Human Rights Watch has accused the Egyptian authorities of systematically withholding or renewing official documents for dozens of dissidents, journalists, and human rights activists residing abroad in recent years to “pressure them to return to Egypt to face almost certain persecution.” In a lengthy report issued last Monday, the organization said that the inability to issue birth certificates or renew essential documents such as passports and identity cards has obstructed the fundamental rights of dissidents abroad and their dependent family members. This effectively undermined their ability to travel, live and work legally and sometimes threatened their ability to access primary medical care and educational services or to be reunited with other family members.
Human Rights Watch confirmed that Egypt has been facing, since June 2013, a wave of emigration from thousands of Egyptians for political reasons. Most of them cannot even invite their families living in Egypt to visit them abroad for fear of security harassment because of the prevalence of detention at Egyptian airports. “The Egyptian regime is clamping down on dissidents abroad by depriving them of essential identification documents. After unleashing a crushing of domestic dissent and public dissent through mass arrests, unfair trials, and rampant torture in detention, the government is intensifying its efforts to punish and silence those abroad,” says Adam Coogle, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch.
The deprivation of identification documents caused the suffering of thousands of Egyptians abroad. An Egyptian activist in Istanbul who holds a two-year residence permit issued for humanitarian reasons said he could not obtain official Egyptian documents to validate his marriage to a Sudanese woman. Two men said they were briefly detained in Turkey because their passports and residency permits had expired. Several others said they were interrogated at checkpoints and witnessed others being arrested because their residency permits had expired. A couple with two children in Turkey who could not obtain a passport or birth certificate said they failed to get the required vaccinations for their children because they did not have identification documents. However, others said they did not encounter this problem. They said the two children are denied public healthcare services available to residents of Turkey. The parents fear that the two children will also have problems when it is time for them to enter school.
Difficulties obtaining or maintaining valid civil documents have prompted many Egyptian dissidents abroad to risk dangerous or irregular solutions. Some Human Rights Watch interviewed said they were considering migrating irregularly from Turkey to Europe to seek asylum. Many said they paid bribes costing hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars to obtain passports through Egyptian diplomatic missions or in Cairo. Those who paid bribes said that intermediaries dealing with Egyptian officials inquired about their legal status in Egypt in advance and determined the amount according to the severity of their situation.
Intimidation, threats and espionage
Human Rights Watch added that, in addition to their inability to obtain documents, those interviewed described a general atmosphere of intimidation and threats by Egyptian officials when visiting Egyptian diplomatic missions. There were reports in recent years saying that the Egyptian authorities have been actively spying on Egyptian dissident communities abroad. Since 2020, at least two countries, Germany and the United States, have arrested people on charges of spying for the Egyptian government and charged them, including collecting information about dissidents there.
Amr Hashad, 29 years, is an Egyptian activist in Turkey who has worked with several human rights organisations. Hashad said that the authorities in Egypt questioned him as a suspect and imprisoned him several times between 2014 and 2019 on charges including alleged involvement with an illegal group and attempting to overthrow the regime. Hashad described what he saw as a possible attempt to interrogate or kidnap him during a visit to the Egyptian Consulate in Istanbul in September 2020 to request a document. Hashad said that when he went to submit the forms needed to issue a power of attorney for his lawyer, one of the consulate guards photocopied his passport and sent information over the phone to other officials inside the consulate that he told Hashad was necessary to obtain a security clearance. Hashad said they instructed him to return the next day.
He said the guard told him the next day that the consul wanted to meet him in person after other visitors had left, and he saw three men who appeared to be guards waiting for him. Hashad said he began to feel unsafe and decided to take back his passport and leave. When Hashad refused to see the consul, the men forced him to speak with the consul on an internal telephone. He said the consul told him he had no rights and would not be allowed to obtain any documents.
The consul also told Hashad that he knew he had been imprisoned before and was now on “Egyptian soil”. “All I could think of at that point was Khashoggi’s saw,” Hashad said, referring to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and reports that his body was dismembered with a bone saw in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Hashad said he started running towards the exit, and one of the three men ran after him, yelling at him to stop. Hashad managed to get out of the consulate, but without his passport.
Hashad said he stayed outside the consulate’s walls, demanding the return of his passport. Hashad said he showed the guards a video on his phone of him handing over his passport earlier and told them he would call the Turkish police to report the stolen passport if they did not return it, after which they did.
Human Rights Watch reviewed copies of the threats Hashad said he received via Facebook Messenger and a handwritten letter on his door ordering him to drop a legal complaint he had filed with Turkish authorities about the consulate incident. Turkish authorities eventually dropped the investigation, but Hashad said that National Security Agency agents threatened, harassed, and interrogated his mother and brother, imprisoned in Egypt.
In September 2021, Ahmed Taha, an Egyptian TV presenter on Al-Jazeera who lives in Qatar with a work permit, broadcast a video on Facebook showing Egyptian embassy officials in Doha as Taha spoke to the camera, saying that the officials had confiscated his passport when he requested service at the embassy. After he broadcast the video and waited inside the consulate for two hours, two embassy officials returned the passport to Taha and apologised. He said he was able to obtain a new passport in December 2021. In May 2022, a military court sentenced Taha to 15 years in absentia in a politicised case involving 25 people, including former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh.
In recent years, Human Rights Watch has documented that the Egyptian authorities have targeted dozens of relatives of dissidents in Egypt who left the country with arrests, house raids, interrogations, and travel bans. Officials have, on some occasions, directly expressed their hostility to dissidents abroad. In 2019, the Minister of Immigration and Affairs of Egyptians Abroad told a group of Egyptians in Canada: “Anyone [referring to critics abroad] who says a single word about our country will be cut off.” The minister indicated cutting the neck while saying so.