CAIRO — Opponents of the Egyptian government seem to just vanish.
Over the past two years, hundreds of political activists, journalists and students — anyone deemed a threat to the government — have been picked up by the national security agency and “forcibly disappeared,” according to human rights groups.
Now, a new app disguised as a common feature on cellphones — a calculator — is being used to protect the next victims and, perhaps, hold the government accountable.
“When you get arrested, you have no one to help you,” said Ahmed Abdallah, a director on the board of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), which launched the app last month. “With this app, everyone will know that this person is detained by the government. It will make a huge difference.”
The app — known as I Protect — is the latest example of how technology is increasingly being used by activists to put pressure on human rights violators and seek justice. More than 500 Egyptians have downloaded the app, Abdallah said.
Activists say the program, thought to be the first of its kind in Egypt, comes amid an intensifying wave of repression under the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. People describe being seized, abused and imprisoned for months without access to relatives, lawyers or independent judicial oversight. They are often blindfolded and handcuffed for the entire period.
One case that attracted worldwide attention was the death of an Italian graduate student, Giulio Regeni, whose badly tortured body was found in Cairo in February. Regeni was researching Egyptian trade unions when he disappeared.
The government has denied any involvement, but human rights groups say his death bore the hallmarks of Egypt’s security forces.
In a July report on forced disappearances, the watchdog group Amnesty International said that “anyone who dares to speak out is at risk, with counter-terrorism being used as an excuse to abduct, interrogate and torture people who challenge the authorities.”
“It’s the strongest tool in the hands of the regime to oppress the opposition,” said Mokhtar Mounir, a lawyer in the legal-justice unit of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, a rights group.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police and other state security forces, did not respond to calls and text messages seeking comment. The government has repeatedly denied that forced disappearances are taking place.
Most abuses take place inside prisons, largely in secret. So protecting arrestees requires pinpointing where they are arrested — and moving quickly before their phones, laptops and other forms of communication are taken away.
That’s where the app comes in.
After downloading the app, which for now works only on phones with Android, the user creates a profile and inputs the cellphone numbers of three people to contact in case of an arrest. Then, the user designates a single-digit number to serve as an “alarm button.”
Once installed, the app shows up as a calculator on the phone to prevent detection.
If an arrest is imminent, the user quickly pushes the alarm button on the “calculator.” That sends a help message to the three designated recipients and an email to the ECRF. Using the phone’s GPS, the location of the arrest is also transmitted.
“By using this application, we can find the point from where to search for people,” the program’s developer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he feared arrest. “It will be easier for us to help people.”
The app, he said, was inspired by a mobile distress signal created by Amnesty International and called Panic Button. It also sends alerts to three recipients and transmits location updates every five minutes.
The developer said that more than 20 of his friends have been arrested. Many of them disappeared into prisons. He knows he could be forced to join them for creating the app.
“I have a lot of friends in the army,” he said. “They have warned me in many ways. They told me, ‘It’s as if you are standing against the state.’ ”
Islam Khalil said he wishes he’d had the app when he was arrested last year.
State security forces arrived at night at his family home in Tanta, a town north of Cairo, and seized him, his brother and his father. His phone and laptop were taken away.
Khalil’s brother and father were later released, but he entered a dark world of prisons and abuse. It took his attorney 122 days to find him.
By then, Khalil had been beaten with metal rods and given electric shocks, his hands and legs often tied up during the torture, he said.
“Perhaps if I could have pushed the button and instantly sent the message to my friends, things would have been different,” said Khalil, who was released from prison a few months ago.
Mounir, the human rights lawyer, said the app could be the beginning of creating a database that could be used to bring justice in future cases. Detailed profiles of victims and their cases, including dates and locations of arrest, could be used to “hold people accountable for their crimes,” he said.
Abdallah eventually wants to create a nationwide network of emergency responders.
“We are not going to stop the government from taking people,” he said. “But this will tell the government that you took this person, that you’re going to be held accountable for the person and that if he gets hurt, then you hurt him.
“There’s now someone watching you.”
Heba Mahfouz contributed to this report.