Faced with rare protests, Egypt’s government has launched a crackdown that human rights groups say is one of the largest the country has seen during Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s five years as president.
Authorities have arrested at least 3,000 people since the protests began on Sept. 20, according to several Egyptian human rights groups. This is considered a major escalation, even for a regime that has long targeted dissenting voices.
Amnesty International says officials have rounded up everyone from street protesters to prominent government critics and even children buying school uniforms. Some of them are accused of breaking the country’s broad anti-terrorism laws.
One new tactic authorities are using involves stopping people on the street at checkpoints and demanding to see their phones — a form of “brute monitoring,” says Hussein Baoumi, Egypt researcher for Amnesty International.
“In a sense, the Egyptian authorities are now trying to filter any sort of opponents or critics or people that would be critics from among the general population,” he says.
Aaron Boehm, a U.S. citizen who had recently arrived in Egypt for a University of Edinburgh study abroad program, was walking with a friend on a street in downtown Cairo on Sept. 27 when a plainclothes police officer approached them.
“He stopped us, asked to look at our phones,” Boehm tells NPR.
That morning, Cairo was bracing for a protest. Boehm, who is working on a degree in Arabic, says the official saw on his phone that he had messaged news articles to friends about what was going on in Egypt and expressed sympathy for the protesters. That’s when authorities separated Boehm, 22, from his friend and put him in a vehicle.
“From that point,” he says, “I was blindfolded for about 15, 16, 17 hours,” as he was moved from the vehicle into a detention facility.
He says officials proceeded to interrogate him for hours. “Let me tell you, they accused me of being a spy,” Boehm says. He denies the accusation.
Boehm was eventually put in a cell with four other foreigners, and says he received two pieces of bread a day and very little water. To his knowledge, Egyptian officials never contacted the U.S. Embassy or his family. But he says they repeatedly pretended to offer him an opportunity to do so.
“They would be like, ‘You want to talk to your family? Here’s your phone.’ And then they’d give us a cigarette instead. They’d do that several times a day, and they’d laugh,” he says. “They’d joke about electricity, they’d joke about torture.”
While Boehm did not suffer physical abuse in detention, he says he saw signs of violence against prisoners: “We saw blood, sticks with blood on them, in interrogation rooms. You’d hear screams.”
On Sunday, Sept. 29, two days after he was picked up, Boehm was taken to a different detention center, where he met with a U.S. Embassy official. The friend he was with when he was detained had informed his university, which then informed the Embassy of his detention. Boehm was then moved again to another cell with about 30 other foreigners — this time with people from Eritrea, Sudan and Yemen. He says some of them had injuries and told him they were beaten by police.
Boehm was put on a plane on Sept. 30, after four days in detention, and returned to the U.K., where he spoke by phone with NPR.
The State Department confirms that Boehm was detained and deported from Egypt. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to NPR’s request for comment about Boehm’s case.
The recent crackdown has targeted some of the government’s most prominent critics, such as human rights activist Alaa Abd El Fattah. He was already on probation after five years in prison on charges of organizing a protest — which he denies organizing. His probation required him to spend 12 hours every night in a police station.
But on the morning of Sept. 29, he didn’t arrive to meet his mother waiting near the police station. According to a statement from his family, they later found out that he is detained and facing charges including spreading false information and belonging to an illegal organization. When his lawyer, Mohamed al-Baqer, came to his interrogation on Sept. 29, authorities arrested him too.
Since then, Abd El Fattah’s other lawyers say he has been beaten at a maximum security prison. “He was slapped and kicked as he entered the prison door,” the family said in a statement, then stripped to his underwear and forced to walk down a hall as he was beaten on his back and neck. Guards have repeatedly threatened him since he arrived, they said.
“In the past, he has been spared this level of physical abuse, protected by his profile. It seems some calculation has changed,” his family stated. “The fact that he is arrested is, in fact, not even about him — but it is to send a message to the wider country: do not imagine for a moment that you will be allowed to protest this regime.”
Baoumi, the Amnesty International researcher, says that the recent protests appear to have caught authorities by surprise.
Egypt’s 2011 uprising brought giant crowds of Egyptians together to protest the dictatorship of longtime President Hosni Mubarak, ultimately leading to his ouster. But in 2013, the new government passed a law that bans unauthorized protests — and since then, very few demonstrations have taken place. The current protests were fueled by viral videos published by a man saying he was a former government contractor and accusing the president of squandering public funds on luxury palaces.
“This protest, it was something that no one really expected,” Baoumi said. “Egyptian authorities have been focusing for the most part on critics — politicians, political activists and so on. But this protest did not come from any of these groups, but they actually have shown some amount of anger that many in Egypt have toward the current government and President el-Sissi.”
Baoumi says several hundred of those detained have been released.
The Egyptian government has said it arrested fewer people than rights groups say it has. It has criticized Amnesty International for “throwing unfounded accusations and propagating false, unverified information,” but officials have conceded that at least 1,000 people have been questioned.
Boehm recognizes that his U.S. passport likely made a difference in his treatment by Egyptian authorities.
“I know why I got out, because I have a powerful government behind me,” he says. He’s worried about the thousands of Egyptians still held.”It’s just that there are people still there. And that the regime can do this.”