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Protests rattle Egypt, Bahraini women political prisoners expose abuse, and journalist jailed over abortion (Demo)

What happened in Egypt?

In September, Egypt saw its first countrywide protests since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in 2013. While public resentment over economic grievances, government corruption, and a clampdown on dissent have gradually grown in recent years, this recent tipping point came at the hands of Egyptian building contractor and aspiring actor, Mohamed Ali, who published a series of videos accusing Sisi and his government of corruption.

Self-exiled in Spain, Ali’s viral videos charged the president and his inner circle with an assortment of crimes, including using public funds to build palaces and villas, awarding public projects directly rather than through a tender process, and the military’s anti-terrorism campaign in North Sinai. Having worked on construction projects for the military, Ali’s apparent familiarity with the state’s inner workings lent his videos an air of credibility.

When, days later, Sisi refuted the accusations during an impromptu speech at a youth conference, Ali released more videos, and in the process inspired other insiders to step forward and publish their own videos backing up Ali’s claims. With a swelling of public anger, hundreds of protesters took to the streets on 20 September, calling on Sisi to resign. Egyptian authorities responded with mass arrests, rounding up over 2,000 dissidents within the span of two weeks, including journalists, lawyers, and political party leaders.

Recent years have already seen Egyptian authorities increasing their curtailment of dissent through ongoing arrests of critical voices, defamation campaigns, repressive civil society and censorship laws, and heightened online surveillance.

On 10 September, in a blatant example of the rising repression, security forces raided the home of Magdi Shandi, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper al-Mashhad, which – according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) – is ‘the only semi-opposition newspaper that is left today’. Upon discovering Shandi was not home, his son Omar, a college student, was arrested and taken as leverage for his surrender.

Security forces also raided the family home of US-based, self-exiled activist Wael Ghonim, whose Facebook page once helped spark the January 25 revolution. According to Ghonim, authorities arrested his brother Hazem – a 31-year old dentist – and confiscated his family’s passports and cell phones. Throughout September, Ghonim took to posting a series of social media videos in a dire effort to raise awareness of his brother’s predicament. He accused the president’s son and deputy head of the general intelligence directorate, Mahmoud el-Sisi, of orchestrating the arrest, in an attempt to pressure him into silence. Hazem has reportedly been detained for 15 days and accused of ‘joining a terrorist organisation’ as well as ‘spreading false news”.

The fraught situation in Egypt was perhaps best articulated in a joint letter published by a number of rights organisations only days prior to the protests that called on EU member states to examine the “unprecedented levels of repression in Egypt.” The letter highlighted how authorities: “…are increasingly employing repressive tactics such as prolonged pre-trial detention, enforced disappearance, and judicial harassment to suppress all independent voices, including through unfounded investigations for national security-related charges.” According to the statement, Egypt has become: “one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists and independent human rights groups are being systematically annihilated.”

Those recently jailed include prominent bloggers like Alaa Abdel Fatah and Mohamed Oxygen, both of whom were released in March and August respectively and were already required, as part of their probation, to regularly report to a police station. In a tragic twist of irony, eminent human rights lawyer, Mohamed el-Baqer was also arrested upon attending an investigation session with Alaa, and charged alongside his client with “belonging to a terrorist group”, “funding a terrorist group”, “spreading false news undermining national security” and “using social media to commit publishing offenses”. According to reports, both have been detained for 15 days in an unknown location, pending an investigation.

Award-winning lawyer Mahienour El-Massry was also arrested after attending the investigation of several clients amassed by authorities during the protests. Upon leaving the State Prosecution Office, plainclothes security officials reportedly forced Mahienour into a van. While her current whereabouts are unknown, the activist is reportedly facing 15 days of preventive detention and potential charges of “joining an illegal group”, “publishing false news”, and misuse of social media”.

“State oppression of the people is always doomed to fail,” said ANHRI founder Gamal Eid on the wave of arrests in a recent interview. “It can only provide peace for a certain period of time. It is not a successful way to deal with people’s anger. Without a fair dialogue and real political improvements, the situation could escalate and get out of hand fast.”

Since a 2016 travel ban, Eid has not been allowed to leave the country despite the law stipulating travel bans should not exceed a two-year period. An appeal to the Cairo Criminal Court submitted last month was postponed till November.

Meanwhile, in Bahrain

Despite calls from international rights groups, prominent Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab continues to serve out his five-year sentence after being denied a non-custodial sentence by the country’s High Appeals Court, yet again. Rajab’s legal team have sought alternative sentencing that would allow him to serve out the remainder of his sentence under house arrest, or in the form of community service and fines.

September also saw celebrations of religious holiday Ashura marred by detentions and arrests as Bahraini authorities continued their restriction of religious opinions by Shi’a clerics. At least 23 preachers were summoned, interrogated, and briefly arrested, while authorities reportedly removed religious banners marking the annual celebration.

At the 42nd session of the Human Rights Council (HRC42) in Geneva, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)  raised concerns over the human rights violations in Bahrain since 2017, including recent executions, mass trials, dissolution of major opposition parties, and amending the anti-terrorism law to include the potential criminalization of social media posts.

Meanwhile, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and other human rights groups penned a joint letter to the Prime Minister of Norway after an honorary award was given to Bahrain’s Prime Minister, Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa. Organised by the 14 August Committee, the ‘Norwegian Guest of Honour’ award was bestowed upon Al-Khalifa “in recognition of his efforts to promote regional and global peace, security, tolerance and harmony.” However, as the letter emphasises, executions were carried out only three weeks prior to the award, and Al-Khalifa – who has served as prime minister since 1971 – has been a key figure in overseeing the country’s numerous human rights violations.

The signatories also called attention to the contrast of the Norwegian government’s prioritising of women’s rights globally, and the state of women rights defenders in Bahrain, writing:

“Women human rights defenders have been constantly targeted by the authorities for exposing human rights abuses, violence and corruption via social media, leading to detention and torture…Many women are currently living in exile in order for them to continue their activism and defence of human and women’s rights in Bahrain.”

Highlighting this dire situation, a new report from ADHRB and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) brings to light the stories of nine women political prisoners exposing the systemic abuse they received in Bahraini prisons. The report details the moment of their arrest through their interrogation, trial, and detention. The female activists were subject to physical and sexual abuse during interrogations, threats of rape and death, coerced confessions, and prolonged solitary confinement. Of those that endured such treatment, human rights advocate Ebtisam al-Saegh said her interrogator described himself as: ‘the Torturer…my hobby is torture, my profession is to torture. I have the art of torture’.”

Activist and former civil servant Najah Yusuf also provided details of her 2017 detainment for public posts calling the Formula One race in Bahrain a ‘sportwashing’ of the country’s human rights record. Over the course of five days, Yusuf was interrogated multiple times, and reportedly tortured, sexually assaulted, prevented from meeting with her legal counsel, and forced to sign a confession she was not permitted to read. Sentenced to three years in prison, Yusuf was recently released in August 2019 with 104 other activists, as part of a royal pardon. In September, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) published an opinion deeming the detention of Najah Yusuf arbitrary and unlawful, and ‘in violation of her rights to free speech and a fair trial’, calling on the Bahraini government to compensate Yusuf.

In Brief

In Morocco, journalist Hajar Raissouni, who was detained in August on charges of having an abortion and premarital sex, has been sentenced to one year in prison. Ahmed Benchemsi, MENA communications director for Human Rights Watch, described the verdict as ‘a black day for freedom in Morocco’. Despite denying the charges, which she described as ‘fabricated’ and ‘politically motivated’, the 28-year old Akhbar Al-Yaoum daily journalist was subjected to a gynaecological examination without her consent, and an interrogation focused on her private life. Article 490 of Morocco’s penal code punishes sexual relations out of wedlock, and prohibits all abortions unless the mother’s life is in danger. A manifesto signed by 490 Moroccan women read: “We, Moroccan citizens, declare that we are outlaws… we are violating unfair and obsolete laws… we are having sex outside wedlock. We are suffering, enabling or being complicit of abortion.”

In the UAE, activist Ahmed Mansoor has begun a second hunger strike after receiving a severe beating for protesting his poor detention conditions. Currently serving a ten-year sentence, Mansoor started a month-long hunger strike back in March 2019 to protest his isolation in a cell with no bed or running water, during which time his health deteriorated significantly. In May, UN experts condemned Mansoor’s prison conditions and solitary confinement, stating that it “may constitute torture”.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, political party rivalries have created a menacing climate for journalists, sparking a rise in detentions and violence against media workers. “Freedom of expression is on the brink of extinction,” said freelance journalist Guhdar Zebari, describing the scene. He is one of five journalists interviewed by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) earlier this year.

In Kuwait, five Bedoon community activists were released while ten remain in prison pending a 15 October hearing. According to GCHR, most of those released are elderly and suffering from chronic diseases, with their detention contributing to “a significant deterioration in their health.”

A number of IFEX members in the MENA region announced the formation of a regional, anti-hate speech network. Formed during a side event at the 42nd session of the UN Human Rights Council, the founding members include: the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA), GCHR, and Lebanon’s Maharat Foundation. The network aims to: “combat hate speech in the media and social media platforms, and raise awareness of its dangers to civil peace in the region.”

Looking ahead


Maharat Foundation will be co-hosting a fact-checking workshop on 19 October for journalists in Lebanon and the Arab region, in collaboration with the International Fact-Checking Network and Google News Initiative.

In solidarity with Ahmed Mansoor’s continued imprisonment, and to mark his upcoming 50th birthday, human rights organisations including Amnesty International, GCHR and English PEN will be protesting outside the UAE Embassy in London on 19 October, and the Emirati Consulate in Toronto on 22 October.


Social Media Exchange will be hosting its second annual Bread&Net unconference on 15-17 November. This year, participants will tackle themes that include digital security education, communities and networks, as well as policy and advocacy in difficult contexts.

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