Bel Trew The final day of voting in Egypt’s presidential elections was marred by accusations of widespread intimidation by the authorities, some of whom offered incentives to try to boost the turnout.
President Sisi needs a high turnout to bolster the credibility of his inevitable win in what most believe is a ballot heavily rigged in his favour. Voting is compulsory and failure to do so can result in a fine of about £20, but despite the election commission’s claim that participation had been “heavy”, many polling stations have appeared largely deserted. Last week Mr Sisi urged all Egyptians to vote, saying the “entire world” needed to see them in the streets.
Across several southern governorates, including Assiut, Sohag and Minya, witnesses said police had been going door to door to urge people to get out to the polls. In Dakhaliya, in the Nile Delta, a worker at a state hospital said the management had used ambulances to ferry people to polling stations. Elsewhere health ministry officials had scolded and threatened staff who did not have ink on their fingers to show they had cast a ballot. “They said the names of people without ink would be sent to the ministry and they would be relocated to hospital postings even further away from their villages,” the woman said.
There have been widespread accounts of regional governors, clerics, businessmen reliant on the government and state workers being cajoled to vote, through rewards, bullying or threats. There were reports of cash handouts of about £5 for those turning out to vote as well as offers of food boxes in some poorer areas.
A senior official in the street vendors’ union in Cairo said they had been told to get their members to vote to avoid raids and confiscation of goods.
In Qalyubiyah province, clerics in al-Azhar, the oldest seat of Sunni learning, instructed heads of departments to escort students and staff to the polls “and monitor them”.
A worker at the country’s railway authority near Mansoura, north of Cairo, said that employees were threatened with legal action if they did not vote for Mr Sisi. “They told me I have to vote or I’ll be referred to the legal affairs department. I was worried they would slash my salary,” the woman said.
A teacher in a state school in a nearby area relayed a similar story. “They allocated buses to take teachers to their polling stations to vote for Sisi. Nobody dares say no,” she added…
Bel Trew, London
The taxi had just pulled away from the café in central Cairo when a minibus of plain-clothes police officers cut us off. Five men jumped out and took me to a nearby police station.
Egypt is suspicious of foreign reporters and intolerant of negative news. Journalists have become used to being pulled aside to explain themselves.
With a presidential election in flow and a counterterrorism operation under way in Sinai and the Nile delta, the security forces were on alert and the country on edge.
However, as a precaution, I sent colleagues the name of the police station.
My business in the café had been unremarkable: an interview with a penniless man whose nephew, a teenage migrant, had probably drowned at sea trying to get to Italy. He had been on board a migrant boat that vanished two years ago. For some months, I had been trying to piece together its story.
Yet inside the police station, the questions were taking a sinister turn. An informer in the café had apparently told police that I was discussing the Egyptian state’s involvement in the sinking of a migrant boat off the coast of Rosetta in 2016 — an entirely different boat from the one we were discussing.
By the time word reached the interior ministry, it had included a rumour that I was investigating forced disappearances of dissidents. This has been a contentious subject in Egypt since the murder in 2016 of Giulio Regeni, a Cambridge student from Italy, in Cairo. Italian officials have accused the Egyptian police of kidnapping and torturing him to death while he was researching his PhD. Egypt denies this and all accusations of forced disappearances.
Fortunately, I had recorded all my exchanges in the café. The government, the state, the military, the elections — none was mentioned. I had the audio to prove it. The police confiscated it. Unfortunately, this offered no immediate help. After seven hours of detention, I was threatened with a military trial, a legal process often used against terrorism suspects or dissidents. Those accused are often given long sentences or even the death penalty after short trials with next to no legal representation.
I was refused access to a lawyer or my embassy. I only met a British consular official later, at the airport. There, I learnt that another official who had tried to find me had been told that I had been moved from the police station when I was still upstairs.
The charges were never revealed to me. At about 6pm the police told me my embassy wanted to deport me, which made no legal sense. I was bundled into a police van without knowing if anyone knew where I was, or if I was going to the airport or somewhere more sinister. Officers mocked me for being scared and began filming me on a mobile phone.
I was not physically harmed, but it is common knowledge that detainees in these circumstances risk being hurt. Less than 24 hours after I was first detained, I was marched on to a plane with nothing but the clothes I was standing up in. The choice before me — stay for a military trial or leave — was no kind of choice.
Such an apparent misunderstanding was surely easily cleared up. I was an accredited journalist with a valid working visa who had been in Egypt for years and never in trouble before. The Times and I sought to explain to the authorities their mistake. There were encouraging signs: I was contacted to be told I had been accredited to cover the elections.
If any doubts lingered about my reporting mission that day, all would be explained by the interview audio, which the police had. It was either ignored and not listened to — or listened to and ignored.
It was made clear this week that as far as the Cairo authorities are concerned, I am on a list of “undesirable people” and if I attempt to return I will be re-arrested. I can’t go back to my home of seven years. Nobody can explain why.
Journalists enjoy the ultimate privilege: we choose to be somewhere and we can ultimately leave. So writing in such personal terms is uncomfortable. But this has happened at a very particular time for Egypt, when freedoms are under assault.
Egyptian media have largely become aligned with the state line. Even pro-regime TV hosts have been hauled in for questioning. It is banned to report any death toll of security forces that contradicts official figures. In an atmosphere of fear, many have been practising self-censorship.
There have been unreported instances of correspondents expelled or refused entry to Egypt. Many, like me, are still confused about why. Local reporters have also been targeted and jailed.
In the end I am leaving behind seven years of my life, my friends, my flat and two rescue cats. I am cauterising bits of my heart to dull the searing pain of losing Egypt, a country that was my home and a place I deeply love.
A British woman sentenced to three years in jail for taking painkillers into Egypt has been moved to the tough Qena prison, where her family fear that she will not survive.
Laura Plummer, 33, was arrested at Hurghada airport in October when she was found with 290 tramadol tablets, a prescription drug in Britain. The shop assistant from Hull said that she did not know they were banned in Egypt.
She claimed that she was bringing them in for Omar Caboo, her 31-year-old Egyptian boyfriend who suffers from back pain.
On Boxing Day a court in Safaga, a Red Sea town 300 miles from Cairo, sentenced Ms Plummer to three years in jail for possession of an illegal substance.
Her family tried to visit her yesterday morning at Safaga prison. However, officials had already moved her to Qena, 100 miles to the west, without telling them.
Ms Plummer’s sister, Rachel, said: “The conditions [in Qena] are disgusting. We are so worried about her. Who will feed her? We don’t even know how to get food to her now. We’ve been told nothing.”
She said that their mother, Roberta Synclair, tried to deliver supplies to her daughter at Qena prison but was not allowed to enter. Inmates of Egypt’s prisons have to rely on family visits for clothes, food and medicines because jail supplies are scarce.
William had just returned home to north Sinai when masked militants came for him at his corner shop at dusk. They shot him in the head, dragged his body outside and, screaming “apostate”, beat his corpse in the street.
The Christian shopkeeper had fled the town of Arish months earlier after seven Copts had been shot by jihadists. Yet despite death threats from Islamic State, the authorities told him to return to the city to collect his sons’ school certificates, so they could sit their exams.
William, 43, is one of at least 115 Coptic Christians killed in Egypt by suspected Isis militants in a year. Isis has warned the estimated nine million Christians living in Egypt that they will pay for their faith with “a river of blood from their sons”.
Isis militants have stormed Christian homes, businesses, churches and cathedrals and have fired on buses of Coptic pilgrims. More than 300 Christian families fled north Sinai in February after jihadists drew up a hit-list of 40 and started working through it. William was murdered in May.
His widow Mariam, 35, said: “The situation in Arish is getting harder. After William was killed Christians there realised they would never be safe.” She was speaking from Ismailia beside the Suez Canal, where she is living with her two sons, aged ten and 12. “Some families go back to check on their homes but it’s usually only women. They have to be extra careful, they always take supplies with them so they don’t risk going to the shops. They keep their doors and windows bolted. Some just stay in the church there.”
Last month Isis militants stormed a Sufi mosque near Arish killing more than 300 people, the single largest terrorist attack in Egyptian history. President Sisi vowed to crush Isis in Sinai within three months. “You can use all brute force necessary,” he told his security forces.
The interior ministry cancelled annual leave for its employees and deployed 230,000 personnel to protect more than 2,900 religious buildings over Christmas, but Mariam has seen little change.
WADI NATRUN, Egypt—Egyptian security forces wielding assault rifles peer warily into the cars at each of the three checkpoints visitors must go through before reaching the ancient monasteries here about 60 miles west of Cairo. At the biggest checkpoint, on an exposed crossroads, young officers in bullet-proof vests are burning an upturned tree trunk to try to keep warm and to make some tea while waiting, and watching for threats.
During each stop, cars are searched meticulously, identity papers are collected, and visitors gently interrogated. The authorities don’t want to take any chances near a holy site that will soon be the focal point of a major Christian pilgrimage at high risk of attacks by the Egyptian branch of the so-called Islamic State. It could be the target of other groups as well, like the mob that just stormed a church in Giza, across the Nile from Cairo, on Friday.
Coptic Christians believe the Holy family—Jesus, Mary and Joseph—rested here in Wadi Natrun more than 2,000 years ago as they fled the persecution of King Herod shortly after Jesus was born. Now Christians are facing violent persecution by terrorists from the affiliates in Egypt of the so-called Islamic State, and sometimes violent friction with other groups as well.
Although it appears nobody was killed in the Giza incident, an established church that never won official government authorization for services was attacked, ransacked, and some of the parishioners beaten.
This year alone at least 83 Copts have been killed by jihadists. They have stormed cathedrals, churches and Christian homes. It is one of the highest death tolls recorded in a single year, according to rights workers.
The Egyptian interior ministry said last week it had cancelled the annual leave for its security forces and deployed 230,000 personnel to protect over 2,000 religious buildings nationwide during the holiday period, which culminates in Egypt on January 7, the Coptic and Orthodox Christmas.
Here in Wadi Natrun the Syrian Monastery, as it is called, is especially important because of its direct association with the story of Christ. The details of the trip to Egypt made by Jesus, Mary and Joseph are not included in the Bible, which has only one reference to “the flight into Egypt” in Matthew 2:13-2:15. But according to Coptic beliefs the family fled Bethlehem through North Sinai, down to what is modern day Cairo, before crossing to the Delta, hiding in Wadi Natrun, and eventually fleeing south to Upper Egypt
“This year alone at least 83 Copts have been killed by jihadists. They have stormed cathedrals, churches and Christian homes.”
And it is precisely that journey that the government in Cairo and, indeed, the Vatican now want to promote, despite threats by ISIS to launch further attacks on Egypt’s largest minority.
Copts may represent as much as 10 to 15 percent of the population and they trace their roots back to pre-Islamic times. They are not Roman Catholics, but in a historic move last October, Pope Francis blessed and ratified the “Holy Family Trail,” which means it becomes an official pilgrimage not just for the several million Christians in Egypt but the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.
Francis first mentioned the plan when he visited Cairo in April, and he has declared Egypt “a land where Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus, as well as many prophets lived: a land that has been blessed with the precious blood of martyrs spilt throughout the centuries.”
A delegation from the Egyptian tourism ministry travelled to the Vatican two months ago to finalize the process. And last week a Vatican delegation, including officials who manage the Catholic Church’s pilgrimages, toured the country assessing the suitability of the historical sites where baby Jesus and his family allegedly rested.
The Egyptians hope the trail will be up and running by May and draw in a slew of foreign visitors who have stayed away in the chaotic aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising and the 2013 military take over led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who is now president.
Father Angelos, who is part of the team organizing the pilgrimage route, told The Daily Beast it sends an important message at a difficult time for Christians. He is the priest at the 4th century AD Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church in old Cairo, which is is one of the oldest churches in Egypt. The Copts believe it was built above the cave where Jesus, Mary and Joseph hid for several months, and so is regarded as the most important stop on the holy family trail.
“We are spreading the word that Christ has not visited anywhere else but Egypt which makes Egypt like the Holy Land itself,” said Father Angelos. “It is a message of defiance from the whole of Egypt that it is combating terrorism. It also tells Christians here that they are not marginalized.”
The priest said there were a total of 25 sites along the pilgrimage route, eight of which were ready to be properly opened to visitors next year.
The project is split into two initial stages. The first will see the authorities complete work within the coming year on Wadi Natrun and sites in Cairo, including the ancient Tree of the Virgin Mary in Cairo’s Matariya suburb, where she is supposed to have rested and bathed the baby Jesus. The second stage, which will take a little longer, includes the Muharraq Monastery in the south of the country, Egypt’s oldest working monastery.
The rest of the pilgrimage, which goes through ISIS strongholds in North Sinai, may well have to wait. But plowing ahead with the Holy Family Trail anywhere in the country is a brave move. ISIS has threatened Christians repeately, saying in April they will pay for their faith with “a river of blood from their sons.”
ISIS has also targeted foreign tourists, most notably claiming to have taken down a Russian plane full of holiday goers over Sinai in the autumn of 2015. All 224 crew and passengers aboard the Metrojet flight died in the explosion.
When fans waved the rainbow flag at a concert, it set off the latest wave of ferocious persecution targeting Egypt’s LGBT community.
Bel Trew, CAIRO—The police guards took turns torturing the man we’ll call Adam, a 31-year-old jailed in Egypt for being gay. When they got bored or “ran out of ideas,” he told The Daily Beast, they would ask his fellow inmates to get creative and join in.
The former business owner was sentenced to three years in jail plus three years under police surveillance in 2015 for “debauchery,” a catchall term the Egyptian state uses to imprison members of the LGBT community. A male work colleague had set him up, filmed him in the act, robbed him, and reported him to the police.
“They beat me with their hands and sticks, sexually assaulted me, and even electrocuted me,” he said, describing his experience in a squalid cell.
“It depended on the mood of the officer. If he was in a good mood he would not touch me. If he was troubled he used me to ease the pressure,” he said.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt but the military-backed authorities, keen to curry favor with the conservative public, use draconian charges like “public indecency” to lock up people perceived as gay.
The crackdown against the LGBT community started under toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak, but Adam said it has never been so fierce as now.
In the last two weeks the authorities have ratcheted up the arrests in reaction to a rare and peaceful display of LGBT rights: A group of people waved rainbow-colored flags at a rock concert in a Cairo mall on Sept. 22.
Mashrou’ Leila, a popular Lebanese band fronted by an openly gay lead singer, was playing that night. Photos of the concertgoers and their LGBT flags went viral shortly after the gig.
The Egyptian media called gays a disease, the country’s officials compared them to the Islamic State, and members of the public said their actions heralded the collapse of society.
Amid public uproar the Egyptian authorities announced they had arrested seven individuals who allegedly wielded the offensive technicolored cloth.
The whereabouts of these detainees, held on draconian charges of “public indecency” and “inciting immorality,” is still unknown. It was just the start of the arrests.
Since Sept. 22 an additional 26 people, not counting the concertgoers, have been rounded up for their sexual orientation according to Amnesty, which on Monday said this was the worst crackdown on the LGBT community in a decade and a half. One of them, a 19-year-old man, has already been sentenced to six years in prison, followed by six years of probation, according to both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.
The total number of arrests is likely higher, according to Egyptian human rights lawyer Ahmed Hossam, who is representing several of the accused. He told The Daily Beast 32 men and one woman have been detained. Every time he attends a hearing or interrogation to represent a specific defendant, he meets more detainees who have been deprived access to lawyers and their families. Seventeen of the 33 appeared in court Sunday on charges of “debauchery,” like Adam, and are facing between three- and 12-year jail sentences. The houses of at least four activists, accused of wielding the rainbow flags, have been raided in the last week.
Amnesty said several of the defendants were subjected to humiliating anal examinations.
The Egyptian authorities claim these medical probes can prove whether the accused has engaged in “habitual debauchery.” Rights group the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights says it is akin to rape.
“The doctors apply these examinations without consent. Often the defendants are told the tests will lead to them being declared innocent,” said Dalia Abdel-Hamid, EIPR’s gender and women’s rights officer.
If they are selected for a medical examination they are stripped naked. Doctors then look for “six signs” of indecent behavior around the anal area including the “presence of fissures” and “flexibility of anal muscles,” Abdel-Hamid added.
“The tests are truly done to humiliate people. There is no point to them, they are built on complete pseudoscience,” she added.
The office of the Egyptian public prosecutor was not reachable for comment despite repeated attempts by The Daily Beast to contact them. But one judicial source told Reuters that any defendant accused of “debauchery” or “sexual deviancy” is subjected to a medical examination.
“The examinations are carried out by a forensic doctor who swore to respect his profession and its ethics,” the source added, dismissing accusations of foul play or torture.
The Egyptian interior ministry has repeatedly and vehemently denied the use of torture or mistreatment by its officers at its detention centers or police stations.
The authorities, keen to present themselves as the safeguard of public morals, have repeatedly targeted the vulnerable LGBT community since the 2013 military overthrow saw ex-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi storm to power.
EIPR estimates that more than 250 men, like Adam, have been prosecuted for their perceived sexual orientation since then, often after they were picked up in dramatic raids.
In November 2013, police stormed a private party in a western suburb of Cairo packed with 300 people. They arrested 10 people who were also subjected to anal tests. A year later 26 men were arrested for sexual deviance at a bathhouse in downtown Cairo, although they were later acquitted. Controversial Egyptian TV host Mona Iraqi filmed the dramatic police sting, parading men, who cowered in towels, in front of her cameras.
It echoed the largest crackdown to date, which took place in 2001 under toppled president Hosni Mubarak. Fifty-two gay men were arrested on a party boat on the Nile and tried for “public depravity” in a very public case. Twenty-three of them were sentenced to hard labor in prison.
Rights groups believe the LGBT community is an easy scapegoat for public wrongs, and punishing them in waves of highly publicized crackdowns is a useful distraction.
The flag-wielding incident has dominated Egypt’s increasingly state-controlled media at a time of growing discontent amid an economic crisis and a rising terrorism problem.
In the grips of a dollar crisis, Egypt was forced to float the Egyptian pound last November, halving the value of the currency. Unwieldy fuel and energy subsidies were slashed. Since then inflation has touched 30 percent while food inflation hit 40 percent. The soaring prices have put pressure on all Egyptian households, just months ahead of a presidential election in 2018.
The rainbow flags sparked a furious circus, with members of the public, TV hosts, and government officials intermittently praising the security forces and berating the authorities for not cracking down harder.
Reda Rageb, head of Egypt’s musicians’ union, vowed to ban Mashrou’ Leila in a boisterous interview with pro-regime TV host Lamees al-Hadidy, who spoke about needing to “treat” gays.
“Is it not enough that we have the Muslim Brotherhood, that we have the Islamic State? Does Egypt need this?” Rageb railed before asking if the whole “world has become homosexual.”
Anyone who tried to defend the LGBT community faced furious backlash. Mohsen Bilasy, an Egyptian writer who tweeted that sexual orientation was “an individual’s right to choose,” was invited onto Egypt’s private Mehwar TV channel to explain himself. He was quickly forced to leave while he was live on air, and faces a potential lawsuit for harming public morals and “insulting Egypt.” In a heartbreaking phone interview on Dream TV’s “10pm” show a young man who admitted to being gay and present at the Mashrou’ Leila rock concert faced a torrent of abuse from TV host Wael Ibrashi. The terrified youth said thousands of members of the LGBT community were “trying to get treatment” but that fake doctors who promised to help weren’t able to cure them.
Egypt’s Supreme Council of Media Regulation meanwhile announced it was banning the appearance of all gay people in the media, calling homosexuality a “disease and a shame,” local daily Al-Ahram reported.
Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Muslim body and the world’s foremost seat of Sunni learning, compared homosexuals to terrorists, vowing to stand against “sexual perversion” in the same way they stand against “extremists groups.”
Egypt’s Coptic Church, meanwhile, announced it would be holding a conference entitled “The Volcano of Homosexuality” to combat and discuss ways to treat “the abomination.”
Salah Salem, a prominent member of the state-sanctioned National Council for Human Rights told paper Youm7 : “There is nothing called homosexual rights in an islamic country… The subject is closed.”
Rights lawyer Hossam said the debauchery trials were the “worst possible,” often chaotic and quick. Defendants like Adam are subject to horrific and humiliating abuse in jail, beaten and harassed by officers, soldiers, and inmates.
“The cases are somehow politicized or used to serve the regime in one way or another,” he said.
For the convicted their lives are ruined. Although Adam was released from jail two years into his prison sentence, no one will employ him, his reputation is destroyed. From March 2018 he will be under police surveillance and so, he says, will have to check into a police station each day between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. There he claims the police will humiliate him by making him sing or dance for them, or by sexually assaulting him.
“Life will never be the same again. I cannot sleep at night. I keep my head low and avoid talking to anyone,” he told The Daily Beast.
“My dream now is to leave Egypt and seek asylum somewhere,” he said with deadly seriousness. “If I do not manage to leave I will probably kill myself.”