When Egyptians first took to the streets on January 25, 2011, their numbers quickly swelled in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, state security forces backed off and, within less than three weeks, then-president Hosni Mubarak stepped down. But a decade later, thousands are estimated to have fled abroad to escape the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which many consider to be even more oppressive.
The loss of academics, artists, journalists and other intellectuals has, along with a climate of fear, hobbled any political opposition.
Interim military rulers followed Mubarak. Then in 2012, Mohamed Morsi, a member of Egypt’s most powerful Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected as the first civilian president in the country’s history. But his tenure proved unpopular among many Egyptians opposed to Islamism.
Amid massive protests, the military – led by then defence minister Sisi – removed Morsi in 2013, dissolved parliament and eventually banned the Brotherhood as a “terrorist group.” A crackdown on dissent ensued, and Sisi won two terms in elections that human rights groups criticised as undemocratic.
Among those jailed in the early 2011 protests was Dr. Mohamed Aboelgheit, who was jailed for calling to revolt against police brutality and Mubarak in the southern city of Assiut. He spent part of the uprising in a cramped cell.
Released amid the chaos, he revelled in the atmosphere of political freedom in the Arab world’s most populous country – protesting, working as a journalist and joining a campaign for a moderate presidential candidate. But it did not last.
“I began to feel, by degree, more fear and threats,” Aboelgheit told AP. Friends were jailed and his writings critical of the government drew attention. “I wasn’t going to wait until it happened to me,” he added.
After Sisi came to power, Aboelgheit left for London, where he has published investigative reports on other parts of the Arab world.
At his former home in Egypt, national security agents asked about him. When Aboelgheit’s wife last returned to visit relatives, she was summoned for questioning about his activities.
‘A very difficult situation’
It is unknown exactly how many Egyptians like Aboelgheit have fled political persecution.
Data from the World Bank shows emigration from Egypt has increased since 2011. A total of 3,444,832 left in 2017 – nearly 60,000 more than in 2013, the years for which figures are available. But it is impossible to tell economic migrants from political exiles.
They relocated to Berlin, Paris and London. Egyptians also have settled in Turkey, Qatar, Sudan and even Asian countries like Malaysia and South Korea.
Human Rights Watch estimated in 2019 that there were 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Egypt third, behind China and Turkey, in detaining journalists.
Sisi maintains Egypt has no political prisoners. The arrest of a journalist or a rights worker makes news roughly every month. Many people have been imprisoned on terrorism charges, for breaking a ban on protests or for disseminating false news. Others remain in indefinite pretrial detentions.
Sisi maintains Egypt is holding back Islamic extremism to prevent the country from descending into chaos like other countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, including neighbouring Libya, which fell into anarchy and civil war after a NATO intervention helped remove dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Many Egyptians abroad who might have criticised Sisi from within the country have chosen to not return.
Taqadum al-Khatib, an academic who also worked in the nascent political scene after 2011, was researching Egypt’s former Jewish community in Germany when he learned that returning to his homeland was no longer an option.
The Egyptian cultural attaché in Berlin summoned al-Khatib for a meeting, and an official questioned him about his articles, social media posts and research. He was asked to hand over his passport but refused. Shortly thereafter, he was fired from his job at an Egyptian university. He felt lucky to be able to work toward his doctorate in Germany but misses Cairo’s bustle.
“It’s a very difficult situation. I couldn’t go back to my home,” al-Khatib told AP.
A government press officer did not respond to AP’s request for comment on targeting and intimidating Egyptians – either abroad or at home – based on their work as journalists, activists or academics, or for expressing political opinions.
‘You don’t have a country’
A reporter for a pro-Muslim Brotherhood news agency, journalist Asma Khatib covered Morsi’s short presidency amid criticism the group was using violence against opponents and seeking to monopolise power to make Egypt an Islamic state. After Morsi’s ouster, his supporters held sit-ins for his reinstatement at a square in Cairo. A month later, the new military leaders forcibly cleared them out, and more than 600 people were killed.
Khatib documented the violence. Soon, colleagues started being arrested, and she fled Egypt – first to Malaysia, then to Indonesia and Turkey.
She was tried in absentia on espionage charges in 2015, convicted and sentenced to death. Now, she and her husband Ahmed Saad, also a journalist, and their two children are seeking asylum in South Korea.
They said they expect to never return, but also say they are lucky to be free. On the day the ruling was announced, the journalist remembered telling herself: “You don’t have a country anymore.”
“I know that there are lots of others like me. I’m not any different from those who are in prison,” she told AP.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)