Egypt’s political prisoners have little hope – and the west must share the blame


Show caption A flash mob in Rome calls for the release of Patrick Zaki, a doctoral student from the University of Bologna who has been imprisoned in Egypt since February last year for his work in defence of human rights. Photograph: Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock Opinion Egypt’s political prisoners have little hope – and the west must share the blame Jack Shenker My friend Karim Medhat Ennarah is among the many victims of a dictatorship reliant on western financial and political support Thu 24 Jun 2021 12.00 BST Share on Facebook

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I can’t remember where I first met Karim Medhat Ennarah, but one thing I’m certain of is that I heard him before I saw him. Karim – a gregarious, argumentative 37-year-old with an abiding passion for ice-cream and a smile so wide it fills the room – is always brimming with ideas about the world. His curiosity brings out the same in others, with the result that noisy, animated debate tends to swarm around him wherever he moves.

I’ve known Karim for well over a decade in many different guises: in his public role as a fearless human rights defender working to protect the dignity of his fellow Egyptian citizens, but also as a shisha companion, football rival and friend. Late last year, when plainclothes security forces plucked him from a Red Sea beach and carried him off to Cairo’s high-security Tora jail complex, he became something new to me: a number. Just one more political prisoner facing an unknowable fate, under a regime that, since 2013, is estimated to have arrested or charged at least 60,000 others.

The devilish genius of dictatorships is their relentlessness. We can comprehend the tragedy of one life blighted by state violence, and we can just about scale up that sense of loss to encompass two victims, or five, or 10. But when thousands upon thousands of people are torn from their communities, leaving behind an ever-expanding collage of absences – an empty seat at the family dining table, a lover’s text message that goes unanswered – the sheer level of human harm involved begins to obliterate the sufferers’ humanity. In the Egypt of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, a military general turned authoritarian despot under whose rule enforced disappearances, detention without trial, police torture (including against children) and mass death sentences have all become commonplace, that level was reached long ago. The challenge, for anyone who cares, is to try to claw back some of that humanity.

And that’s why I’m writing about Karim, who – thanks to the bravery of his colleagues and a huge international campaign – has now been released from Tora, and whose situation is thankfully far less perilous today than that of many others. Karim, who leads the criminal justice unit at the Egyptian Initiative on Personal Rights (EIPR), one of the last Egyptian human rights outfits left standing in the Sisi era, was arrested in November along with the organisation’s director, Gasser Abdel-Razek, and its administrative manager, Mohammed Basheer. All three were charged with being members of a terrorist organisation and spreading false news, a standard set of trumped-up accusations levelled against anyone deemed subversive by the regime.

Part of the EIPR’s role is to investigate the mistreatment of prisoners, and during interrogations the arrestees were asked why they had fabricated accounts of the grim conditions faced by those in jail, even as they sat in those very conditions themselves. Perhaps the only saving grace of tyranny is that it can have a wicked (if unintentional) sense of humour. Ten years on from the revolutionary uprising that plunged their world into chaos, Egypt’s rulers have moved beyond an attempt to merely snuff out dissent; they are now engaged in a war on reality itself.

Unlike most of those ensnared in Egypt’s perpetual security crackdown, Karim and his colleagues have a high profile, and diplomatic representatives from European countries as well as international celebrities, campaigners and journalists quickly began calling for their freedom. In December, the trio were allowed out – but the charges against them remain in place, as does a freeze on their bank accounts and a ban on them leaving the country. A legal appeal against those restrictions is just getting under way, but another senior EIPR figure, Hossam Bahgat, has just had a new criminal case opened against him for the “crime” of tweeting about electoral fraud. A fourth member of the EIPR, researcher Patrick Zaki, remains in jail: he was subject to beatings and electric shocks when arrested, his lawyers say, and has now been trapped in pre-trial detention for about 500 days.

For Karim, who married his British wife just weeks before he was taken into custody and had been planning to start a new life with her in London early this year, one form of incarceration has simply been replaced by another, of a type that poses less immediate danger to his safety but which is still laced with paralysis and pain. His story is not the most egregious example of Egyptian state brutality, or even a typical one. Karim, who has spent so much time advocating for others, would far rather the spotlight be trained on those less likely to generate headlines – such as Ahmed Samir Santawy, another young student and researcher who was arrested on bogus charges in February and was handed a four-year prison sentence by an emergency court earlier this week. But Karim’s story is, nonetheless, one that I have seen up close for myself, and which particularly matters for two reasons.

The first is that if Karim is under threat, despite all of his relative privileges, then every Egyptian is under threat. The second, related reason, is that it is not only the Egyptian government that is ultimately responsible for his plight but our own political leaders as well.

The British Foreign Office, to its credit, has publicly condemned the attack on the EIPR and lobbied its Egyptian counterpart behind the scenes. But worthy bromides about human rights and freedom of expression ring hollow when Egypt’s dictatorship enjoys the financial backing and political patronage of presidents and prime ministers across the global north. Every year, the US sends more money to Egypt than any other country on Earth bar Israel; less than three weeks after Karim’s arrest, Emmanuel Macron awarded Sisi France’s highest order of merit, the Légion d’honneur. Last year, Boris Johnson rolled out the Downing Street red carpet for Egypt’s president – who in 2013 oversaw the massacre of nearly 1,000 anti-government protesters in a single day.

This feting of authoritarianism is partly explained by the conviction that Sisi is a bulwark against violent extremism and mass migration from the region, despite scant evidence of his effectiveness on either front. But Sisi’s real value to his western sponsors lies in his chequebook – Egypt’s security forces are equipped with “French fighter jets, Italian frigates, German submarines and British assault rifles”. Then there is his regime’s growing entrenchment in an international financial system that ensures his own stability is aligned with the economic concerns of the world’s richest nations and biggest multinational forces, including one of Britain’s biggest companies, BP, which in recent years invested more in Egypt than anywhere else. Last month, Britain’s ambassador in Cairo hailed a visit by a senior UK military official as evidence of “our continued commitment to working with Egypt to strengthen our defence relations: from defence procurement, to training, to sharing expertise”.

In January 2011, I was standing beside Karim at the moment when dictator Hosni Mubarak was finally toppled from power. Karim had never known any other ruler, and – though he’ll curse me for saying it – he had tears in his eyes as he contemplated what the future might hold. Today vast swaths of that generation languish behind bars, or under travel bans, or are consigned to exile.

It is time for Sisi’s backers, including Britain, to stop mouthing platitudes and start applying meaningful pressure to ensure this changes. The collective humanity embodied by Karim and Egypt’s tens of thousands of other political prisoners is too vital to keep caged.

Jack Shenker is a writer based in London, and a former Egypt correspondent for the Guardian