CAIRO — The plainclothes security agent demanded to see Aaron Boehm’s cellphone. When the 22-year-old American student hesitated, he said, the Egyptian agent revealed a handgun beneath his shirt. Boehm unlocked his iPhone 6 and handed it over.
Boehm was swept up in what human rights activists say is the biggest and most widespread crackdown since Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi came to power six years ago. The government is using familiar tools, such as mass arrests and torture, as well as new tactics centered on high-tech surveillance and restricting social media to silence dissent and free speech, according to victims, activists and security experts.
Egyptian security forces have arrested more than 4,300 people across the country since small but extremely rare protests erupted Sept. 20, according to the independent Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms . While the government previously focused on targeting political opponents, the latest efforts have swept up anyone deemed a threat, including more than 100 foreigners, journalists and even children.
“If you compare it to the past, this is unprecedented, not just by the size but by the nature of it,” said Mohamed Lotfy, ECRF’s executive director.
The government has orchestrated sophisticated cyberattacks on cellphones of activists and journalists, enabling officials to read emails and files, track locations, identify people contacted and, in some instances, arrest them, according to a recent report by Check Point Software Technologies. The cybersecurity firm, which is based in the San Francisco area, found the attacks were linked to Egypt’s communications ministry and intelligence services.
Meanwhile, in downtown Cairo and in the northern city of Alexandria, plainclothes security agents and informants have set up informal checkpoints, randomly stopping people, demanding to see their cellphones and examining their social media accounts.
“The checkpoints are a very brutal and naked form of monitoring people’s behaviors,” said Hussein Baoumi, Egypt researcher for Amnesty International. “Everyone stopped is accused of being an enemy of the state or being a terrorist until proven innocent.”
There has been no public criticism of the abuses by the United States, which provides $1.3 billion annually in military aid to Egypt, or any other foreign government. The U.S. State Department issued a statement supporting the rights of Egyptians to freely voice their political views. President Trump has remained a staunch supporter of Sissi, widely viewed as the most authoritarian leader in Egypt’s modern history.
The Egyptian government did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement late last month, Egypt’s prosecutor general said it had interrogated no more than 1,000 people and said many of them were “deluded” by fake social media posts and forces plotting against Egypt. The government has previously denied allegations of unlawful killings, forced disappearances, torture and other abuses.
'Who is your contact in the CIA?'
Boehm and a British friend, both students at the University of Edinburgh on a study abroad program to learn Arabic, were walking in downtown Cairo on Sept. 27 when the plainclothes police officer stopped them. The friend was quickly let go. But Boehm, kept blindfolded for 15 hours, was interrogated at a security facility for hours, mostly in English.
“Who is your contact in the CIA?” one asked, recalled Boehm, speaking in a telephone interview.
They accused of him of sharing “intelligence” with a foreign state. They threatened to arrest his Egyptian friends and warned that he would never see his family again unless he confessed to being a spy.
“They said they would never let me leave,” Boehm recalled. “And they said, ‘Do you know what we do to Egyptians here? Do you want that to happen to you?’ ”
After his blindfold was removed, Boehm said he saw sticks with blood on them outside his cell and heard screams coming from other parts of the prison. Later, a Jordanian man was placed in the cell. He revealed bruises and said he had been beaten and electrocuted.
“You never knew if they were going to torture you or not,” Boehm recalled. “It was a constant state of high stress and tension.”
Boehm was not physically tortured, but the guards played “mind games” with him, he said.
On Sept. 29, Boehm was allowed to speak on the phone with a U.S. Embassy officer for the first time. Boehm was then taken to another prison with about 30 young men from Yemen, Sudan and other countries, who had been rounded up in downtown Cairo and beaten by police, he said.
The next day, Boehm was taken to the airport. He was handed back his phone — and placed on a plane to London, via Dubai, where his parents were waiting.
“I am extremely lucky,” he said.
Trevor Olson, a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Cairo, when asked about Boehm, said in an emailed statement that the embassy was aware of his case and had “provided appropriate consular services.”
'Spreading false news'
As Egypt’s top military general, Sissi engineered a coup in 2013 that ousted the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. A year later, Sissi took office and began jailing tens of thousands of opponents and critics. Extrajudicial killings and torture grew. Hundreds of websites deemed critical of the regime were blocked.
The latest wave of repression came after videos were posted online last month by a whistleblower in self-imposed exile in Spain. Mohamed Ali, a former government contractor and part-time actor, accused Sissi and his generals of stealing taxpayer funds to build palaces and villas.
Sissi publicly denied the corruption allegations. But Ali’s videos struck a chord with millions of Egyptians frustrated by rising prices, lowered subsidies and other economic woes at a time when Sissi has spent billions of dollars on large infrastructure projects.
Ali urged Egyptians to stage protests on Sept. 20, demanding Sissi’s removal, and several hundred people did in small but rare demonstrations in several cities. When Ali called for a larger protest on Sept. 27, security forces deployed to suppress it.
Social media, which helped fuel the 2011 Arab Spring revolution against longtime President Hosni Mubarak, has become a target of the official crackdown. Hundreds of people have been arrested, including some tourists, for criticizing the government on Facebook or Twitter on charges of publishing “fake news” and defaming the country’s image.
“There is a deep belief within the security apparatus that information put out there on social media is more dangerous for the regime and more of a threat to its security and stability than terrorism,” Lotfy said.
Since Sept. 20, security forces have arrested at least 11 journalists and at least 25 politicians and academics, many on terrorism charges and for “spreading false news,” according to human rights groups.
At least 111 children, between 11 and 17, are among the arrested, according to Belady for Rights and Freedoms, a local human rights group dealing with children. Amnesty International said three children were buying school stationery and uniforms in downtown Cairo when they were arrested. Nearly two-thirds of the children are facing charges of being a member of a terrorism group or “misusing social media,” even though many did not own cellphones, activists said.
“They are redefining the interpretation of terrorist to include anyone who opposes the state or President Sissi himself,” said Baoumi, of Amnesty International.
At least seven foreigners have been arrested and forced to “confess” on a pro-Sissi television channel that they were part of a foreign conspiracy to undermine the president.
And former prisoners are also being rearrested. Prominent blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah was seized and tortured by security agents in prison, even though he was not involved in the protests and was already being watched by police, his family said.
“He was blindfolded as he was brought to prison, forced to strip off all his clothes but his underwear, beaten up and verbally abused as he walked through a corridor into the prison,” said Mona Seif, the sister of Abd El Fattah, in a Facebook post.
Security forces also detained Esraa Abdel Fattah, a writer and key figure in the 2011 revolution. Her lawyer said she was beaten, slapped in the face and suffocated with her own sweatshirt to force her to open up her cellphone and social media accounts.