Sisi’s Transnational Repression: Silencing Political Dissidents in Exile

On January 6, the FBI arrested Pierre Girgis, an Egyptian American, for spying on critics of Egypt’s president in the United States. According to the US Department of Justice, Girgis was indicted by a Manhattan federal court for acting as an illegal agent of Egypt as he “tracked and obtained information regarding political opponents of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.” Girgis’s case is another indicator of the autocratic nature of Sisi’s regime and reveals how far that regime will go in targeting and intimidating its political opponents. Since seizing power after the coup of 2013, Sisi quashed political opposition at home and is making every effort to silence it abroad, too. The Egyptian president’s repressive policies against the opposition are emboldened and encouraged by the silence of his western allies, particularly the United States, which has done little to stop or prevent these policies.

The Girgis Case

Since the coup of 2013, Sisi’s regime succeeded in stifling internal opposition by activists from all walks of political life: Islamists, liberals, leftists, and others. He threw thousands of them in prison, closed the public space, and cracked down on human rights organizations and demonized their advocates. The only force that remained out of his reach was the opposition in exile. As divided and weak as they are, political exiles continue to be a thorn in Sisi’s side and the case of Girgis underscores that fact. According to the Department of Justice’s indictment, Girgis has been spying on Egyptian dissidents in the United States from 2014 to 2019, where he “operated at the direction and control of multiple officials of the Egyptian government.” Girgis managed to build good relations with some American law enforcement officers as he leveraged his connections with them “to collect non-public information at the direction of Egyptian officials.”

Girgis is charged with conspiring to act, and acting, as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the US attorney general, charges that carry combined maximum sentences of up to 15 years in prison.

Furthermore, Girgis attempted to help Egyptian officials to gain access and participate in law enforcement-only trainings in Manhattan. He also attempted to “covertly gather non-public intelligence about the activities of political opponents of Egypt’s president.” Girgis is charged with conspiring to act, and acting, as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the US attorney general, charges that carry combined maximum sentences of up to 15 years in prison. The Girgis case raises several questions not only about the legality of his activities in the United States but, more importantly, about their political implications either on Sisi’s policies or on the relationship between the United States and Egypt.

Sisi’s Transnational Repression

Girgis’s case is not isolated from Sisi’s coercive policies against the opposition abroad. Over the past eight years, Sisi’s regime targeted opposition figures in exile using multiple tactics and tools. After the coup of 2013, several prominent opposition figures, activists, human rights advocates, and journalists fled the country and took refuge in countries around the globe including Turkey, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. Since then, Egypt’s security and intelligence agencies have attempted to silence them using strategies such as fabricating bogus charges against dissidents (like “terrorism” and spreading “false information”), storming their homes in Egypt and freezing their financial assets, and, most importantly, demonizing and portraying them as “fifth column” conspirators against the state. More strikingly, in July 2019, Egypt’s Minister of Immigration Nabila Makram voiced threats to Egyptian dissidents abroad; she was caught in a video during a meeting with a group of Egyptians in Toronto saying that “Anyone who speaks out against our country from abroad – what happens to him? He’ll be sliced up.”

The Sisi regime’s approach to dealing with opponents in exile uses the carrot and stick tactic. In some cases, the regime would woo opponents by allowing them to return home in exchange for stopping their criticism. If this lure fails, the government would then turn to intimidation and spying. In fact, Pierre Girgis is not the first person to work for Sisi’s regime and spy on its political opponents abroad. On November 16, 2020, German authorities charged a man who was spying for Egypt while working at the press office of Germany’s former Chancellor Angela Merkel. Similar to the Girgis case, a German citizen of Egyptian origin had provided information to Egypt’s General Intelligence Service (GIS) since 2010. He gathered information about the Egyptian opposition in Germany and attempted to recruit another spy for the GIS, according to a 2019 German intelligence report. A number of Egyptian dissidents, including activists, bloggers, journalists, and human rights advocates, have been living in Berlin since the coup of 2013 and they are afraid of the reach of Sisi’s regime. In fact, some of them were targeted and detained by the regime. According to Middle East Eye, an Egyptian man was arrested and jailed in Egypt after he returned from Germany where he attended an anti-regime protest during Sisi’s visit there in 2015. He was sentenced for two years in prison. In addition, on June 20, 2015, Al Jazeera’s senior journalist, Ahmed Mansour, was detained in Germany as a result of an Egyptian arrest warrant while he was attempting to board a flight from Berlin’s Tegel airport to Doha. He was released two days later.

Officials in some Egyptian embassies and consulates abroad are complicit in targeting and intimidating political opponents.

Officials in some Egyptian embassies and consulates abroad are complicit in targeting and intimidating political opponents. On November 29, 2015, the freelance journalist and researcher Ismail Alexandrani was arrested at Hurghada airport upon his return from Berlin, where he participated in a workshop about radicalization in Egypt. According to one of Alexandrani’s colleagues who attended that workshop, the Egyptian embassy in Berlin had protested the attendance of some participants because of their alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, the organizers of the workshop warned participants that their safety might be jeopardized if they returned to Egypt. Although the link is not substantiated, it is widely believed that the Egyptian embassy in Berlin provided information that led to Alexandrani’s detention in Egypt, which resulted in handing him a 10-year prison sentence after trial before a military court.

Some Egyptian consulates use their powers and prerogatives to deprive dissidents of their legal rights, such as refusing to issue official paperwork and documents or renew their Egyptian passports. According to a report by the Egyptian Network of Human Rights, political opponents of Sisi’s regime abroad struggled to renew their passports, and Sisi’s regime threatened to revoke the passports of exiled political activists. Moreover, some of the activists were stripped of their Egyptian citizenship; an example is the case of the political activist Ghada Naguib, now living in Turkey, whose citizenship was revoked in December 2020. In fact, there are several Egyptian activists, media personnel, politicians, and former officials who live in exile and are facing the danger of losing Egyptian citizenship because of their political activism, including Moataz Matar, Mohammad Nasser, Hamza Zawba, Medhat al-Haddad, and Yehia Hamid. Further, the Egyptian government also harasses graduate students, researchers, and scholars abroad. For example, Taqadum Al-Khatib was a doctoral student at the Free University of Berlin during 2013-2019 and his doctoral study was fully funded through a state-sponsored scholarship. However, because of his political activism in Germany, the Office of the Cultural Attaché in the Egyptian embassy in Berlin “carried out a campaign of verbal and written threats” against him. According to Al-Khatib, Ahmed Ghoneim—the attaché at the time—attempted to intimidate him and force him to return to Egypt. In the end, Al-Khatib’s scholarship was terminated and he was fired from his job in Egypt.

Egyptian authorities use advanced technology in order to track, monitor, and suppress the voices of opponents. In December 2021, news media reported that the telephone of the prominent liberal opposition figure in exile, Ayman Nour, was hacked. The internet security watchdog, The Citizen Lab, confirmed that Nour’s phone was hacked by two separate pieces of government-operated spyware. In addition, the surveillance programs used in the hacking operation were made by the Israeli NSO Group and Cytrox, a Europe-based firm. Using cyber technology and electronic hacking has been a pattern and a key component of the future of digital authoritarianism in the region, particularly against political opponents in exile. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been using cyber and surveillance technologies in order to track and monitor their domestic and regional opponents. Even after the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia continues to use Israeli cyber-surveillance technology to muffle its opponents.

Targeting Dissidents’ Families at Home

Terrorizing and intimidating Egyptian dissidents’ families at home is another tactic to target and silence Sisi’s opponents and critics abroad. Over the past few years, family members and relatives of prominent activists and human rights defenders have been arrested and tortured, their houses were raided and vandalized, and they were banned from leaving the country. According to a Human Rights Watch report, 28 Egyptian journalists, media figures, and political and human rights activists were subjected to regime reprisal and revenge during 2016-2019. The report reveals that “In each case, authorities have harassed or threatened one or more family members in Egypt, or in some cases subjected family members to extrajudicial punishments, apparently as reprisals for their relatives’ activism.” For example, on February 16, 2021, security forces broke into the homes of six relatives of the Egyptian-American human rights defender Mohamed Soltan. Two of them were arrested and imprisoned in an act of reprisal against Soltan’s activism through his organization, Freedom Initiative. The government’s action was punishment for Soltan’s filing a lawsuit in the United States against Egypt’s former prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, for his role in torturing Soltan when he was imprisoned in Egypt.

Over the past few years, family members and relatives of prominent activists and human rights defenders have been arrested and tortured, their houses were raided and vandalized, and they were banned from leaving the country

On March 24, 2020, Egyptian authorities stormed the houses of the relatives of Abdulla el-Sherif, a well-known and influential YouTuber who lives in exile, because he criticized the Sisi regime. Two of Sherif’s brothers were arrested and imprisoned on terrorism charges. In December 2021, Sherif tweeted that his 74-year-old father also was arrested after he broadcast a leaked phone call that revealed financial corruption among Sisi’s senior officials; a few hours later, he tweeted that his father was released and pledged not to publish any more leaks. Similarly, the family of Moataz Matar, a prominent media figure and social media influencer who has lived in exile since 2013, faces retaliation from the Sisi regime because of his outspoken program on YouTube that exposes Sisi’s brutal policies and challenges the pro-state media narrative on human rights violations in Egypt. On March 4, 2019, Matar tweeted that two of his brothers and their wives and children disappeared after leaving Al-Ahly Sports Club in Cairo. Security forces also raided the house of his 66-year-old mother. Matar himself was sentenced in October 2021, in absentia, to 15 years in prison for contempt of court and belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. Likewise, Aly Hussin Mahdy, a young YouTuber and social media influencer, fled Egypt after he was arrested and tortured for two months for joining an anti-regime protest after the coup of 2013. He has been an asylum seeker in the United States since 2019. His father, uncle, and cousin were arrested last year as a punishment for Mr. Mahdy’s activism and for speaking out against the regime on social media.

By holding hostage the families and relatives of political dissidents, Sisi’s regime shows its ruthless and inhumane policy against political dissidents. In addition, the regime targets families of political leaders abroad. On January 30, 2020, Mohamed Mahsoob, Egypt’s former minister of state for parliamentary affairs (from August to December 2012) tweeted that his sister was forcibly disappeared for 68 days; Human Rights Watch reported that she was charged with allegedly being a member of a “terrorist” group.

Implicating Western Allies

The silence of the Sisi regime’s western allies regarding its harsh policies against the opposition in exile is appalling and stunning. In fact, it is that silence that emboldens and encourages the regime, and others like it in the region, to commit more human rights violations without fearing any reprisal or consequences, especially from allies. Moreover, since it came to power, the Sisi government succeeded in trading gruesome violations of human rights for billions of dollars in arms sales from western countries. For example, it became one of the top buyers of German arms: according to official German figures, Egypt hit a new record, with arms sales from Germany reaching $4.9 billion in 2021 (€4.33 billion).

The silence of the Sisi regime’s western allies regarding its harsh policies against the opposition in exile is appalling and stunning. In fact, it is that silence that emboldens and encourages the regime.

Similarly, the Sisi regime has strengthened its relationship with Italy through arms sales. According to the Italian Network for Peace and Disarmament, Egypt was the leading buyer of Italian weapons in 2020, for the second year in a row. Trade between Italy and Egypt reached $7.2 billion in 2018, and the investments in Egypt of the Italian oil giant Eni hit about $13 billion in 2019. Italy’s complicity in Egypt’s malign intentions further became clear on August 1, 2018, when former minister Mohamed Mahsoob tweeted that the Italian police was holding him for three hours “at the request of the Egyptian authorities to extradite” him. According to the The Guardian, Mahsoob was detained at Catania airport before traveling to the city of Comiso, where Italian police arrested and held him overnight. Finally, in addition to the tens of billions of dollars in US weapons deliveries to Egypt over the last half century, despite its serious violations of human rights, the Biden Administration on January 25 authorized the sale of $2.5 billion in military aircraft and radar systems to the country.

Sisi also employs Egypt’s regional weight and role in order to secure his western allies’ support and neutralize them regarding political dissent. For example, he exploited the May 2021 confrontation between Israel and Hamas and brokered a cease-fire that ended the war on Gaza in May 2021, enabling him to gain the attention and support of the Biden Administration. Four days later, he was rewarded with a telephone call from President Joe Biden, who ironically had pledged during his presidential campaign not to give Sisi, Trump’s “favorite dictator,” “blank checks” from the United States.

It is unlikely that the Sisi regime will stop targeting and intimidating opponents abroad as long as Egypt’s western allies are willing to coddle and support the president. This would make them unambiguously complicit in the crimes of one of Egypt’s most authoritarian regimes in modern history.

Photo credit: Flickr/Alisdare Hickson