Egypt: arrest of author and activists disregards health and rights

Egypt’s detention and arrest of several activists – including prominent Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif – demonstrates that the Egyptian government is more concerned with its reputation than the rights of its citizens, including their freedom of expression and right to information, PEN International said today in a joint statement alongside PEN America and English PEN. Soueif and several others were arrested during a protest calling for the release of detainees in order to curb the spread of coronavirus in Egyptian prisons.

On March 18, 2020, Ahdaf Soueif protested in front of the Cabinet of Egypt, alongside academic Rabab al-Mahdi, Soueif’s sister and academic Leila Soueif, and her niece, activist Mona Soueif. Mona Soueif live streamed the protest on Facebook, recording a confrontation with police officers who reportedly asked them to stop and “discuss the matter” at a police station. Their phones were then apparently confiscated and turned off. According to human rights lawyer Khaled Ali, the group was detained at Qasr el-Nil police station in central Cairo. Later, according to one family member, the four were transferred out of the station in a police vehicle, and are now facing charges of illegal assembly, unlawful protest, and blocking traffic.

The arrest of Ahdaf Soueif and her family is an egregious attack on free expression and shows the Egyptian government’s reflexive response to the coronavirus pandemic is to silence dissident voices to protect the state’s national image, disregarding both public health and fundamental rights,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “Ahdaf Soueif and her family have every right to protest government policies that put countless individuals at risk. Cairo authorities should release these activists, immediately. While the world focuses on the spread of COVID-19, Egypt’s government is bullying foreign reporters and arresting human rights defenders who protest. Clearly, they are hoping their thuggish behaviour will go unnoticed during this fearful time; it hasn’t. We call on the international community to push back against Egypt’s efforts to suppress freedom of expression under the cover of the coronavirus threat.”

Prison visits in Egypt have been suspended for ten days in response to the pandemic, prompting worry from families of detainees. Soueif’s own nephew, blogger and activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who previously served six years in prison for violating Egypt’s protest law, has been detained since September.

Freedom of expression in Egypt has deteriorated dramatically over the past seven years under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rule. Since the coronavirus outbreak, the right to protest and press freedom are especially at risk. On Monday, Egypt revoked the license of a correspondent for The Guardian and threatened to revoke the paper’s permit to operate in the country, after the outlet published a report suggesting that the number of cases in Egypt is higher than reported. The government also released a statement accusing The New York Times’s Cairo bureau chief Declan Walsh of “professional violations,” following tweets in which he implied that the reported number of COVID-19 cases in Egypt is an underestimate.

Egypt’s government should rise to the role it is expected to play as a government and immediately release Ahdaf Soueif and others, who were peacefully calling for the release of prisoners in jail, to prevent their exposure to #coronavirus. Jailing writers who speak truth to power is an old authoritarian trick; Egypt must walk back from that path,” said Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.