COVID-19, a pretext to further suppress freedom of expression and association


Since April 2017, Egypt has been under a state of emergency. The state of emergency has been constantly extended since then, with the latest extension on 8th May 2020 where new amendments were ratified, which give the President more powers. These amendments were introduced as a response to the COVID-19 outbreak under health emergencies, yet human rights groups in Egypt have raised their concerns over the amendments.

The groups state that amendments to the Emergency Law (Law 162 of 1958) exploits COVID-19 in order to undermine judicial independence, expand the Military Prosecution’s jurisdiction to investigate civilians and give the President the power to authorise the Military Prosecution to investigate crimes that violate the Emergency Law (Article 4).

Furthermore, the new articles grant the president the right to ban public and private meetings, demonstrations, processions, celebrations and other forms of gatherings.

A letter signed by several organisations stated:

Rather than enabling an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Egyptian government’s intent in amending the emergency law is to suppress any potential protests sparked by economic fallout and the healthcare system’s failure to contain the virus.”

COVID-19 has also been used by law enforcement and criminal justice agencies in Egypt (the Ministry of Justice, Public Prosecution and the Interior Ministry) to crack down further on prisoners and those held in remand detention. Authorities have done so by restricting the right to visitation and depriving prisoners from presenting their pleadings during their trials and detention renewal sessions.

Calls for release of those detained for expression

During the reporting period, the death of Shady Habash on 2nd May 2020, a 24-year-old filmmaker who was in custody, led to human rights groups calling for Egypt to release all those under pre-trial detention for merely exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression. Habash had been in pre-trial detention for 793 days, despite the Egyptian law which only allows a maximum of two years’ pre-trial detention.

“Habash’s case has sent a heartbreakingly clear message to artists and writers throughout Egypt: Independent expression may lead to years-long illegal detention, and even death, in custody.”

On 3rd June 2020, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) launched a campaign under the slogan “Release prisoners of violations of freedom of expression”. The AFTE also sent a letter to the National Council for Human Rights in relation to the danger that the COVID-19 pandemic poses for prisoners, calling on the Public Prosecution to release detainees who are not posing a threat to society.

Family of exiled civil society activist continuously threatened

On 11th June 2020 civil society organisations called for an end to the harassment of Egyptian activist and Deputy Director of HuMENA for Human Rights and Civic Engagement, Mostafa Fouad. The activist has been in exile since December 2017. On 6th April 2020, the National Security Force forcefully entered Fouad’s parents’ home in Cairo to summon his mother to National Security headquarters for the purpose of interrogating her about her son’s work. When they complied with the request, they were told to return two days later. This happened on more than one occasion. This is not the first time that authorities have harassed the family. In 2018 and 2019 they were subjected to frequent raids, harassment and intimidation by officials.

Peaceful Assembly

On 18th March 2020 four women protested and called for the release of those who are unjustly detained due to the fear of the spread of COVID-19 in detention centres, including the release of activist Alaa Abdel Fattah who has been in pre-trial detention since September 2019. The women were Laila Soueif (mother of Alaa Abdel Fattah); her sister, Ahdaf Soueif; her daughter, Mona Seif Abdel Fattah; and Rabab al-Mahdi. The women were detained on the grounds of protesting without government permission and “spreading false news” and later were released on EGP 5,000 each (275 Euros or 318 USD). Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the arrests of the four women:

“Instead of releasing people unjustly detained, the Egyptian authorities are silencing activists and relatives who speak up. Families are right to be concerned over COVID-19 risks, and the authorities should listen,”- Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

In addition, Alaa Abdel Fattah staged a hunger strike over the ban on family visits evoked by Egyptian authorities due to the pandemic.

In a separate development, during April 2020, police dispersed twelve protesters in the Nile Delta village who were protesting against the burial of a retired doctor who died from COVID-19. The local community expressed fear that the burial would lead to the spread of the virus.


Arbitrary detentions of journalists continue

As noted in a statement issued by ANND, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article19 (3) states that freedom of expression may be subject to certain restrictions, but requiring that any limitation be provided by law and be necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others, or for the protection of national security or public order, or of public health or morals. Yet, documentation of the restrictions imposed on journalists in Egypt shows that pandemic and fight against ‘infodemic’ is used as a pretext to restrict freedom of expression.

Some of the cases during the reporting period include:

  • On Sunday12th April 2020, Egyptian security forces arrested journalist Mustafa Saqr
  • On 11th May 2020, Egyptian security forces arrested Haitham Hassan, a journalist in Al-Masry al Youm newspaper. Hassan was ordered to be detained for 15 days pending investigation.
  • On 16th May 2020, Egyptian security forces arrested journalist and photographer Sameh Hanin, director of the “Pope’s Life” film, and charged him with “helping a terrorist group in fulfilling its goals.” The prosecution ordered him to be detained for 15 days pending investigation.
  • On 17th May 2020, Lina Atallah, journalist and editor-in-chief of the Mada Masr website was arrested after she interviewed the mother of Alaa Abdul Fattah (see above), who went on a hunger strike in protest against the deteriorating situation in prisons and against the ban on family visits. Although Lina was cleared of any charges, she was released on bail of 2000 L.E. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the arrest of Atallah:
The harassment of Mada Masr has gone on for too long. This instance is a really tragic summary of the plight of journalism in Egypt – a leading journalist working for a censored independent media outlet is arrested for trying to cover the fate of another leading journalist who is arbitrarily detained,”- Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk.
  • On 20th May 2020, Shaimaa Samy journalist and former researcher at the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) was arrested.

The Committee to Protect Journalists also condemned the continuous arrests of journalists.

“Given the continued threat of COVID-19 in Egyptian prisons, it is unconscionable for security services to capriciously detain journalists.”- CPJ Middle East and North Africa Senior Researcher Justin Shilad.

In response to the continuous detention of journalists, on 30th April 2020 Reporters without Borders (RSF) wrote to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, asking for urgent intervention to protect freedom of expression. At the time of issuing the appeal, 29 journalists were imprisoned in Egypt. The grounds for detention include: “participating in a terrorist group,” “spreading false news” or “inciting demonstrations.”

On the other hand, restrictions imposed on websites and blocking access to news websites and social media accounts continue. As a report by AFTE notes, the Supreme Council for Media sent a warning letter to 16 news websites and social network accounts concerning posts about false news on a case of COVID-19 in Tanta City. It also included a directive to ban the publishing of any information other than the Ministry of Health’s official data.

In a separate development, State Information Services has ordered the withdrawal of accreditation of a Guardian reporter Ruth Michaelson and asked her to leave the country. It also issued a warning statement to a New York Times reporter over reporting in ‘bad faith’. Both reporters published information on the coronavirus infections in Egypt.

Pro-government media attack doctors

Following a statement by the largest medical union in which it criticised the Health Ministry, pro-Sisi media launched a campaign against doctors who are at the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pro- government advocates on social media began to call for the boycott of doctors and threatened some. An official from the Health Ministry also attacked doctors on a television show.