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Egypt's 'fear books' help to facilitate more human rights violations

Egyptian policemen driving on a road leading to the North Sinai provincial capital of El-Arish [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]
Egyptian policemen driving on a road leading to the North Sinai provincial capital of El-Arish [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

When you sign a visitors' or similar book to confirm your presence at a place, it is not usual for you to do so knowing that you may not return to your home. In Egypt, though, the people controlling the "fear books" in police cells and prisons want to keep you there, perhaps for days or weeks. The books in Egyptian police departments are supervised by the internal intelligence agency at national security headquarters in order to track dissidents, social media activists and former political prisoners.

These detentions do not require a judicial ruling. They fall within the so-called "precautionary measures" imposed by the Egyptian courts. Police departments are followed up periodically in accordance with Article 201 of Law No. 150 of 1950, which was amended in 2006 as part of the code of Criminal Procedure.

A few days behind bars in Egypt is enough to include you for security follow-up even after release, without any basis in law, or a court judgement. The books contain names, phone numbers and photographs of the regime's political opponents, including Islamists, liberals, leftists and members of youth movements. Cases vary from person to person; some are obliged to sign in at the local police station once a week or every 15 days, or monthly. This may last for years, with no respite. If you fail to turn up to sign, it may pass unpunished, you may be reprimanded, you may be summoned to the police station, or you may be arrested a second time.

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This may be routine, but your heart beats faster every time you go to sign the fear books. The process brings back painful memories of life behind bars.

AM is 50 years old. He says that he went to sign in at the local police headquarters and was detained for a week without reason, just to remind him that he is being watched and controlled; that his freedom is not guaranteed and not within his power; and that he may be arrested again. He told me that a new system has been introduced, which requires him to stay overnight every three months in a cell at a national security prison in the province where he lives. This is a new way of reminding detainees what it feels like behind bars, and thus intimidate them.

Further intimidation takes place by detaining someone due to be released on the grounds that a new case has been lodged with the authorities. The first period of detention is thus extended with pre-trial detention related to the new case.

What is both surprising and painful is that national security officials know that they are the powerful security arm of the Egyptian regime. They don't need to carry out early morning raids to arrest people. A quick phone call is enough to summon someone. The prisoner goes to the jailer of his or her own free will. It's astonishing, but that is what fear engenders.

Dozens of fear books can be found in every village, city and governorate. The tens of thousands named inside include citizens of all ages and political sympathies; they hold diplomas, degrees and doctorates. They are the result of the deliberate expansion of the circle of suspicion by the Egyptian authorities. The common denominator is the fear of signing in at national security buildings and then being unable to go home.

According to SA, 55, the process is "exhausting and painful", such is the oppression. He told me that the security agents showed no mercy or concern about his illness and an operation on his foot which meant that he missed the follow-up at the security building. He was re-arrested for a second time.

Some of the signatories in the fear books, including those who may be recruited as informers later, provide information about the regime's opponents and activists. This may be their way of trying to avoid re-arrest and detention. Informers often come from among those who have been released, or released on bail, so the authorities have a hold on them.

It is not unusual to hear that security officials are spoken to with great respect, or given gifts and bribes as a way to gain favour. It doesn't always work. If someone moves away and doesn't sign in where and when ordered, he or she will be hunted down and arrested.

It is now common to find a queue of people waiting to sign the security follow-up book in police stations across Egypt. Their families know that if they are late getting back, then this means that they have been arrested; they prepare for the worst-case scenario.

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The Egyptian courts can impose several punitive measures, including house arrest. Those under active surveillance may have to go to the local security building for up to twelve hours at a time, perhaps once or twice a week.

The increase in the influence of the security establishment in Egypt since the 2013 military coup has seen a noticeable increase in the expansion of extra-judicial actions, in a way that has made fear books a harsh reality for ordinary Egyptians. According to Amnesty International, monitoring and follow-up measures facilitate further human rights violations, such as arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and arbitrary restrictions on the rights to freedom of movement and freedom of expression.

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

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