Just days before former MP Ahmed Al-Tantawi’s scheduled return to Egypt to announce his candidacy for the upcoming presidential elections, the Egyptian authorities detained several of his relatives and friends. The charges include: joining a terrorist group and possession of publications that pose a threat to national security.
The Tantawi case is neither the first nor the last. Trying to put pressure on dissidents by targeting their families is part of the government’s policy to silence their voices.
Ibrahim Felfel, who works for the Delta Company for Fertilisers and Chemical Industries Factory in the Dakahlia Governorate northeast of Cairo, was shocked when he learnt that security personnel had detained his brother and son. The only way to release them was to turn himself in.
The arrest of Felfel’s relatives followed him taking part in a sit-in at the factory to protest the company’s scheduled relocation to Suez and the plant’s conversion into a residential project.
“The police used my son and brother against me,” Felfel said. “So, I turned myself in to save them. Even though it was my right [to protest] and I didn’t cause a riot. But they are not at fault. I took part in the sit-in, not them.”
Shortly after Felfel turned himself in, the security forces freed him along with a number of other his coworkers, who had been detained during the sit-in, as well as his brother and son.
These examples can be described as “proxy arrests,” as the security forces target individuals who themselves are not involved in any political activities. They are solely arrested for being relatives of someone who is, said Ahmed Al-Nadim, Executive Director of the Egyptian Front for Human Rights (EFHR), which has documented a series of such proxy arrests.
According to Nadim, they are not a coincidence nor an incident. Rather it exemplifies a new strategy the security forces adopted in 2019 to persecute opposition figures, especially outside Egypt, by targeting their families.
“One could argue that the security forces use two strategies to track down and pursue family members of political detainees,” Nadim said. “The first is to pressure a political opponent to alter his opinions or to revoke his writings. The second entails a bargaining process for the opponent to cease his activities or delete his writings in exchange for the release of his family.”
Nadim is mainly referring to prominent political opponents outside Egypt. When they share a video or post that enrages the authorities, the latter target their relatives within Egypt.
“There is a significant number of political opponents who abstain from sharing their opinions to protect their families in Egypt,” Nadim said.
Retaliation and Intimidation
“The security forces stormed my house at dawn and when they didn’t find me, they arrested one of my sons and brought him to the Security Directorate [where he remained] until I turned myself in,” said journalist Majdi Shendi, Editor-in-Chief of the Al-Mashhad newspaper.
That was in 2019. The police arrested his son at 5 am after breaking into the house. Shendi described the matter as an attempt to trap the newspaper before attempts were made to ban and close it.
The same thing happened to Khaled Al-Balshi, the current head of the Journalists Syndicate. His brother remained in prison for over a year having been detained upon Balshi’s return from work in Sharm El-Sheikh.
Balshi emphasized at the time that his brother’s arrest was meant as a warning to him, since his brother had nothing to do with politics. He worked in tourism.
According to lawyer Gamal Eid what is happening is a blatant act of retaliation and intimidation by the authorities.
“This is normal for any regime that depends on instilling fear, whether to muzzle opponents or to control the public,” he said. “Part of threatening opponents is to intimidate them through their families.”
The persecution of families, as happened to Eid and Nadim, is an ongoing practice. This is clear from the case of the Quranist blogger Reda Abdel Rahman, who was imprisoned for more than two years. After his release, he was prohibited from traveling for no apparent reason.
The charges against him were the typical ones often brought against opposition figures and their relatives. They include spreading false news and joining a terrorist group.
Abdel Rahman’s lawyer believed the imprisonment was meant as a message to Abdel Rahman’s uncle and cousins who reside outside Egypt and who adhere to the Quranist school of thought.
Abdel Rahman’s uncle is Ahmed Sobhi Mansour, a prominent Islamic thinker and former professor at the Al-Azhar University who was expelled in the 1980s because of his dismissal of the Prophet’s Hadiths. Quranism sees the Quran as the sole source of Islamic legislation. Mansour and his sons live in the United States.
Ten Years in Jail
In 2021, the EFHR issued a report on how the Egyptian authorities resort to silencing human rights activists and academics by targeting their families. It describes, for example, how the national security forces raided the homes of human rights advocate Mohamed Sultan’s cousins and detained one of them.
This happened only a few days after the raid on Taqadum Al-Khatib’s residence, during which the academic’s parents were intimidated and interrogated. Some of their belongings, including his father’s phone, were confiscated.
According to a statement issued by the EFHR, in partnership with 22 other human rights organizations, there is a clear pattern of intimidation and harassment targeting relatives of activists and human rights defenders abroad. The authorities targeted the families of four Egyptians living in the US and three living in Turkey, Germany and the United Kingdom respectively.
“These cases are among dozens that were reported in recent years,” according to the joint statement. “The authorities attempt to intimidate opponents through illegal home raids, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and prolonged detention of family members without trial or charges.”
The practice of proxy arrests does not discriminate among political fractions, as it targets both civil and religious movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. This is evident from the case of Anas al-Beltagy, the son of Mohamed Al-Beltagy, a prominent figure in the Brotherhood, who was sentenced to death.
Anas al-Beltagy was detained some ten years ago when he was only 19 years old. In one of his letters from prison, he states that the sole reason for his arrest was being the son of al-Beltagy.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) confirms that the Egyptian authorities in their quest to silence the opposition have targeted the families of opposition figures. Retaliation against family members of dissidents living abroad appears to be widespread and growing. These vengeful attacks, which amount to collective punishment, according to HRW, should be stopped.
HRW has documented the Egyptian security forces raiding or visiting the homes of 14 opponents’ relatives, looting or damaging property in five of them. They did not present an arrest or search warrants in any of these incidents. Additionally, the authorities prevented 20 relatives of 8 politica; opponents from traveling abroad by confiscating their passports.