On 22 August 2020 Mona Alshazly received a devastating phone call from her mother. “They’ve taken everything,” she told Mona, screaming and crying. “Our documentation and all of our electronic devices, including the broken ones.”
Mona’s family house, which is in the Muharram Bey neighbourhood in the city of Alexandria, had been raided by Egyptian security forces who broke one of the doors and three of the wardrobes.
They threatened her nieces and nephews, the youngest of whom is two-years-old, and took all of their passports and IDs, warning that if they tried to renew them, they would be arrested on the spot.
At home in the UK, where Mona has lived since 2005, she felt helpless on the other end of the line as her mother told her that they had forcibly disappeared her two sons, Mona’s brothers, and she had no way of knowing whether they were alive or dead.
Mona has two Facebook accounts and a Twitter page which for two years she has used as a platform to criticise human rights violations carried out by the Egyptian regime. On a Wednesday Mona live streamed her thoughts on Facebook and the videos were shared widely, which caught the attention of authorities back home.
That day, 22 August 2020, Mona’s family became one of dozens of Egyptian families that have been targeted by authorities at home as a punitive measure and in a bid to silence a relative abroad, as the government widens its crackdown beyond its own borders.
Whilst Mona has been an active member of Egypt’s opposition since the 2013 coup, her family does not have ties with any Islamic groups and are not members of any political party. They are, in fact, supporters of the Sisi regime.
“Despite this fact they didn’t show any mercy on them,” Mona said, speaking at an event on the future of human rights in Egypt last night. “They deal with all Egyptian citizens the same way. We are all facing the same oppression.”
The family now know that Eid and Hassan were held at the Security Directorate in Smouha in Alexandria but for three days they had searched frantically to locate them. For a month they were detained there and tortured by electric shock. They had no access to clean clothes or a shower.
When Mona’s brothers eventually appeared in court as part of a mass hearing, they were accused of colluding with the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. They were tried alongside film editor Sanaa Seif, who was sentenced to 18 months in jail and has an international campaign behind her, rooting for her release.
Mona’s mother eventually managed to find a solicitor from Cairo who attended the court session to represent her brothers. Authorities asked him to pass an ultimatum to Mona: Delete everything and we will release your family.
It was an open admission of why authorities are arresting the families of opposition members abroad at such an alarming rate – they are hostages and in return for their freedom the regime expects dissidents to cease all activities.
Despite the warning, Mona continued posting on her accounts. Every time she appeared on her livestream, the authorities in Egypt would take her brothers to be tortured. “Your sister is a terrorist working with the Muslim Brotherhood,” they told Hassan and Eid. “She is an enemy of the state.”
When Hassan tried to reason with the officers – perhaps Mona was just expressing her opinion, he suggested, but in response, four of the guards set upon him and kicked him, breaking his glasses, and his teeth.
Her brothers were eventually transferred to Tora Prison and, the guilt weighing her down, Mona stopped posting on her account. Her mother was pleading with her to stop speaking out. The regime had threatened to rape Mona’s unmarried sister and arrest her mother.
“My family is suffering – I am suffering emotionally,” Mona says. “Because they are putting everyone under emotional pressure. Even my neighbours are afraid to say hi to my mum.”
For eight weeks Mona was silent but for that period of time, her brothers were not released and prison guards continued to torture them. So she started posting again, but this time doubled her output. That’s when they stopped torturing her siblings.
“If you speak up at least you will protect them from being killed,” Mona tells me. “When you highlight their case, you are protecting their lives, when you leave them in silence they are forgotten.”
“I’m not going to stop, whatever happens, whatever the consequences. Because I couldn’t breathe. I can’t see all of this corruption and sit like a sheep in silence.”