The new year brought with it the welcome news that three of Egypt’s most prominent political prisoners have now been, or are set to be, released from prison.
Former EIPR researcher Patrick Zaki, who was studying for his master’s in Italy, was freed on 8 December after 22 months in prison where he was held incommunicado, beaten and tortured by electric shock. Whilst in jail Rome granted him honoury Italian citizenship.
Ola Qaradawi returned home on 31 December after being held in pretrial detention since 2017 and accused of being part of an illegal organisation in reference to the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. For two of the four years of her incarceration Ola was held in solitary confinement.
This week started with the news that Egypt’s prosecution will be deporting the Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath to France where his wife, who has led the campaign for his release, lives after he spent nearly three years in detention.
Their discharge is welcome news – all three were held in horrific detention conditions – but it’s worth remembering that there are some 65,000 political prisoners in Egypt, so the release of Ola, Patrick and Ramy does not even make a dent in the total number of people in jail. There are also several other high-profile political prisoners who remain incarcerated. So why free these three?
When Ola and her husband Hosam Khalaf were arrested in 2017 they became part of a wider geopolitical conflict between Qatar, where Ola has citizenship, and Egypt, which was then part of a quartet of countries which placed a land, sea and air blockade on Doha claiming it supported terrorism.
However, after the two countries agreed to resume diplomatic relations in January 2021 their relationship has gradually improved, and they have announced they are working to achieve even deeper rapprochement. Ola’s release was part of these negotiations.
Patrick’s release would have appeased the Italian government, which was under pressure from rights defenders to help end his unfair detention, particularly after the Giulio Regeni affair which the Egyptian government refuse to take responsibility for. Regeni’s lifeless body was found on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, in 2015 showing signs of torture. It also would have helped smooth negotiations for further arms sales. In 2020 Italy secured a deal to sell Egypt two warships worth $1.2 billion.
As for Ramy, his release is likely to assuage pressure on the French government, a major strategic economic partner whose investment Cairo is actively searching to increase.
Rights groups have put pressure on Paris to put human rights at the centre of its deepening relationship with Cairo. In response, French President Emmanuel Macron has said he will not condition matters of defence and economic cooperation on disagreements over human rights, but he did raise Ramy’s case in a press conference with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in 2020.
Their partnership came under increased scrutiny in November last year following the leak of hundreds of official documents revealing a secret French-Egyptian military intelligence operation used to target and kill civilians near the Libyan border which the French presidential office reportedly knew about, but did nothing to stop.
Last year, prominent journalists and former Egyptian political prisoners Esraa Abdel Fattah and Solafa Magdy were awarded honoury French citizenship whilst in prison, then later released and now live in Paris.
Freeing Patrick, Ola and Ramy proves that pressure works, and that Egypt’s crackdown is doing significant damage to its own diplomatic standing and economic interests. But it also sets a very high bar for release, not least that you need a strong international campaign behind you, a European country to offer you an honorary passport, or to possess a major offering in whatever geopolitical negotiations are taking place at the time.
Meanwhile, other prominent political prisoners, including Alaa Abdelfattah, Hoda Abdelmoneim and Aboul Fotouh, and 65,000 other unknowns, remain locked up, and Egyptians with ‘strategic’ second passports, for example, Turkish, have concerns that returning to Egypt could lead to an arrest on the grounds that the government has something to gain from later negotiating their release.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.