The nightmare of enforced disappearance in Egypt is escalating in an unprecedented way. The phenomena have reached serious levels recently.In a report by the Intercept tilted:”Mysterious Deaths and Enforced Disappearances: This is Egypt’s US-backed War on Terror”. The report highlighted the violations against human rights in Egypt under the banner of “war on terror”.
The report shed the light the enforced disappearance of a teacher who was later announced killed by the Egypt’s ministry of interior. The Ministry claimed he was a member of a terrorist group and that he was killed during a counter-terrorism operation although he had been abducted months before his accusation.
Back on April 9, 2017, the 44-year-old schoolteacher, Mohamed Abdel arrived to work in Egypt’s Beheira province. He signed in to the official roll at 8 a.m., having prepared a lesson on Christianity in Egypt — a timely topic given that sectarian attacks by the Islamic State has killed and injured hundreds throughout Egypt since last December.
However, by 10:30 that morning, Abdel Satar had been apprehended, escorted off school grounds by men in plain clothes and ordered into an unmarked vehicle. Next, to a blank space where his sign-out should have been, the official roll read simply, “Arrested from the institute while working.”
For weeks after his abduction, his wife and colleagues from the school attempted to discern his location, sending letters to any relevant government officials. The family assumed only that he had been abducted by Egypt’s secret police, the Egyptian Homeland Security, who are infamous for apprehending individuals in this manner.
The letters read,”We neither know the party that arrested him nor the location of his arrest to date,” They continued, “Kindly release the public prosecution record under your supervision and investigate the incident … as we are yet to be informed of what exactly happened to him.” No one ever responded.
It was nearly a month later when Egypt’s Ministry of Interior announced that Abdelsatar had died in a counter-terror operation targeting Hassm, a domestic group that has carried out regular attacks on government targets.
In a Facebook post on May 6, the ministry stated that Abdelsatar and another man, Abdallah Ragab Ali Abdel Halim, had opened fire on security forces during a raid in the city of Tanta — more than 100 kilometres away from the school where Adbelsatar worked — and that police had responded, killing them.
“There was no mention of Abdelsatar’s initial apprehension from the school, nor explanation of how the schoolteacher may have come to join a terrorist group. No documentation or notification was presented to the school or to his family, and their letters remained unanswered,” reported the Intercept.
Adbelsatar’s disappearance is not the first of its kind or a random accident. In the past year, hundreds of Egyptian citizens have reportedly been forcibly disappeared, “victims of Egypt’s U.S.-backed war on terror.”
The Intercept said,”Like Abdelsatar, some of them have then been pronounced dead in a later counter-terrorism operation, with the official statements on the deaths following a similar formula: During a security raid, assailants opened fire, and the security personnel responded in kind, killing them all.”
Accordingly, the escalating number of disappearances and apparent extrajudicial killings” raises grave concerns for the rule of law and human rights in Egypt, and threatens to undermine efforts to mitigate the extremist violence that persists in the country.”
Despite all of this, U.S. officials seem committed to providing support for Egypt’s efforts, both materially — through the continuation of over $1 billion in annual security assistance — and politically, with recently proposed measures to designate groups that are fighting against the Egyptian state as international terrorists.
In the same context, the Egyptian military government, which controls the media with its highly secretive and feared military and intelligence agencies, is trying to convince its citizens — and the international community — that it is succeeding in an existential battle against terrorist foes.
In fact, many of those killed or disappeared seem to be political opponents, activists, or ordinary citizens. Even where links to violent groups may indeed exist, the perpetrators are often met with due process infringements, torture, and even execution.
Egypt’s war on terror was inaugurated after the military-backed overthrow Egypt’s first democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. In a speech a few weeks later, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s defence minister at the time, blamed a wave of violence in the country on the ousted president and his supporters. He asked Egyptians to offer the army and police a mandate to combat terrorism. In December 2013, the Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organization in Egypt. In May 2014, al-Sisi won the presidency with 96.9% of the vote and, ruling by executive decree in the absence of a parliament, passed sweeping anti-terror legislation.
Since al-Sisi’s 2013 speech, nearly 25,000 people have been arrested for alleged crimes of terrorism. Many cases have no connection to any violent act, and many have been sentenced in mass trials.
Cases of extrajudicial killings like Abdelsatar’s are a relatively new phenomenon. “Though thousands of alleged terrorists have been reported killed in military operations in Egypt’s North Sinai province (and to a lesser extent, in its the Western Desert), killings outside those isolated areas were once rarely seen,” said the Intercept.
An Amnesty International researcher (who requested anonymity for security reasons) who investigated Abdelsatar’s case explained that “Extrajudicial execution has become a trend since the assassination of former public prosecutor Hisham Barakat in June 2015.”
No one has ever claimed responsibility for the car bomb that killed the prosecutor. Since the attack, there has been a run of extrajudicial killings: At least 178 alleged terrorists killed in police raids, 110 of them in 2017.
Amnesty International investigated Abdelsatar’s case, confirming his apprehension, but the group was unable to track down any official records on his arrest or release. What’s more, his corpse bore two gunshot wounds in the back, complicating the police account of a shootout.
“What happened to Abdelsatar in the days before his death remains a mystery, and it’s unclear why the government targeted him,” reported the Intercept.
But Amnesty noted that he was not the first death shrouded in such obscurity, presented without any explanation or evidence on the part of the Egyptian government.
In the past year, at least 20 other individuals allegedly affiliated with Hassm were reportedly arrested or disappeared in the weeks leading up to counter-terror operations in which they were supposedly killed. (Not all of the cases have been confirmed as credible. While at least nine of the reported disappearances were published by local media and rights groups before the announcement of the named individuals’ deaths, the absence of independent reporting and a hyper-polarized political climate makes the authenticity of some of these reports difficult to discern.)
Despite the fact that most of these deaths were announced as shootouts, police personnel reported casualties in only one of the operations.
The Egypt researcher at Amnesty International explained that the similar descriptions, lack of investigation into the circumstances, and low police casualty numbers “are all indications that [extrajudicial execution] is a strategy” on the part of security forces.
In the end, as the number of these cases has grown, so too has Washington’s interest in Brotherhood spinoff groups. A flurry of think pieces appeared in American news outlets probing the Brotherhood’s relationship to violent groups. On May 24, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued a security message for U.S. citizens referencing a Hassm threat “suggesting some kind of unspecified action.”
In fact, what the embassy interpreted as a potential action was really a public social media post hyping a new video that Hassm planned to release. How this was interpreted as a threat to U.S. citizens was not elucidated. Ironically, the security message prompted Hassm’s first mention of the United States; the following day, the group responded to the message by stating, in English, “To Foreigners in Egypt … We are the Resistance and we are not terrorist [sic].”
“The increased American interest coincided with visits from top Egyptian officials to the United States, including Sisi himself. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry came to Washington in February, and Sisi in April — his first trip to the United States since being elected in 2014. Three parliamentary delegations have also made the journey this year,” reported the Intercept.
An initial priority was to have the Brotherhood designated a foreign terrorist organization in the United States; in January, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had introduced legislation to do just that. But the bill was dead in the water; strong arguments had been made against it in the media and inside the Beltway.
The designation was too broad and risked ensnaring nonviolent political opposition, and it would have complicated relations with countries where Brotherhood-affiliated political parties hold elected office.
Seeing that a broad ban on the Muslim Brotherhood was unfeasible, congressional offices — with input from the Egyptian delegations — discussed stamping Hassm with a terrorist designation. A June letter from Rep.Ted Poe, R-Texas, recommended that the president “designate and sanction those groups that have historical linkages to the Muslim Brotherhood and today promote violence,” advocating for a designation under Section 1(b) of Executive Order 13224.
This order, issued just after the September 11 attacks, was designed to provide a tool for the Treasury to use against those who posed a “usual and extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security and interests. But its scope has steadily expanded to include groups unrelated to those involved with 9/11.
“Such a designation could provide a relatively swift path to declaring members of the group terrorists under U.S. law, authorizing financial scrutiny, property seizure, and sanction by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Of his proposal, Poe said, “In this situation, it is wiser to use a scalpel than an axe. This targeted approach will be more impactful and avoid potential unintended complications.”
“In fact, actors like Hassm, while violent, have not presented a credible threat to U.S. national security, making a U.S. terrorist designation an overreach in its intended scope,” said the Intercept.
What’s more, in order to implement the order, Treasury would need the names of individuals and entities to list, with identifying information — full names, dates of birth, bank account information – and this could open a path to cooperation with Egyptian counterparts to acquire the needed details.
Given the Egyptians’ track record on intelligence gathering, rife with reports of confessions made under duress and regular cases of torture (this is a government widely accused of torturing to death a 27-year-old Italian PhD student, Giulio Regeni), such a possibility may encourage illegal practices and rights abuse.
So far, nothing has come of Poe’s letter, and no legislation has been formally proposed. However, when reports emerged that Hassm had carried out an attack on October 20 that killed dozens of Egyptian soldiers and police, commentators renewed discussion of a terrorist designation for the group.
Hassm’s claim to the attack was later discredited, but a high-level delegation of Egyptian political figures still used it to ask for support from the State Department and Congress for their war on terror.
Hassm is undoubtedly violent, and they and other similar actors do threaten the lives and livelihoods of many Egyptians — over 1,000 security forces and hundreds of civilians have been killed in politically motivated attacks in the country since 2013. It is clear that policymakers have a vested interest, and perhaps feel an ethical compulsion, to see a safe and stable Egypt.
The Intercept said,”But while a terrorist designation may show Cairo that it has friends in Washington, it is unclear how it would prevent violence from groups like Hassm and Liwa al-Thawra, who are not likely to be linked to the international financial networks that the Treasury could practically target. More worrying, amid potentially grave rights violations as in Abdelsatar’s case, such a response from the United States may only encourage the pursuit of extrajudicial justice in Egypt’s war on terror.”