August 30, 2017 at 4:17 PM
CAIRO — Two months after Sabry Mohammed Said vanished, his body turned up at the morgue. He had been shot three times and severely beaten, his family said.
The 46-year-old accountant and father of five was a rank-and-file member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement. Egyptian authorities claimed he was also a terrorist who was killed in a June gun battle with police.
But Said's daughter Sara Sabry said he hadn't been politically active in three years and had never been arrested. When relatives went to get a police report, the precinct had no record of the incident.
Now, Sabry is convinced that her father died in the custody of Egypt's notorious state security forces.
"They killed him because he opposed the government," said Sabry, her face somber and framed by a lime-green headscarf. "Anyone in the opposition is at risk of having this happen to him these days."
Said's death is part of a spike in extrajudicial killings and other forms of state abuses that have been committed in recent months under President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, according to activists, victims and their families. They date the dramatic rise to President Trump's visit to the Middle East in May, in which he urged Arab leaders to take a tougher stance against Islamist extremists and made clear that human rights would not be a high priority for his administration in its dealings with regional allies.
State security forces have arrested dozens of opposition party members. More than 100 websites deemed critical of Sissi's government have been blocked. Human rights lawyers and activists have been jailed for staging protests, and their assets have been frozen. The judiciary is being stacked with pro-Sissi appointees, lawyers and judges say.
In July alone, there were 61 reported extrajudicial killings, more than double the total over the previous six months, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedom.
"The arrest campaigns have become fiercer, and the numbers of people and groups being targeted are scary," said Asmaa Naem, 27, a human rights lawyer in the northern city of Alexandria. "This is reaching even apolitical people, not just those who are politically active."
The Egyptian government did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Previous U.S. administrations denounced Egypt's rulers for abuses and pressed for democratic reforms, often using the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid Egypt receives annually — second only to Israel — as leverage. President Barack Obama froze part of that aid for two years after Egypt's military, then led by Sissi, overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi.
But Trump has embraced Sissi, even inviting him to the White House, something Obama never did. Trump's trip to Saudi Arabia was widely seen as solidifying a new relationship focused on combating terrorism.
"The visit has emboldened the Arab rulers that whatever violations they commit against their people are going to be accepted by the Trump administration," said Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. "This gave Sissi the green light to increase the repression. He's been empowered."
Early last week, the United States notified Egypt that it would slash or delay more than $290 million in military and economic aid, partly in response to a law that undermines nongovernmental organizations. "We remain concerned about Egypt's lack of progress in key areas, including human rights and the new NGO law," said a State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity as per diplomatic protocol.
The cuts surprised many observers and angered the Sissi government. But last Thursday, Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, met with Sissi in Cairo. Sissi's office said that Trump phoned to stress "the strength of the friendship between both countries" and that their conversation "showed Trump's keenness to step over any obstacles facing this friendship." A U.S. official confirmed the call.
The State Department official said the administration "will continue to support Egypt in defeating extremists and terrorism." Egypt should eventually get $195 million of the restricted aid slated to fight internal security threats and terrorism, U.S. officials said.
In speeches, Sissi has declared war against Islamist extremist groups, including an Islamic State affiliate based in the northern Sinai and its counterparts in neighboring war-divided Libya.
But under the guise of fighting terrorism, security forces are also cracking down on moderate Islamists and secular opponents, as well as independent media. Since taking office in 2014, Sissi has jailed thousands of members of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
With a presidential election scheduled for next year, Sissi is facing mounting criticism over rising prices and reduced government subsidies. Critics say he's clamping down on dissent to prevent a repeat of the revolts that ousted President Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring uprising six years ago.
'They killed him'
Said was visiting Alexandria when he vanished. A friend traveled there to find him, and he, too, disappeared. Sabry said her family's Cairo apartment was raided by state security agents. The family filed a case with the government and found a human rights lawyer.
For the next month, she and her family searched police stations and prisons for her father. Then, in late June, the Interior Ministry said in a statement on its Facebook page that Said had been killed in a clash with police.
"I dropped my phone and screamed: 'They killed him. They killed him,' " Sabry said.
Two days later, the ministry issued another statement: Said's friend had also been killed in a gun battle with police, it said.
Four days after Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia, the website of an independent Egyptian newspaper, Mada Masr, was shut down. Lina Attalah, the paper's top editor, initially thought it was a problem with the Internet provider. "Egypt was never a country that used to block websites," Attalah said. "It was never like China or Syria."
That was the start of a government campaign to censor the Internet. By early August, 133 websites had been blocked, including privately owned media, NGOs and human rights groups, activists say.
Egypt has also blocked several websites based in Qatar, including the Al Jazeera news network, as part of a Saudi-led alliance that has severed ties with the tiny nation. The countries accuse Qatar of backing terrorism, which it has denied.
Mada Masr is now publishing articles via Facebook and Twitter. But even that is under threat: A proposed law, also in the name of fighting terrorism, seeks to restrict the public's access to social media.
"Before the revolution, there was little margin in which we could operate as independent journalists or human rights defenders or women's rights activists," Attalah said. "Right now, this margin is becoming tighter like no other time."
Egypt's parliament passed the NGO law last year, but it was shelved following international condemnation. Eight days after Trump's visit to the region, the government ratified a similar law that makes it more difficult for the groups to raise money and prohibits them from engaging in political activities that "harm national security." Violators could face prison sentences of up to five years.
"It means the death of civil society," said Nour Khalil, an Egyptian human rights activist.
Under Sissi, thousands of people have vanished into the state's security apparatus, but until recently, most were eventually found at police stations, often after being tortured and facing charges. "But now our biggest hope is to find that person alive," said Khalil, a slim, thin-bearded 24-year-old who has been detained and imprisoned, and who tracks "forced disappearances."
'Sending a message'
Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer and opposition politician, was detained for "violating public morals" the day after Trump left Saudi Arabia.
The charges stemmed from a January photo showing Ali celebrating outside a court after a government decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia was reversed.
In the photo, government prosecutors allege Ali was flashing the middle finger.
But pro-democracy activists saw a different motive for the charges, which came four months after the incident. Ali is the founder of the Bread and Freedom Party and recently announced his intention to run for president. If convicted, he faces a year in prison and a fine.
And he will be legally barred from running for president.
"They are sending a message to intimidate society," Ali said.
Dozens from several political parties were arrested in May and June in late-night sweeps, including 30 members of the Bread and Freedom Party. Five are still in jail, he said.
"Sissi is using terrorism as an excuse to do whatever he wants," he said. "Now, he's trying to control the political scene in the name of fighting terrorism."
The members are being held on what Amnesty International described as "a series of vaguely worded counterterrorism-related charges." If convicted, they could be sent to prison for five to 25 years.
"There used to be harassment against us," said Naem, the lawyer in Alexandria, who is also a Bread and Freedom Party member. "Now, it's much more violent and apparent."
In mid-June, Naem and five other lawyers were arrested for protesting parliament's decision to hand over the two islands to Saudi Arabia despite the court's ruling against the transfer. They were charged with demonstrating without permission and fined $2,700 each. One lawyer was jailed.
A law passed in March allows Sissi to appoint judges, and he recently replaced two senior justices with pro-government ones, activists said. One of the ousted judges, Yehya al-Dakroury, issued the first ruling last year that nullified the island handover.
"I no longer have trust in the judicial system," said Eid, the human rights lawyer.
Nor does he have any faith that Washington's sanctions will pressure Sissi to respect basic freedoms or improve human rights, he said.
Increasingly, Eid's world is closing in on him. He has been banned from traveling outside the country, and his assets have been frozen. And this month, his NGO's website was shut down.
Heba Farouk Mahfouz contributed to this report.