Amnesty International has launched a campaign titled “Egypt, an Open-Air Prison for Critics,” which aims to highlight the government’s repression of free speech.
This comes in response to the arrest of at least 111 people since December who had criticised Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi or the current human rights situation within Egypt. In response to this criticism of the crackdown, the government maintains that its chief priorities are “security, stability and improving the country’s ailing economy”.
Sisi came to power after the ousting of the former ruler Mohamed Morsi during mass protests against his rule in 2013 and was re-elected in March. Sisi’s supporters maintain the importance of his rule in maintaining order in Egypt and combatting Islamic militancy, which has grown since the Arab Spring and the overthrow of then president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Hamza Hendawi, a journalist for the Washington Post, said that the government’s current position is “to put less emphasis on freedoms and more on the right to housing, education and health care”.
Amnesty’s North Africa Campaigns Director, Najia Bounaim, maintains that “it is currently more dangerous to criticise the government in Egypt than at any time in the country’s recent history,” including during the 30-year rule of Mubarak’s government. Sisi’s crackdown has targeted peaceful demonstrators through “spurious counter-terrorism legislation and other vague laws that define any dissent as a criminal act”.
Those arrested include at least 35 people on charges of “unauthorised protest” and “joining a terrorist group” after protesting against metro fare increases and satirists who have posted commentary online. Reuters further notes that this includes figures such as such as former military chief of staff Sami Anan and former presidential contender Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, as well as former state auditor Hesham Genena.
Whilst the government has maintained a focus on the importance of the economy, Hendawi notes that there has been a “steep rise in the price of basic goods and services since 2015” and this has fueled further discontent, though a heavy police presence has prevented outbreaks of popular dissent.
The government meanwhile, states that it is currently undertaking “an ambitious, multibillion-dollar program to upgrade and expand infrastructure, build new cities, a national network of new roads and tens of thousands of housing units for low and middle-income Egyptians”.