypt and so it is strange that they would insist on illegally questioning and interrogating them.
The Egyptian security forces are banning researchers and academics from entering Egypt with the goal of influencing the climate of freedom of expression and to send a message to those with other nationalities that they must ensure that they do not express opinions that differ from those of the Egyptian regime when outside Egypt. If they fail to do this, they will be prevented from entering Egypt, communicating with Egyptian society and expressing opinions which advocate for human rights and political reform. This represents a great danger to Egyptians abroad who hold other nationalities but who wish to visit their country and relatives from time to time. These arbitrary restrictions will have an impact on the interest and participation of Egyptians abroad in the issues and affairs of their country.
Foreigners, when resident in any state, enjoy the right to thought, sentiment and religion, and the right to express their opinions, according to general comment 15 on the position of aliens according to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Egyptian authorities intend, by means of preventing researchers and academics from entering the country, to restrict this right and impose limits on freedom of expression.
Furthermore, these decisions to ban people from entering Egypt have an impact on the work of Egyptian research associations and organisations and their freedom to invite foreign guests to attend events. The effect also extends to the possibility of making foreign researchers and academics reluctant to participate in research activities in Egypt or order to avoid such treatment which does not accord with their human rights.
AFTE presents the following recommendations to the Egyptian government:
- The Egyptian government must respect the right of all researchers and academics of Egyptian origin to enter and visit Egypt, to express their opinions with complete freedom in accordance with international agreements to which Egypt is a signatory.
- The Egyptian government must not restrict Egyptian institutions from hosting researchers and academics, and must not exert pressure on these institutions to discourage them from inviting thinkers and academics that hold beliefs critical of the policies of the current regime.
- The Egyptian government must abide by the legal procedures that grant entry visas to Egypt and must stop breaching these procedures with regard to certain foreign citizens in order to prevent them from expressing their opinions in Egypt.
- The Egyptian government must clearly declare the legal basis for preventing researchers and academics from entering Egypt and the standards for evaluating risks to “national security”