by Derek Davison
Last Sunday, the Egyptian military arrested investigative journalist and human rights activist Hossam Bahgat and interrogated him for several hours. According to the website Mada Masr, where Bahgat was a regular contributor, he was accused of violating articles 102 and 188 of the Egyptian penal code, which respectively deal with “deliberately broadcasting false information that disturbs public security, incites public panic and harms the public interest” and “falsely attributing sources or involuntarily disseminating false information or forged documents that disturb public order, incite public panic and harm the public interest.” Bahgat was released on Tuesday, following a public outcry that included calls for his release from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and the Committee to Protect Journalists. But he was required to sign a document stating that he “will abide by legal and security procedures when publishing material pertaining to the Armed Forces.”
It’s not clear which of Bahgat’s stories attracted the military’s attention. However, it was likely a report that Mada Masr published on October 14 detailing the conviction and sentencing of 26 military officers for colluding with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. According to Bahgat, those officers told their relatives that they had been tortured and forced to sign confessions while in custody. One of them, Captain Ahmed Abdel Ghany Gabr, was subjected to additional torture when he recanted his confession in court. All the officers in question were identified as “religious and conservative,” but all deny having any connections to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Bahgat’s story is the latest in a growing number of attacks on the press in Sisi’s Egypt. In June, the CPJ reported that the threat to journalists is “unprecedented,” with more journalists in Egyptian prison than at any time since CPJ started keeping track in 1990. The government, moreover, has been censoring or banning outright entire media outlets. The most infamous of these attacks on press freedom was the imprisonment of the “Al Jazeera 3″—reporters Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed— who were convicted in June 2014, then re-tried, convicted again, and sentenced in August to three years in prison for “aiding a terrorist organization.” A similar international outcry attended their arrests, and all three were eventually released: Greste in February, before the second trial, and Fahmy and Mohamed in September.
As terrible as their experiences must have been, Bahgat, Greste, Fahmy, and Mohamed can count themselves among the lucky few who have been swept up by Sisi’s security establishment and eventually released. A report by Sophie McBain in the New Statesman in October highlighted an epidemic of disappearances perpetrated by Egyptian police.
The Freedom for the Brave group—a loose network of activists, lawyers and detainees’ families that monitors such cases—recorded that Egyptian security forces secretly detained 163 people between April and June this year. Hanish, a member of the group, said that the figure could be higher, as some families are too afraid to speak out. Another local NGO, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, announced in August that it had recorded 1,250 cases since January. Sometimes, the disappeared are eventually located in a jail or at a police station. Often, new arrivals at a prison will find an inmate who is expecting a visit and ask them to pass on their name, family contact details, and a short message. Families can be left waiting for days, weeks or months for news of missing relatives. Discovering that they are in prison is one of the better possible outcomes: occasionally, the disappeared resurface dead.
It’s not only the disappeared who wind up dead. All told, Sisi’s forces have killed over 2,600 Egyptians since the coup that ousted former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. They have imprisoned over 41,000 people.
Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently described Sisi’s “over-reliance on violence, coercion, and lies” to maintain control, and argued that the only thing differentiating Sisi’s regime from that of Hosni Mubarak, the dictator who ruled Egypt from 1981 until he was deposed in 2011, was that Mubarak was “far more adept” at managing his oppression than Sisi appears to be. Sisi’s efforts to suppress violence are only serving to create more, whether from Islamic State affiliates (allegedly) bringing down airliners in Sinai or remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood assassinating government officials in the heart of Cairo.
Sisi’s brutality and his security failures haven’t dissuaded any of his fans in the United States. The Obama administration criticizes Sisi’s repressive actions while simultaneously promising to expand aid and training programs for the Egyptian security establishment that carries out his diktats. Meanwhile, Sisi and Egypt are very popular in Republican circles. In the November 10 Republican primary debate, for example, Ohio Governor and GOP presidential candidate John Kasich said that Egypt has been “a moderating force in the Middle East throughout their history,” a statement that’s true today only if you ignore the radicalizing effects of decades of repressive Egyptian governance. Sisi is especially beloved by Republicans because he’s spoken publicly on the dangers of “Islamic extremism,” as though a regime that murders and imprisons thousands of its own citizens is not inherently extreme, and inherently radicalizing, whatever its religious leanings might be.