Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, but includes a clause stating, “It may be subject to limited censorship in times of war or public mobilization.” The government frequently did not respect this right. Human rights defenders, journalists, activists, and others regularly faced criminal prosecution on charges that observers assessed were brought in response to criticism of the government. Government failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association. According to the law, newspapers are required to print their issues at licensed printing houses registered with the Supreme Council for Media Regulation; news websites must host their servers in the country; newspapers must submit 20 copies of each printed issue to the council; and news websites and television outlets must keep copies of all published or broadcast material online for one year and submit a copy of their published or broadcast material to the council every month. The law also prohibits any recording, filming, or interviews in public places with the intention of broadcasting them on a media outlet without a permit issued by the council.
Freedom of Expression: Citizens expressed their views on a wide range of political and social topics. The government initiated investigations and prosecutions based on allegations of incitement of violence, insults to religion, insults to public figures and institutions such as the judiciary and the military, or abuse of public morals.
The law provides a broad definition of terrorism, to include “any act harming national unity or social peace.” Human rights observers noted that authorities regularly used the ambiguous definition to stifle nonviolent speech and nonviolent opposition activity.
On January 6, the General Authority for Health Insurance banned photography inside hospitals and banned mobile phones from intensive care units. The decision reportedly came after citizens published videos from hospitals showing deaths and suffering of COVID-19 patients due to alleged shortages in the oxygen supplies. The government denied oxygen shortages had contributed to COVID-19-related deaths.
Housing rights researcher Ibrahim Ezzedine remained in pretrial detention since 2019, more than the two years permitted by law. According to a local human rights organization, he was detained after criticizing the government’s urban slums policies and appeared in 2019 before the State Security Prosecution, where he was accused of joining a banned group and spreading false news.
Between January and June, a local organization that tracks freedom of association and speech recorded 65 abuses of the freedoms of media and artistic and digital expression. For example, in 2019 several political figures, including former member of parliament Ziyad el-Aleimy and journalists Hossam Moanes and Hisham Fouad, were arrested on criminal charges of joining a banned group and spreading false news after they met to form the Alliance of Hope political group to run in parliamentary elections. On July 14, they were referred to trial before a misdemeanor emergency court. On November 17, the emergency court sentenced el-Aleimy to five years in prison and a fine, and Moanes and Fouad to four years in prison and a fine, all for spreading false news inside and outside the country. On November 24, the prime minister, as President Sisi’s delegate, ratified the sentences. The defense team told local press that “many legal violations took place in this case” and claimed they were not given access to more than 1,000 prosecution documents. Local human rights lawyers said the sentences issued by the emergency court could not be appealed and that only the president or his delegate could choose to annul, amend, or not implement the sentences. At year’s end the three remained imprisoned. On July 14, the Court of Cassation upheld an April 2020 ruling to include 13 Alliance of Hope defendants on the terrorism list, including el-Aleimy and activist Ramy Shaath, for alleged collaboration with the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
According to media reports, on February 22, the State Security Prosecution transferred Hazem Hosni, spokesperson for Sami Anan’s 2018 presidential campaign and Cairo University political science professor, to house arrest pending further investigations. On June 27, a human rights lawyer announced the criminal court reduced Hosni’s house arrest from seven to three days per week. Hosni had been held in pretrial detention since his 2019 arrest.
Sinai activists Ashraf al-Hefni and Ashraf Ayoub were released on May 27, according to local media. Al-Hefni, who advocated for human rights and the rights of residents of Sinai but publicly rejected “normalization” with Israel, was detained in 2019. Ayoub had been detained since August 2020.
After a criminal court ordered human rights lawyer Mohamed Ramadan’s release on June 13, Ramadan appeared on June 15, still detained, before the State Security Prosecution in a new case on allegations of joining a banned group and spreading false news. Ramadan had been arrested in 2018 for “inciting social unrest” after he posted a photograph of himself wearing a yellow vest akin to those worn by political protesters in France. As of year’s end, he remained in pretrial detention.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Independent media expressed a variety of views but with significant restrictions. The constitution, penal code, and the media and publications law govern media topics. The government regulated the licensing of newspapers and controlled the printing and distribution of most newspapers, including private newspapers. The law does not impose restrictions on newspaper ownership.
More than 20 state-owned media outlets broadly supported official state policy. The National Press Authority held the power to appoint and dismiss editorial leadership of state-owned print outlets. The governmental Egyptian Radio and Television Union appointed the heads of state-owned radio and television channels. Both state-owned and private media (including television and online journalism) occasionally broadcast and published mild criticism of government policies, but dominant media narratives supported the president and his policy initiatives.
Police arrested several journalists during the year for covering politically sensitive topics, some of whom were released, while others remained in detention. Photojournalist Hamdy al-Zaeem was arrested on January 4, one day after he covered worker protests at a chemical plant. Al-Zaeem appeared before the State Security Prosecution on January 16, where he was detained pending trial on allegations of joining a terrorist group and spreading false news on social media, according to local media. At year’s end he remained in pretrial detention.
Journalist Hamdy Atef Hashem Abdel Fattah was arrested on January 4, after publishing a video showing lack of oxygen for COVID-19 patients at a hospital in Gharbia Governorate. He appeared before the State Security Prosecution on January 11 and was subsequently detained on charges of joining a terrorist group and spreading false news on social media, according to media. At year’s end he remained in pretrial detention.
According to a local NGO, cartoonist Ashraf Hamdy was released between August and September pending trial on allegations of misusing social media and spreading false information. He was arrested on January 25 after posting a video on the 10th anniversary of the January 25 revolution.
Business News company owner Mustafa Saqr was released on March 8. He had been held in pretrial detention on allegations of colluding with a terrorist organization, spreading false news, and misusing social media since his April 2020 arrest after publishing an article that discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the economy. On March 8, Islam al-Kalhy, a journalist affiliated with Daarb news website, who was arrested while covering a demonstration in Monieb, Giza, in September 2020, and freelance journalist Hassan al-Qabbani, who was arrested in 2019, were also released.
On April 13, the State Security Prosecution released journalist and former al-Dostour Party leader Khaled Dawoud pending investigation of charges of colluding with a terrorist group, spreading false news, and misusing social media. Dawoud had been held in pretrial detention since his arrest in 2019.
According to the organization, a plainclothes security officer arrested laborer Ahmed al-Araby on May 12 in Banha based on political social media posts he made. The organization added that during the 19 days after his arrest, al-Araby was subjected to beating and electric shocks, interrogated as to whether he had links to the Muslim Brotherhood, and forced to confess involvement in street demonstrations, which he later recanted. He remained in pretrial detention pending trial on allegations of joining a terrorist group, spreading false news, and misusing social media.
As of December the Committee to Protect Journalists reported 25 journalists were imprisoned in the country.
Violence and Harassment: According to media reports and local and international human rights groups, state actors arrested, imprisoned, harassed, and intimidated journalists. The family of detained journalist Mohamed Salah said on social media that Salah had been subjected to severe physical assault and abuse in pretrial detention on January 9. Human rights organizations added that the abuse included stripping Salah and his cell mates of their clothes, hanging them in a hallway, and beating them with metal objects. Amnesty International reported in May that Salah was arrested in 2019, beaten at a police station in December 2020, ordered released, and rearrested in a new case without release. At year’s end he remained in pretrial detention.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Official censorship occurred. The emergency law allows the president to censor information during a state of emergency.
On January 25, an administrative court ordered the Media Regulating Authority to ban YouTube channels that broadcast a film produced in 2013 regarding the Prophet Mohammed that was found to be offensive. On June 30, authorities asked al-Maraya Publishing House to not display and sell a book by imprisoned political activist Ahmed Douma at the Cairo International Book Fair, according to local media.
Media rights organizations said the government blocked thousands of websites, including 127 news websites, including Mada Masr, al–Manassa, and Daarb.
The law considers websites and social media accounts with at least 5,000 subscribers to be media outlets, requires them to pay a licensing fee, and grants the Supreme Council for Media Regulation broad discretion to block their content. On August 23, the council announced that it blocked some websites it said failed to apply for such a license.
The number of arrests for social media posts reportedly had a chilling effect on online speech. Some activists and many journalists reported privately they self-censored criticism of the government or comments that could be perceived as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, due to the government designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and the progovernment media environment. Publishers were also wary of publishing books that criticized religious institutions, such as al-Azhar, or challenged Islamic doctrine. Online journalists were also reluctant to discuss sensitive topics.
Libel/Slander Laws: Blasphemy is a criminal offense. Local and international rights groups reported cases of authorities charging and convicting individuals with denigrating religion under the so-called blasphemy law, targeting primarily Christians but also Muslims.
National Security: The law allows government censors to block the publication of information related to intelligence and national security.
The law imposes a fine on any person who “intentionally publishes…or spreads false news.” The fine is many times the average annual salary of most local journalists. The government maintained hotlines for members of the public to call or leave text messages reporting fake news in either traditional or social media that endangers state security.
On May 29, former ambassador to Venezuela Yehia Negm was arrested on allegations of joining a terrorist group, spreading false news, and misusing social media after he posted a tweet criticizing the government’s management of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam topic.
Atef Hasballah, editor in chief of Alkarar Press website, was released during the year on precautionary measures pending trial, according to a local NGO. Hasballah was arrested in March 2020 following a post on his Facebook page questioning official statistics on the spread of COVID-19 cases in the country.
Judges may issue restraining orders to prevent media from covering court cases considered sensitive on national security grounds. Rights groups stated authorities misused the orders to shield government, police, or military officials from public scrutiny. Citing safety and security measures, the government and military restricted media access to many parts of North Sinai.
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, albeit with some exceptions, including the treatment of potential refugees and asylum seekers.
In-country Movement: Citizens and foreigners may not travel freely in areas of the country designated as military zones. The government sought to prevent private individuals, journalists, civil society figures, and international organizations from entering North Sinai on safety grounds, which the government stated were necessary restrictions in response to long-running counterterrorism operations. According to a local human rights organization, security forces set up security checkpoints in downtown Cairo and other locations around the anniversaries of street protests and conducted searches and arrests without warrants.
Foreign Travel: The constitution states, “No citizen may be prevented from leaving the State territory.” Nonetheless, men who have not completed compulsory military service and have not obtained an exemption may not travel abroad or emigrate. National identification cards indicated completion of military service.
Authorities required citizens between ages 18 and 40 to obtain permission from the Interior Ministry to travel to 16 countries: Georgia, Guinea, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Qatar, South Africa, South Korea, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, and Yemen. Enforcement of these regulations was sporadic. The government stated it intended these regulations to make it more difficult for citizens to join terrorist groups and to stop the flight of criminals. These regulations also affected the ability of other individuals to travel outside the country. Authorities maintained a “no-fly” list that prevented some defendants in court cases from fleeing the country.
The government imposed travel bans on some human rights defenders and political activists who were under investigation or formally charged. Local human rights groups maintained that authorities used travel bans to intimidate and silence human rights defenders. A 2018 court ruling stated a travel ban “does not require the investigation of certain facts and their certainty,” but there must be “serious evidence that there are reasons for it and that the decision to prevent travel is due to security reasons and the interests of the state.” Case 173 defendants who still had travel bans or asset freezes included Hossam Bahgat, Mohamed Zarea, Bahey Eldin Hassan, Abd El Hafez Tayal, and Mostafa El Hassan. On August 24, political science professor Hassan Nafaa posted on Twitter that hours before he intended to travel abroad that day, he learned that he had been banned from traveling. Nafaa appealed to the prosecutor general to reconsider the list of those banned from traveling, claiming the ban in general had changed from a precautionary measure into punishment outside the scope of the law. In March 2020 the State Security Prosecution released Nafaa along with 14 others.
Exile: There was no government-imposed exile, and the constitution prohibits the government from expelling citizens or banning citizens from returning to the country. Some Mubarak- and Morsi-era politicians lived outside the country by choice and stated they faced threats of prosecution.
On June 6, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not have to renew the passport of Ayman Nour, the president of the opposition New Ghad Party, who was living abroad. Nour had filed a lawsuit when the ministry refused to renew his passport at the country’s consulates in Turkey and Lebanon.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees or asylum seekers, as well as other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the protection of political refugees, but the law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a comprehensive legal regime for providing protection to refugees. The government granted UNHCR authority to make refugee status determinations. UNHCR does not register Libyan citizens; neither does it register or assist Palestinian refugees in the country.
According to UNHCR, as of August asylum seekers in the country came mainly from Syria, as well as from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen.
In 2013 the government began applying a system of visa and security clearance requirements for Syrian nationals and Palestinian refugees from Syria, thus assuring no direct entries from Syria, since the country lacked consular services there. Following the UNHCR’s visit in 2017, the country relaxed its visa requirements for Syrians seeking family reunification.
Reports of irregular movements of individuals, including asylum seekers, and detention of foreign nationals attempting to depart the country irregularly via the Mediterranean by boat, had almost stopped, according to UNHCR, following enactment and enforcement of a law dramatically increasing patrols on the country’s Mediterranean coast in 2016.
UNHCR had limited access to detention centers and border areas, except in cases upon approval by authorities. Local rights groups faced continued resistance from the government when trying to interview detainees at Qanater men’s and women’s prisons outside Cairo, which housed most detained refugees and asylum seekers. Authorities generally released asylum seekers registered with UNHCR but frequently did not release detained migrants, many of whom were Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali, and Sudanese, who may have had a basis for asylum claims. Authorities often held detained migrants as unregistered asylum seekers in police stations and sometimes sent them to regular prisons alongside convicted criminals or deported them.
The government did not recognize UNHCR’s mandate to offer services to Palestinians outside of the fields of operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency, reportedly due to a belief that allowing UNHCR registration would negate Palestinian refugees’ right of return. Approximately 2,900 Palestinian refugees from Syria were also present in the country, the majority reportedly in Cairo. The Palestinian Authority mission in the country provided limited assistance to this population. The Swiss Red Cross also provided some humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees from Syria.
Refoulement: Although the government often contacted UNHCR upon detaining unregistered migrants and asylum seekers, authorities reportedly sometimes encouraged unregistered detainees to choose to return to their countries of origin or a neighboring country to avoid continued detention, even in cases where the individuals expressed a fear of return. The number of these cases was unknown.
On September 10, Amnesty International called on the government to halt the threatened deportation of two Eritrean nationals to Eritrea, where they could face persecution. Local media reported the two had been detained since 2012 and 2013. At year’s end they had not been deported. The two men claimed to be Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Authorities deported eight Eritrean migrants on October 19, seven on October 31, and 24 on December 30, including several children, to Asmara, where they were detained upon arrival, according to local media and local NGOs. Despite multiple requests, UNHCR said it was not granted access to the detainees to make a refugee determination. Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement on November 19 “deploring” the country’s abuse of the principle of nonrefoulement.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: Media, NGOs, and UNHCR staff reported multiple cases of attacks against refugees, particularly women and children. According to UNHCR, refugees sometimes reported harassment, sexual harassment, and discrimination. Refugee women and girls, particularly Sudanese and other sub-Saharan Africans, faced the greatest risk of societal, sexual, and gender-based violence.
According to UNHCR and press reports, police security sweeps continued in neighborhoods known to house Syrian, Sudanese, and other African refugees, as well as migrants, resulting in increased detentions. Detainees at times reported authorities subjected them to verbal abuse and poor detention conditions.
Employment: No law grants or prohibits refugees the right to work. Those seeking employment were hampered by lack of jobs and societal discrimination, particularly against Sudanese and other sub-Saharan Africans. Refugees who found work took low-paying jobs in the informal market, such as domestic servants, and were vulnerable to financial and sexual exploitation by employers.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees, in particular non-Arabic-speaking refugees from Sudan and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, faced barriers to accessing some services, including health care and public education. The Interior Ministry restricted access for some international organizations seeking to assist migrants and refugees in Sinai. UNHCR provided some refugees with modest support for education and health care, as well as small monthly financial assistance grants for particularly vulnerable refugees. The International Organization for Migration provided additional assistance to particularly vulnerable migrants and individual asylum cases that were either rejected or being processed by UNHCR.
Refugee children not enrolled in public schools mainly attended refugee-run schools or private schools, or they were home schooled. The law requires government hospitals to provide free emergency medical care to refugees, but many hospitals could not do so. In some cases hospitals reportedly insisted that refugees provide payment in advance of receiving services or refused to provide services to refugees. One local refugee agency reported some refugees died due to the lack of medical care.
Of the eight stateless persons known to UNHCR, most were Armenians displaced for more than 50 years. According to a local civil society organization, the number of stateless persons in the country was likely higher than the number recorded by UNHCR. The government and UNHCR lacked a mechanism for identifying stateless persons, including those of disputed Sudanese/South Sudanese nationality and those of disputed Ethiopian/Eritrean nationality. A majority of the approximately 70,000 Palestinian refugees were stateless.
On February 11, the Interior Ministry announced it granted citizenship to three brothers from the al-Muzaina tribe in Dahab, South Sinai. Media reported in February that some Bedouins in Sinai remained stateless after Israel handed the Sinai back to the country in 1982, and others remained stateless in disputed border areas with Sudan.