The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Egypt arrested its leaders, but a leading human rights group remains defiant

Investigative journalist Hossam Baghat, center, leaves a courtroom at the Cairo Criminal Court after the court postponed a decision on whether to implement an order to freeze his assets over allegations of illegal foreign funding, in Cairo, Egypt, March 24, 2016. (Mohamed Elraai/AP)

CAIRO — At the start of this week, Egyptian security agents arrested the office manager of one of the country's leading human rights groups. By midweek, agents arrested the group's director of criminal justice. And Thursday night, they arrested its executive director.

But the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights remained defiant Friday as Hossam Bahgat, the group’s founder and a prominent investigative journalist, announced he would again helm the organization.

“Time to rejoin its brave and talented staff in the face of this full on war,” Bahgat wrote in a tweet. He is already subject to a government-imposed travel ban and asset freeze.

The targeting of the EIPR this week underscored the extent to which the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is willing to go to silence its critics. The arrests, though, left observers wondering about the government’s motivations.

Since the beginning of the month, the government has released hundreds of political prisoners, including five relatives of Mohamed Soltan, an outspoken Egyptian American activist. Some observers speculated that Sissi was trying to curry favor with the incoming Biden administration.

“It’s difficult to understand the logic or direction of events. First the Sissi government releases five relatives of an Egyptian American activist they had been holding for months as well as several hundred other prisoners, and then they go after one of the most prominent human rights organizations in the country,” said Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Perhaps Sissi wanted to quash any hope for better conditions on the part of Egyptian civil society, and perhaps he wanted to send a signal to the incoming Biden administration that pressure on human rights issues would meet with stiff resistance,” she said.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Hafez said in a statement that the EIPR was being investigated for violating the country’s laws but did not provide specifics. Pro-government media this week accused the EIPR and other human rights groups of treason and tarnishing the nation’s image.

The targeting of the EIPR, one of the handful of independent human rights groups operating in Egypt, is the latest crackdown on nongovernmental organizations. Scores of human rights defenders have been sentenced to prison, banned from travel or had their assets frozen for allegedly operating unlawfully or illegally receiving foreign funding.

The latest arrests came after members of the EIPR staff met with a group of Western ambassadors in Cairo early this month. They included envoys from Germany, France, Italy, Spain and other European Union countries, as well as diplomats from Canada and Great Britain, the EIPR said in a statement. The meeting, it added, focused on “ways of supporting the enhancement of human rights in Egypt and globally.”

Security agents came Sunday to the home of Mohamed Basheer, the group’s administrative manager, and took him into custody. He was blindfolded and asked about the meeting with the Western diplomats and other EIPR work and then detained, Amnesty International said in a statement Friday.

Three days later, security forces arrested Karim Ennarah, the group’s criminal justice director, in the Red Sea resort town of Dahab, where he was vacationing. He was questioned about his work on detention conditions and the death penalty before he was ordered detained for 15 days, according to Amnesty International.

On Thursday evening, plainclothes security agents arrested the EIPR’s Gasser Abdelrazek at his home in Cairo’s upscale Maadi neighborhood. Early Friday morning, he was interrogated over what Amnesty International described as “fabricated ‘terrorism’-related charges.” He, too, was ordered detained for 15 days.

The three men have been added to a larger case with other human rights activists, including some who have been detained without trial for more than a year, Amnesty International said. They are all being investigated for “joining a terrorist group,” “spreading false news” and “misusing social media.” Basheer faced additional questioning over “committing a crime of funding terrorism.”

“This is an unprecedented crackdown on the human rights community and could well go beyond EIPR to engulf the few other remaining brave groups.” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s research and advocacy director for the Middle East. He urged countries whose representatives met with the EIPR to publicly demand the release of the three men.

Western nations including France, Ireland and Norway have expressed concern about the arrests. That prompted Egypt’s Foreign Ministry to warn France to not interfere in its domestic affairs, claiming it was an attempt to influence the ongoing probe into the EIPR.

The U.N. human rights office condemned the arrests, declaring that it was “part of a broader pattern of intimidating organizations defending human rights” and was “inconsistent with the rule of law.”

Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D- Del.), who is reportedly among those being considered by President-elect Joe Biden for secretary of state, said in a tweet that the arrests were “another disturbing example of Egypt’s crackdown on human rights activists.” The EIPR’s staff and work “must be respected & protected,” he said.