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Egyptians disappearing ‘behind the sun’

May 23, 2024 at 2:23 pm

A picture taken on January 16, 2022 shows the Correctional and Rehabilitation Centre in Badr city [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

At one o’clock in the morning, last 10 March, a large security force raided the home of Egyptian journalist, Yasser Abu Al-Ala (50 years old), located in the city of Badrshein (south of Cairo), without judicial authorisation, and seized his phone, personal computer and the phones of his family members. He then forcibly disappeared for about 50 days.

In an unsuccessful attempt to find him, his wife, Naglaa Fathi (44 years old), submitted a report to the Public Prosecutor. The Egyptian Journalists Syndicate also submitted a second report stating the disappearance of Abu Al-Ala, demanding that his location be revealed, that his family be able to visit him, and that his lawyer be allowed to communicate with him. It also demanded he be given a fair trial, holding all relevant parties fully responsible for his condition and safety, while he remains forcibly disappeared.

The scene was repeated a second time, on 28 April last year, but the victim this time was Abu Al-Ala’s wife, her sister, and her brother (who was later released), leaving their four children without their father, mother, and aunt, who were all forcibly disappeared. They later appeared and were detained in a case of a political nature according to the NGO, Adalah Centre for Rights and Freedoms.

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Behind the sun

Like Abu Al-Ala, thousands of Egyptians fall victim to the tragedy of disappearing “behind the sun” for days, weeks, months and even years, after the matter turned into a systematic policy during the rule of the current President, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

The expression “behind the sun” is commonly used by the Egyptian public to refer to the atmosphere of fear of being detained in the National Security (internal intelligence) cells and prisons and never seeing the sun again.

The national security agency, affiliated with the Ministry of Interior, is not subject to any judicial or parliamentary supervision. It has had a bad reputation for decades and was previously known as the state security.

Last March, dozens of political detainees appeared before the Supreme State Security Prosecution, after being forcibly disappeared for long periods, most notably the student, Abdullah Mohammad Heikal (19 years old), who forcibly disappeared for more than 4 years, since his arrest on 20 January, 2020.

A few days ago, Amnesty International said in a statement that it documented four cases of Egyptian citizens who were arbitrarily arrested between last January and March for posting content on social media, complaining about high prices. The authorities forcibly disappeared the four detainees for periods ranging from two to nine days.

The Centre for Trade Union and Workers Services and the Egyptian NGO reported that, last February, during the strike at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla, the National Security summoned about 28 workers and detained them for periods ranging from one to three days, without bringing them before a judicial body.

According to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), there are six citizens who were forcibly disappeared out of the 120 who were arrested in several governorates, due to their protest in solidarity with Palestine.

This month, two students, Ziad Al-Basiouni and Mazen Ahmed Daraz, were arrested and detained in an unknown location for launching the “Students for Palestine” movement. They later appeared before the Supreme State Security Prosecution, and it was decided to detain them for 15 days, pending investigations in case number 1941 of 2024, on charges of “joining a terrorist group and spreading false news and statements.”

Recently, new female detainees have appeared, subjected to forced disappearance, in connection with Case number 2976 of 2022, known in the media as the “Our Kitchen Group” case, involving 37 female detainees, on charges of “preparing food for political prisoners, collecting donations and financing a banned group.”

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Republic of fear

The atmosphere of fear resulting from the high rate of forced disappearances in the country has caused families to avoid filing reports with the relevant authorities, for fear of provoking the Egyptian security causing them to be stubborn in releasing their relatives.

MS tells Middle East Monitor that his brother was arrested more than 20 days ago, and they do not know his whereabouts yet, or the nature of the charges against him, despite asking at the police station and the Cairo Security Directorate. He added that he has avoided informing human rights organisations because he fears a case would be fabricated against his brother.

2,456 Egyptian citizens were subjected to the crime of forced disappearance during the year 2023, according to statistics issued by the El-Shehab Centre for Human Rights (an independent human rights organisation).

Last year was the year that witnessed the most incidents of forced disappearance, after the year 2020, which witnessed 3,045 cases of forced disappearance, among the 17,103 forcibly disappeared individuals since 2013, according to the Centre’s own estimates.

The infamous Scorpio Prison in Cairo, Egypt - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The infamous Scorpio Prison in Cairo, Egypt – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

During the implementation of enforced disappearances, Egyptian security often uses individuals in civilian clothing, riding in taxis (microbuses) and not security vehicles bearing the logo of the Ministry of Interior, in an attempt to evade any legal responsibility in the event the individual being forcibly disappeared is harmed.

The arresting force (including masked individuals) blindfolds the arrested individuals, after taking their phones, so that they do not know where they are taken for forced disappearance, where they may be tortured.

The tragedy of several Egyptian families is exacerbated by the fact that they may suffer more than one forced disappearance of its members, a father and son, for example, or two brothers, or a husband and his wife, as was the case in the case of Abu El-Ala and his wife.

Lawyers are afraid to defend those who are forcibly disappeared, after the long forced disappearance of their colleagues, most notably human rights lawyer, Ibrahim Metwally, founder of the Association of the Families of the Disappeared, who has been detained since September 2017.

Metwally was struggling to find out the fate of his son, Omar, who had been forcibly disappeared since July 2013, before he met the same fate.

More than 40 lawyers are behind bars, including Ezzat Ghoneim, executive director of the ECRF, Mohammad Abu Hurairah, and Hoda Abdel Moneim, a former member of the National Council for Human Rights.

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Increasing violations

Forced disappearances coincide with other violations, including torture, physical assault, electrocution, deprivation of food and medicine, threats to arrest relatives and dismissal from work.

A survivor of forced disappearance said that National Security officers beat him and electrocuted him, but the prosecution did not investigate his complaint or refer him to forensic medicine for an examination, according to Amnesty International.

The tragedy continues in other ways, including that the families of the forcibly disappeared person do not have the right to ask about them or know their whereabouts. Rather, they are faced with the authorities denying their existence, so that the family remains fearful that their relative will be harmed, as was the case with economic researcher, Ayman Hadhoud, after he was arrested in February 2022 and was later announced dead, amid confirmations that he had been subjected to torture, according to human rights reports.

Since September 2018, former parliamentarian, Mustafa Al-Najjar, has been missing. There have been constant demands to the Egyptian authorities to reveal his fate, but to no avail.

Italian researcher, Giulio Regeni, is considered one of the most prominent victims who were subjected to enforced disappearance in Egypt, before his body was found with signs of torture on a highway outside Cairo on 3 February, 2016.

The Egyptian authorities have consistently denied any state involvement in the disappearance and death of Regeni, while Italy accuses four Egyptian security personnel of kidnapping and killing Regeni and is trying the four men in absentia.

Egypt denies the existence of any case of enforced disappearance in the country and accuses civil society organisations of spreading rumours to hinder the pursuit of “terrorism”, referring to any opposition to Al-Sisi’s rule.

Systematic policy

According to the NGO, El-Nadeem Centre against Violence and Torture, 18 cases of forced disappearance were documented last April, 42 cases in March, 74 cases in February and 23 cases in January of this year.

MK told Middle East Monitor that he was subjected to forced disappearance twice, the first by being arrested for a week, before being presented to the prosecution, and the second after his release on bail, when National Security continued to hide him for another week.

What is both disturbing and dangerous is the fact that the Public Prosecution (a judicial authority) is content with bringing charges against victims of forced disappearance and adopting the security narrative, without investigating the facts of their forced disappearance.

The release of a citizen by the prosecution and their payment of the financial bail does not mean they are allowed to return home safely. Instead, the National Security may detain them again, hide them again or involve them in a new case.

An Egyptian human rights activist (who asked to remain anonymous) considered the matter a systematic policy against anyone who criticises the ruling regime, as security, legal and judicial tools are employed to pursue opponents, cover up the traces of the perpetrators and hinder the investigation into the allegations of the victims. This is carried out within an authoritarian political environment that disregards the citizen and a legal environment filled with impunity.

Egypt refuses to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance that was approved by the UN General Assembly in 2006 and entered into force in 2010.

Since July 2013, the frequency of sending opponents “behind the sun” has increased, following the overthrow of the first democratically elected civilian President, Mohamed Morsi, by means of a military coup led by Al-Sisi that claimed the lives of thousands, who were either killed, imprisoned or persecuted.

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