Five years after the Arab Spring, this is what it’s like working as a human rights campaigner in Egypt

In my 10-year career, it's never been so dangerous to operate in a country where unauthorised raids, arrests and disappearances have become routine

On 9 January, Dr Ahmed Abdullah, chair of the board of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, narrowly escaped an attempt by security agents to abduct him at a coffee shop in Giza. Three agents in plainclothes arrived in an unmarked car, raided the cafe and questioned staff about him. When they were told that he was not present, they conducted a complete search of the premises. They failed to produce an arrest or search warrant from the public prosecution, meaning there was no legal basis for the search.

This incident took place following a spate of arrests of peaceful, liberal political activists in the past few weeks. Some now face trumped-up charges such as “belonging to the 25 January movement” - a movement that no-one has ever heard of before. Others are charged with organising and participating in protests in defiance of Egypt’s draconian protest law. Many continue to languish in jail in inhuman conditions.

Since 27 December, I myself have been forced to leave home and go into hiding because of a rumour on social media that security forces were on their way to my home. And I am certainly not alone in living with the fear of arbitrary arrest.

Several human rights organisations in Egypt have had their offices raided or faced investigations, often for working without authorisation or for accepting foreign funding.

The degree to which the Egyptian security agencies disregard the rule of law is truly chilling. And the Egyptian judiciary seem unable or unwilling to stop grave violations such as enforced disappearances, torture and death in custody. 

Never before in my 10-year career has working on human rights in Egypt been so dangerous. Today in Egypt, human rights activists, lawyers, political activists and independent journalists all have to live with their phone calls being tapped, endless smear campaigns and hate speech from state-affiliated media, as well as continuous harassment and intimidation from the authorities.

For some, this relentless persecution can even lead to arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention, harsh sentences after unfair trials, and sometimes even torture, enforced disappearance at the hands of the state or death in custody as a result of medical negligence. This is pretty much the same list of human rights violations suffered by the people whose rights such human rights defenders are meant to be protecting through their work. 

In the mindset of those now holding power in Egypt, civil society and the media are merely tools to be used and abused. In such a climate of fear, those who continue to defend human rights are truly brave-hearted.

My own organisation, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, is at the forefront of the call for an end to enforced disappearances in Egypt, where scores of people have now vanished at the hands of the government. Our recent report on the issue concluded that the National Security Agency, under the auspices of the Ministry of Interior, and the Military Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces, are involved in abduction and incommunicado detention of detainees in a number of locations including the infamous Azouli military jail.

Our campaign has mobilised activists on social media and supported the families of the disappeared, providing them with documentation and legal aid. This attention has ultimately forced the mainstream media to speak out on the issue and, as a result, the state's National Council for Human Rights has been was obliged to report more than 100 cases of disappearances to the Ministry of Interior.

After initial denials, in an embarrassing U-turn the ministry was forced to acknowledge that the names submitted by the NCHR were indeed of individuals detained by the authorities.

This campaign is perhaps one of the main reasons why our organisation and its staff now face routine intimidation and come under regular attack in the media.

But, as a human rights defender in today’s increasingly hostile Egypt, I feel a duty to stick to my human rights compass - especially in the face of such ruthless intimidation. 

Mohamed Lotfy is Executive Director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms and a former Egypt researcher for Amnesty International