On 9 April 2017, an ISIS affiliate planted bombs at St George’s Church in Tanta and St Mark’s Church in Alexandria, killing 45 and injuring 125 others. The Sisi government declared a national state of emergency, ending almost five years (barring a few months in 2013) without one. This state of emergency has granted the Egyptian government further license to pursue CT policies at any price. In the four years since Morsi’s removal, the Egyptian government has issued eight specific pieces of legislation and amended old ones on CT issues, blocked more than 432 websites (including recently blocking the Human Rights Watch website after the organisation published a report implicating the government in widespread cases of torture), put approximately 3,000 people on ‘terrorism’ lists,[18] killed over 3,000 people and made arrests numbering in the tens of thousands. Key threads of Egypt’s repressive web of CT measures include its legal foundations, the detention, trial and incarceration system, the reliance on disappearances, torture and extra-judicial killings, and the dismantling of press freedom.

The legal foundations of repression

The Sisi regime has enacted draconian legislation that gives it extensive powers to persecute citizens for ‘terror’ offences. Terrorism is now defined very broadly in Egyptian law. According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), the new legislation (Law 8/2015): 

“…relies on a broad, vague definition of actions by which individuals or groups may be designated terrorists. Under this definition, human rights defenders, political parties, or development associations and their members can be easily designated as ‘terrorist’. Article 1 of the law defines entities and individuals as terrorists for ‘infringing the public order, endangering the safety, interests, or security of society, obstructing provisions of the constitution and law, or harming national unity, social peace, or national security.’”

Such broad terms contravene Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) rulings on the adoption of ambiguous penal provisions, and give authorities dangerous scope to interpret the law in their own interests.

On the back of Law 8/2015, the Egyptian government issued another CT law as a presidential decree (No 94/2015), the first of its kind, on 15 August 2015. It has been strongly criticised by Egyptian human rights organisations as "another blow to the constitution that erodes the rule of law and establishes an undeclared state of emergency on the pretext of protecting society and national unity and prohibiting the dissemination of ideas advocating violence".[19] 

...demonstrators protesting in front of government buildings or companies, holding sit-ins or gathering on public roads may face terrorism charges.

This law expands the scope of criminal acts to a worrying degree by using imprecise language and prohibiting vaguely-worded actions. Article 2(2) criminalises “any conduct committed in furtherance of a terrorist purpose”.[20]  According to the law, such purposes include harming the environment and occupying, seizing, or damaging public or private property. As such, demonstrators protesting in front of government buildings or companies, holding sit-ins or gathering on public roads may face terrorism charges. In addition, terms such as infringing “the public order” or “the safety of society” are so general that they offer authorities huge latitude. [21]

[Can we get higher Rez image of this ?]

Together with the authority granted in Law 8/2015 and Law 91/2015, Presidential Order 136 (2014) – a remnant of Sisi’s first few months as president without a sitting parliament – places all “public and vital facilities” under military jurisdiction. It was extended for five more years in 2016 by presidential decree. Beyond blurring the distinction between civilian and military courts, its second article gives officials power to use the law retroactively, further enabling a repressive state to quell dissent in any form. Together, these laws offer the Sisi government carte blanche to pursue the repressive policies that are fuelling widespread violence across Egypt.

Mass criminalisation, detention and military trials

Beyond independent non-governmental research, no official statistics have been provided on the numbers of people listed as ‘terrorists’ since Law 8/2015 entered into force. Court records from February 2015 to July 2017, however, show that at least 2,782 people were put on the ‘terrorism’ list.[22]  

According to Human Rights Watch, “Since the 2013 military coup, Egyptian authorities have arrested or charged probably at least 60,000 people”. There are no formal statistics on how many people have been arrested and charged with terror offences since the state declared its ‘war on terror’ in July 2013. However, a rare statement from a senior Ministry of Interior official indicated that in the first nine months of 2015, well over 11,000 people were arrested in the country on terrorism charges. Wilayat Sinai is the largest armed violent group in Egypt, and reportedly has only around a thousand members. The huge gap between these two figures conveys how indiscriminately CT laws have been applied to target groups who fall outside the scope of terrorism. 

Silencing women’s groups and NGOs

Among the critical voices silenced by restrictive CT laws are those of women’s rights defenders. As Saferworld has previously noted, “Egyptian regimes past and present, through institutions including the police and the military, have committed violence against women in order to intimidate, silence and repress women as members of the opposition (or suspected opposition)”.[23] Previous analysis also explained that “as women have challenged existing gender norms through their participation in political activities hitherto seen as the domain of men, security forces appear to have responded by stepping up violence against them”.[24] Following a similar logic, albeit with different techniques [25], in the context of increasingly repressive efforts to ‘combat terrorism’, security and justice institutions have clamped down on a number of activists and movements promoting women’s rights and gender equality. 

Azza Soliman, founder of the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA) and a prominent Egyptian feminist and women’s rights advocate, was banned from travelling outside of Egypt on 19 November 2016. After issuing an arrest warrant, on 7 December security forces took her from her home for interrogation. She was released that same day on bail pending investigations. Her personal assets as well as those of her group were then frozen on 14 December. [26] Her arrest was attributed to her involvement in a ‘foreign funding case’ and was described as “a chilling escalation against independent civil society in Egypt [which] unmasks the government’s animosity not just to human rights defenders in general, but also to the independent Egyptian feminist movement”. [27]

A few months earlier, on 22 March 2016, Mozn Hassan, Executive Director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, a prominent Egyptian feminist organisation, was summoned for questioning as a defendant in a foreign funding case. In June 2016 she was banned from travelling, and on 11 January 2017, the Cairo Criminal Court froze her and her organisation’s assets. [28]

Cases in which civil society are accused of receiving foreign funding have affected some of “the most credible and independent human rights NGOs in Egypt and the only remaining voices critical of the government”. [29] Defendants can face life sentences. Such cases are portrayed as targeting organisations that are “pursuing acts harmful to national interests or destabilising general peace or the country’s independence and its unity” [30] – and thus need to be understood as connected to the state’s repressive CT strategy.

Once arrested, suspects in terror cases do not receive fair trials. According to Committee for Justice, an independent human rights organisation based in Geneva, under Presidential Order 136 (2014) over 10,000 civilians were referred to military trials between 30 June 2013 and the end of 2016.[31] In cases for which we have been able to access papers, the prosecutions rely heavily on ‘secret’ reports by homeland security that in turn depend on ‘secret sources’. 

Enforced disappearance, torture and denial of channels for legal redress

Under the new laws and powers, anyone in Egypt can be treated by the security and justice system as a ‘terrorist’. Since Magdi Abdel Ghaffar became interior minister in March 2015, Egypt has witnessed an unprecedented surge in enforced disappearance complaints submitted to human rights organisations. 

Hundreds of enforced disappearances have occurred in recent years. In many such cases, detainees are only held a week, but others are detained for months – especially those from North Sinai. [32] Victims of enforced disappearances are often taken from their homes at night – others from their work places, on the street or while waiting for a flight or dental appointment. In many cases, the security services misinform the judiciary about the date of arrest to conceal the fact that suspects have been detained without appearance before a public prosecutor well beyond the 48 hours permitted by the constitution. 

The Damietta Fishermen case [33]

On 11 November 2014, 32 fishermen from Ezbet el-Borg disappeared following media reports of an assault against a naval vessel in the area around midnight. EIPR investigated the incident, interviewing families of the detainees, fellow-fishermen and community leaders. The last contact between the fishermen and their families before the disappearance was at 11.30 pm when the captain of one of four fishing boats called his sister to tell her that naval forces were raiding their vessels. 

The morning after the disappearances, official statements by a military spokesperson suggested the raid – in which four boats were destroyed and 32 ‘terrorists’ arrested – was connected to an alleged ‘terrorist act’ (an apparent assault by Wilayat Sinai on an Egyptian naval patrol in the vicinity of Damietta).[34] None of the 32 fishermen were referred to the prosecution, in violation of the law of criminal procedures. 

According to EIPR, the fishermen were taken from their vessels by naval forces, blindfolded, hooded and subjected to severe beatings. They were then transferred to the Port Said naval base and then to an undisclosed location where, without any lawyers present, they were illegally interrogated. 

Fifteen of the detained fishermen were released without charge five days after their disappearance. Four days later, ten more were released, also without charge. The remaining fishermen were released after spending almost 45 days in detention. The released fishermen couldn’t be reached for interview and reportedly refused to discuss their detention even with their families for fear of reprisals. They were released 200 km from their homes. Several family members and friends claim the released fishermen showed visible signs of severe torture. 

Public prosecutors have generally refused to investigate victims’ complaints about enforced disappearance and torture even in cases where official records detail signs of torture on victims’ bodies. Public prosecutors have further betrayed victims of abuse by conspiring with defence lawyers on specific cases to undermine their prospects for a fair trial, preventing them from contacting their lawyers and families. [35] 

Execution and extra-judicial killing

A burnt corpse near Nahda square, August 2013. Photo: Engy Imad/AFP/Getty Images

A burnt corpse near Nahda square, August 2013. Photo: Engy Imad/AFP/Getty Images

Amnesty International estimates that there have been three to four victims of enforced disappearance in Egypt per day since the beginning of 2015. The government denies the claims and, in a typical move to negate criticism, has accused Amnesty and Human Rights Watch of conspiring with the MB. [36] In recent years the situation has worsened: extrajudicial killings, previously only seen in North Sinai, have become frequent in Cairo and many other governorates.

Beyond extra-judicial killings, Egypt has increasingly imposed the death penalty since 2013, when no executions were recorded and 109 people were sentenced to death. According to Amnesty, since then the “number of executions increased from 15 in 2014 to 22 in 2015 and now doubled to reach 44 in 2016. The number of people sentenced to death rose to 509 in 2014 and 538 in 2015 before falling to 237 in 2016". 

Testimony of Ahmed El Waleed El Sayed El Shal before the Homeland Security Prosecution: 

“After I was taken, I went to the Mansoura Second Police Station; they blindfolded me and kept slapping us on the face, they electrocuted me and hung me from under the armpits on the door … they beat my legs … they kicked me … someone came and hit my face and after that I went to an officer’s room where they removed my pants and hung me on a piece of wood from my arms and legs before someone came and put a stick in my rectum several times and twisted it. Someone also came and electrocuted my legs and neck, then they removed the blindfold. Then they hung me on the door from below my armpits and when I was later lowered, I felt my hands were paralysed. Afterwards, they took me somewhere I do not know and kept beating me”.[37]

Ahmed has since been sentenced to death.

Dismantling press freedom… 

"As a journalist in a very famous and respected international media agency, I have contacted the army spokesman tens of times without success: in response to every incident and issue the same response is repeated, ‘I don't have information’. Then he just repeats what has already been published in official press releases.”[38]
International Egypt correspondent, May 2017

It is growing ever harder for the media to cover ‘terrorism’ independently in Egypt. Even senior journalists can be summoned by military intelligence if they discuss the conduct of the army or military courts in print. The presidential decree pushed through in August 2015 levies fines on journalists if they contradict the authorities' version of any militant attack. The original draft required prison sentences in such cases, and was only amended following domestic and international outcry. Such affronts to independent journalism further illustrate the Egyptian government’s authoritarian stance on ‘terrorism’.  

According to the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), in May 2017 the Egyptian Government blocked several websites without any official announcement. The country’s official state news agency quoted a high-level security source saying that 21 websites had been blocked but refused to provide further information or justification. From 24 May to 13 September 2017, AFTE documented the blocking of at least 432 websites in addition to the blocking of Al Araby Al Jadeed’s website in 2015.

Detention of journalists and critics

Ismail Alexandrani has researched studies published in numerous international and regional outlets. Specialising in Sinai affairs, Alexandrani has been a journalist fellow at the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program. His critical work on the government’s conduct in Sinai has won multiple awards. While travelling back to Egypt in November 2015, Ismail was arrested in Hurgada Airport. To this day he remains in Tora prison, where he has been detained for almost two years without trial. His detention contravenes the Egyptian Constitution and illustrates the widespread persecution of journalists and others with dissenting views. 

Photojournalist Omar Abd al-Maqsoud was arrested at his family home in Mit Ghamr, Daqahliya Governorate, along with his two younger brothers, at dawn on 14 April 2014. They have since languished in prison on fabricated charges of arson despite a lack of evidence and an alibi that placed Omar 80km from the crime scene on the day of the incident. According to EIPR, "The three brothers have been subject to torture and ill treatment by the police since mid-April 2014, when they were first detained in the Mit Ghamr police station. There, police officers pulled out Omar’s fingernails and beat him on various parts of his body". 

Journalist and researcher Hossam Bahgat was questioned by military authorities on 8 November 2015 about articles and investigative reports he had published. A military court ordered that he be kept under arrest, prompting an international outcry in which the UN Secretary-General himself called for his release. Although Hossam was released, numerous journalists and prisoners of conscience have languished in prison for years. Others have been forcibly disappeared, with no information given to their families about their condition or whereabouts.

… with full media support

Beyond shutting down dissenting voices, government conflation of MB membership with terrorism has been aided and abetted by some sections of a willing Egyptian media. Having begun referring to protestors against Morsi’s rule as ‘honourable citizens’, elements of the Egyptian media have maintained a steady campaign exhorting all ‘honourable citizens’ to report colleagues, neighbours, friends and family with MB links to the security services – regardless of evidence or proof. 

Many in the media have endorsed the government’s hard line and agitated for repressive policies. Egyptian media channels have called for mass killings of MB members to avenge ‘army martyrs’. In April 2017, during the trial for those accused of assassinating Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat, the family of one of the defendants celebrated his marriage through the glass cell where he was being held. This sparked the ire of pro-regime media, as expressed by television personality Ahmed Moussa:[39] 

“An engagement celebration in the court, and the girl is rejoicing with a terrorist – one of the terrorist traitor members of the terrorist Brotherhood. They chant and ululate because there is no one there to stop them… if we had executed these terrorists, we would not have witnessed this scene, which offends every honourable person in this country”.[40]

Such rhetoric is becoming increasingly common from government-allied media. In addition to the crackdown on dissenting journalists, media are giving greater prominence to those who tow the government’s divisive, authoritarian line. Inflammatory media behaviour and the regime’s repressive approach are working in tandem to reinforce and drive the crackdown on dissent, consolidating President Sisi’s power. 

Counter terror in Sinai

Militants in Sinai, September 2012. Photo: Getty images/Mosa'ab Elshamy

Militants in Sinai, September 2012. Photo: Getty images/Mosa'ab Elshamy

Under Sisi’s rule, military campaigns in Sinai have largely followed a retaliatory pattern, where “a major jihadi escalation was followed by a massive armed forces deployment”.[41] In these heavy-handed operations, “life has been completely interrupted”.[42] The state responded to the ABM attack on the Egyptian army that killed 31 soldiers on 24 October 2014 with harsh measures that – in the name of eliminating ‘terrorist hotbeds’[43] – inflicted collective punishment on North Sinai's population. 

According to the New York Times, government operations in Rafah forcibly displaced up to 10,000 people and destroyed as many as 800 houses,[44] as well as systematically cutting basic services such as water, electricity, internet and mobile lines. Such operations, intended to create a buffer zone along the Gaza border, have led to repeated rounds of forced displacement and the demolition of buildings and farms[45] along a 13.5km stretch of the border.[46] At times, military checkpoints and curfews have also restricted the flow of goods, such as food and medical supplies, into North Sinai – leading local people to complain of shortages and economic hardship.[47]  

In addition, indiscriminate artillery and aerial bombardment killed tens of people in villages near south Rafah and Shikh Zuwayed. In one 2014 incident ten members of the same family, “including three children and three women" were killed in Rafah.[48]  

Following a large-scale attack on 29 January 2015, Sisi cut short his participation in an African Union summit, and large-scale military operations led to the killing or capture of 173 militants the following month. Yet, in a number of cases, there are allegations that these attacks have been used as smokescreens to hide cases of extrajudicial execution by government security forces. In January 2017, an Amnesty report documented the killing of 10 terror suspects in Al Arish. Although the Interior Ministry claimed they died in a firefight after resisting arrest, local witnesses said that six of the men had been in the National Security Agency’s custody for up to three months prior to their deaths.[49] Similarly, in April 2017, Amnesty accused the military of seven more extra-judicial killings during CT operations in North Sinai, based on a video showing the killing of a man and a 17-year-old boy as well as five other corpses.[50] Both were shot unarmed at point blank range. Photos released by the army’s spokesperson show some of the same bodies, together with weapons not visible in the leaked video, “to make it appear as if they were fighters killed after an exchange of fire.”[51]  

The army has made its official spokesman the only channel for information about what is occurring in Sinai. Other accounts have been suppressed, often in brutal fashion. After one activist in Rafah publicly criticised the army for throwing the bodies of victims of extrajudicial killings in the water, his home was raided, and he was arrested and held for weeks without any legal procedures in the Al Azouly secret military prison.[52]  

A further problem in North Sinai is the reliance of the military on some local families to carry out intelligence and other operations. According to Amnesty, this has “created much friction between Sinai tribes related to revenge and retaliation given these non-military armed members [act] outside of the law on many occasions against Sinai residents”.[53]

Header photo: A lone protestor walks towards security forces shrouded in smoke with a flag promoting inter-religious unity in February 2012. Photo: Flickr/Alisdare Hickson


18. Saferworld correspondence with experts who did not wish to be named.

19. EIPR and Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (2015), ‘Latest counterterrorism law encourages extrajudicial killing and cements impunity’, 26 August

20. Ibid

21. Ibid

22. Saferworld correspondence with experts who did not wish to be named. ‘At least’ because there may well be cases that have not yet reached the courts.

23. Saferworld (2015), ‘Violence against women in Egypt: Prospects for improving police response’, June, p 13

24. Saferworld (2013), ‘“It’s dangerous to be the first”: Security barriers to women’s public participation in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen’, November, p 13

25. There is little evidence of sexual violence being used by security forces against women accused under terrorism charges.

26. Frontline Defenders, ‘Arrest of Azza Soliman’

27. Mohamed Lotfy of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, as quoted in The Guardian. Michaelson R, The Guardian (2016), ‘Arrest of leading Egyptian feminist Azza Soliman sparks anger’, 7 December

28. Frontline Defenders, ‘Judicial Harassment of Mozn Hassan’

29. Fidh, ‘Background on Case No. 173 – the “foreign funding case” Imminent Risk of Prosecution and Closure’

30. Article 78 of the Penal Code amended by President Sissi in September 2014.

31. The presidential order has been used not only to try new civilian cases in military courts, but also to transfer civilian trials that began between the end of 2013 and October 2014 to military courts.

32. Saferworld correspondence with experts who do not wish to be named.

33. See also: Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (2014), ‘Seven fishermen continue to be held incommunicado in violation of the law’, 25 November. 

34. See: The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, ‘Wilayat Sinai’, accessed 31 August 2017 

35. Interview with a survivor of enforced disappearance, 2015 

36. In September 2017, the Egyptian government blocked access to Human Rights Watch after the release of a detailed report on the extent of torture in the country.

37.The testimony of Ahmed El Waleed before the Homeland Security Prosecution, in the official papers of the case. For further analysis, click here

38. Interview with an international journalist who covers Egypt, May 2017

39. For a detailed discussion on this topic and on how the Sisi regime has gone beyond Egypt’s customary state of emergency, see: Mohyeldeen S (2017), ‘Egypt’s unexceptional state of emergency’, Arab Reform Initiative, 10 August

40. YouTube (2017), ‘On my responsibility’ by Ahmed Mousa, Sada El Balad TV channel, 18 April

41. Z Gold (2015), ‘Adding the security ingredient: the Jihadi threat in the Sinai Peninsula’, in S Torelli, The Return of Egypt: Internal Challenges and Regional Game (Epoke)

42. Z Gold (2015), ‘North Sinai population continues to sacrifice for Egypt', TIMEP, 18 May 

43. K Fahim, M Thomas (2014) ‘Egypt flattens neighborhoods to create a buffer with Gaza’, New York Times, 29 Oct 

44. Ibid

45. Z Gold, ‘North Sinai Population Continues to Sacrifice for Egypt', TIMEP, 18 May 2015. 

46. Reuters (2014), ‘Sinai buffer zone no solution to militancy in Egypt: Amnesty’, 12 November

47. Amnesty International (2017), ‘Investigate potential extrajudicial execution of North Sinai men’, 23 January  

48. M Hashem, ‘Sinai campaign a boon to the Islamic State’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 5 December

49. Amnesty International (2017), ‘Investigate potential extrajudicial execution of North Sinai men’, 23 January  

41/50. Amnesty International (2017), ‘Egypt: video of extrajudicial executions offers glimpse of hidden abuses by military in North Sinai’, 21 April  

51. Ibid  

52. Interview with the victim after his release, 2015.

53. Amnesty International (2017), ‘Egypt: video of extrajudicial executions offers glimpse of hidden abuses by military in North Sinai’, 21 April