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The arrest of Gehad El-Haddad raises serious concerns about freedom of expression in Egypt

January 27, 2014 at 12:42 pm

The arrest of the Muslim Brotherhood’s spokesman, Gehad El-Haddad, had the hallmarks of a kidnapping rather than a conventional arrest. His arrest in Cairo on Tuesday, along with two colleagues, although shocking, is no surprise to observers of Egyptian politics.

Since the coup on July 3rd the arrest of activists, particularly Muslim Brotherhood activists, has become all too commonplace. El-Haddad, who has been the main contact between the international media and the Brotherhood, was the chief of staff to Khairat El-Shater; his father, Essam El-Haddad, was an aide to ousted President Mohamed Morsi. He has been charged with inciting the killing of protestors.

The clearly trumped-up charges must be seen in the light of similar detentions of other prominent Muslim Brotherhood members; given the lack of evidence against them, commentators have suggested that they are technically kidnappings rather than arrests. Although, El-Haddad has been accused of inciting the killing of protestors, no other details about the charges levelled against him have been released. The indictment itself appears to be nonsensical, given that the protestors who were killed during the military crackdown in Egypt have been pro-democracy protestors demonstrating against the military coup.

El-Haddad’s growing popularity and high profile probably irritated the army and the coup government. Given his rising prominence and his constant contact with the international media, he had formed contacts across the world and had used these to ensure that the message of the Muslim Brotherhood is heard. This undoubtedly irked the new regime in Egypt, which has gone to great lengths to suppress the movement and would not have appreciated his constant presentations to the international media. Samer Al-Atrush, a Cairo wire journalist, suggested on Twitter that Gehad El-Haddad’s arrest was “purely political” as he “happens to be one of main liaisons with [an] EU envoy” who is visiting Cairo this week and will now find no one from the Muslim Brotherhood to talk to. A few days before his arrest El-Haddad told Al-Atrush that there aren’t enough prisons to hold all of the Muslim Brotherhood members who have been picked up by the coup authorities.

The Muslim Brotherhood spokesman had attracted widespread media attention since the ousting of President Morsi. His regular engagement with the English-language media and his heavy Twitter usage gave the Brotherhood a direct voice to observers, commentators, supporters and opponents in Egypt and further afield. As David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times noted, El-Haddad was brought up in Britain and had worked previously for the Clinton Foundation. His background gave him a unique understanding of effective engagement with the Western media, a talent he put to good use in the service of the Islamic movement in Egypt. His media presence and increasing contact with Western diplomats attracted much attention from his opponents; one such person, “Meena”, alluded on Twitter to his possible torture during his arrest. Though “Meena” now claims that her tweet was a joke, it has raised serious concerns about the treatment of prisoners in Egypt since the coup. If President Morsi has not had access to a legal team or any other support since his arrest, it is believed that all of the other prisoners will have suffered the same degree of mistreatment.

Indeed, the arrests of all the Muslim Brotherhood figures have raised a number of concerns about human rights violations, as outside observers have not been able to ascertain the conditions of their detention. Furthermore, given the transitional nature of the state and the role of the military, the time period of the detentions is indefinite; no one is quite sure how long they will be kept in custody. Other figures are also concerned that the detainees could be subjected to secret military trials.

Gehad El-Haddad’s arrest is a massive setback for the Muslim Brotherhood. His Western perspective gave him a unique talent that he used on behalf of the movement, which will have to reassess its position and find a new spokesperson who can represent it at the same level. El-Haddad is a tough act to follow and only time will tell if the movement has been successful or not. His detention also raises serious concerns about freedom of expression in Egypt, with anti-coup media organisations and journalists in the country being targeted by the military and the government it created. Sky News cameraman, Mick Dean, was killed at the beginning of the conflict and journalists continue to be a target of the “interim” regime. El-Haddad used the limited freedom available to him to express his opinions through the media and social networks only to have his voice silenced. US Secretary of State John Kerry was wrong to claim that the military in Egypt is “restoring democracy” in the country. As long as the generals are in power, freedom of expression and other democratic freedoms that we take for granted will be non-existent. That is the reality that international supporters of the coup have to acknowledge.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.