Out of Sight

In Egypt, political persecution and forced disappearances conspire to bury the legacy of the 2011 revolution.

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on August 6, 2017. David Degner / Getty Images

Ibrahim Matwally Hegazy is an attorney and father. On August 8, 2013, his eldest son, Abdelmoneim, disappeared during the bloody repression of the sit-ins at Rabea Al-Adawiya and Nahda squares in Cairo. It was literally a massacre, with more than 1,600 killed in the space of three days.

Afterward, Matwally took up a quest to find Abdelmonein, searching through the recesses of Egypt’s sordid prison system. Finally, in January 2016, he founded the Egyptian Association of Families of the Disappeared (EAFD), with the urgent mission of exposing the terror that befell Egypt in the wake of Field Marshall Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s coup. Their most important work: drawing up dossiers to submit to the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, so that constant pressure could be exerted on the Egyptian regime.

The task was enormous. In 2016, not a single day passed without at least one disappearance being reported to the group. By late December, they numbered 378 — mainly students and young people, but also others known for political, labor, or human rights activity. Among them was Matwally’s friend, Dr Ahmed Chawky Amasha, a veterinarian and cofounder of EAFD, who was kidnapped at a police barricade on March 10, 2017, then held incommunicado for a month at the Abbassia police headquarters in Cairo. There, he was brutally tortured before being indicted for “belonging to an illegal organization” and jailed in the Tora prison in Cairo.

Matwally’s group also had to brave the fear that has spread through every pore of civil society. So, just before French president François Hollande’s official visit to Cairo in April 2016, the brand new organization stepped out of the shadows by holding a rally in front of the French Embassy where it presented a letter addressed to the French president in the presence of numerous journalists from the foreign press.

The action was a success. At his joint press conference with Sisi, Hollande cited respect for human rights and the rule of law as necessary conditions for a lasting relationship between the two countries — a surprise to his suddenly uneasy host. The issue hadn’t been on the meeting’s agenda according to French journalists, who say that in briefings with the French ambassador they had been instructed to downplay the issue.

Buoyed by this first experience, the little organization sprang into action, organizing a series of human chains in every Egyptian province, with activists brandishing photos of the “disappeared.” Up to that point, none of this was likely too threatening to the Egyptian authorities, who felt certain the issue of the disappeared had been contained within the nation’s borders.

But in early September, during the annual UN General Assembly session, the Egyptian regime was in for a rude shock. The UN Committee Against Torture presented its annual report showing that “torture is a systemic practice in Egypt,” citing a study based on hundreds of complaints submitted by the Swiss group Al-Karama For Human Rights, which specializes in human rights advocacy in the Arab-Muslim world. On September 6, Human Rights Watch also released a report that pulled no punches. “The epidemic of torture may constitute a crime against humanity,” it asserted. “The National Security Agency [which answers to the Interior Ministry] has a system in place to train NSA personnel in torture techniques.”

It was quite a rebuff for President Sisi, who was due to appear in New York for the session. Reaction from the Egyptian authorities was not long in coming. When Matwally arrived at the airport on September 10 to board a plane for Geneva, where he was to be received by the UN working group on disappearances, he was arrested and taken to the central police station in Abassiya. For two days, he was subjected to psychological and physical torture, including the use of electricity. He was then brought before the general military prosecutor on September 12, accused of “founding and directing an organization, in violation of the law, by the name of Association of Families of the Disappeared”; “spreading false information”; and “undermining national security by maintaining relations with a foreign organization.”

Matwally was jailed in the maximum-security section of the Tora prison, where he still awaits judgment. Given the deliberately slow workings of the Egyptian courts, this will undoubtedly take some time. Thanks to Egypt’s “antiterrorist law,” and given the serious accusations against him, Ibrahim Matwally Hegazy now risks a death sentence. He is being kept in solitary confinement in a filthy cell without electricity and full of stagnant water, and is not allowed visitors.

Why such a ferocious response from the Sisi regime against a man of the law who is only demanding justice for himself and the thousands of families affected by the crime of forced disappearances? Simply because the caste that now rules Egypt with an iron fist was shaken by the revolution of January 25, 2011 and has launched a purge of society, which continues to resist.

Though Matwally was a leading figure in the Association of Families of the Disappeared, that resistance movement has not been wiped out. Despite repression, it continues to wage its struggle throughout Egypt.