Last week, as the plane carrying 19-year-old Muhammed AbdelKasem and his friend descended into Borg El Arab Airport in Alexandria, Muhammed took out his phone, leaned towards the window and took a photo of Egypt from above.
Muhammed thought he was doing what numerous tourists do when they arrive in a new destination, yet it was a simple act that would have far-reaching consequences – within the corner of the photograph he had taken was a military helicopter.
When he landed Muhammed was stopped, searched and asked to surrender his mobile, which he did willingly, says his cousin Shareen Nawaz who lives in Manchester, in the UK. “Upon searching his phone they found the photo,” she explains.
Instead of making his way to his friend, Muhammed was arrested and accused of being a spy and collecting evidence against the Egyptian military based on this flimsy evidence alone. Until today, no one has actually seen the picture in question.
“He knew to contact us [after he landed],” says his mother Imaan Rafiq. “He hadn’t contacted us by Thursday afternoon, I knew there was something wrong. By Thursday evening he rang, he said ‘I was in court all day’.”
Muhammed, who was also born in Manchester but currently lives in Tripoli, Libya where the family relocated to look after his grandmother, is being incarcerated in El-Amreya second police department in Alexandria in what has now become a military case. Despite being scheduled to appear in court yesterday, the sentencing was deferred and he is still awaiting verdict.
Muhammed’s arrest will do little to encourage tourism to the country which already took a nosedive following the Egyptian revolution, repeated human rights abuses carried out by the current government and the insurgency being waged in the province next door to the popular red sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.
The Sinai Province attack on a flight from Sharm El-Sheikh to St Petersburg, which killed 224 passengers in October 2015, further compounded this, as did the arrest in July this year of Lebanese tourist Mona El-Mazboh. El-Mazboh was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of “harming the Egyptian people” after a video in which she complained of sexual harassment went viral.
Today in Egypt little credible evidence is put forward for the multiple cases that pass through it’s prison system. Thousands are incarcerated, hundreds brought before the court in mass trials, and sentencing is regularly deferred. Death sentences are on the rise.
With the lack of independent oversight and the pressure placed on lawyers within the country it is the families of detainees who lead the campaigns of those inside in a bid to harness media pressure. Hanaa Soltan spent years raising the profile of her brother Mohammed Soltan who was arrested at a protest and endured a long hunger strike before his release. In October last year political prisoner Ibrahim Halawa honoured his sisters for their work in securing his freedom.
In a similar vein, Shareen has started her own petition to free Muhammed and put pressure on local MPs and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to step in: “We need to get my cousin who is a British citizen released,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “This is a personal request, please sign the petition and share as much as you can. This is ridiculous and complete injustice. This could easily have been any of us.”
With his A-Levels coming up next summer and a dream to study medicine at university Muhammed was also a respected English and maths tutor. His mother has described him as “a big soft teddy”.
“My baby would not even hurt a fly,” she has said, whilst his cousins say he is a “soft and compassionate person”.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.