23 September 2015 will be a day to remember for activists in Egypt and across the globe. It all began on the afternoon of this day, when we started hearing rumours of a pardon for Egypt’s political prisoners to be issued by Al-Sisi. Subsequently, several national and regional media sources confirmed that Al-Sisi pardoned 100 young activists and journalist one day before he was set to travel to New York to attend to the UN General Assembly. The decree, officially named No. 386/2015, was quickly branded as an Eid pardon.
Immediately, I had mixed feelings about the news. Although the pardoning of such a large number of activists, including the likes of Yara Sallam and Sanaa Seif, was enough reason to feel ecstatic and overjoyed, I could not stop thinking: “Pardoned for what exactly?”
One hundred political prisoners were pardoned for a crime they did not commit in the first place. Most importantly, they were pardoned after most of them served two-thirds of their prison time. The time and life taken away from their youth is absolutely unforgivable.
Most of the activists released were defendants in the following infamous cases: The Shura Council protests and the Ittihadiya Palace clashes, both of which received widespread international condemnation. A majority of the prison sentences were issues for violating the notorious Protest Law (Law no. 107) which is in contradiction with Egypt’s own constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms pertaining to the right to assembly and its international obligations outlined by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Most of these socially conscious women and men had been branded as terrorists or a threat to the national security of Egypt, all merely due to their work on what are deemed as contentious issues by the government of Egypt: civil rights, women’s rights and transitional justice. They were all both the makers and the products of the 25 January Revolution, struggling so committedly for a just, equal and free society, and an end to escalating authoritarianism. The political activists pardoned in the 23 September decree are not only defiant of one of the most scandalously repressive regimes in the world, they also look like they won’t back down on their demands to struggle for a free and democratic Egypt any time soon.
As someone who is a part of a feminist organisation, this is why I joined in my colleagues’ enthusiasm and tears of joy as we received news of the release of our Egyptian sisters. However, an email from an incredibly smart colleague of mine voiced a mindful concern: “Let’s celebrate tonight but start thinking about what needs to be done next tomorrow.”
We had to be mindful of our joy, because we – the international human rights, women’s rights and feminist community – are still afraid. This move by Al-Sisi appears to be an attempt to impress world leaders ahead of UN General Assembly, and a smart move to reduce some of the criticism addressing the growing restrictions on human rights defenders, news agencies and civil society organizations. What is of critical concern is that, as long as committed Egyptian activists continue to struggle for justice and political reform, they will carry out their advocacy under great risks. We have doubts as to how sustainable their freedom is.
A grave concern is also the hundreds of political prisoners who are still behind bars in Egypt. To give a few examples, woman human rights defender and lawyer Mahienour El-Massry is still unlawfully kept in Al-Aba’adeya Women’s Prison, as she is imprisoned under the El-Raml Police Station Case. I need not mention that Mahienour is an internationally recognised activist known for her work on civil and political rights, and the rights of political prisoners.
At the time of the writing of this article, Salwa Mehrez and Nahed Sherif were also still in prison with a delayed release. Tragically, Salwa Mehrez’s release is postponed because her name is not written correctly on the pardon.
I am a woman human rights defender from Turkey. Although I am not Egyptian I feel solidarity with those in Egypt, and across the world, who are systematically targeted for wanting to live in free and just societies, particularly because I, and others in Turkey, are also governed by an abominable autocrat making his political decisions based on personal ambitions at the cost of civil rights.
I have no right to make a call on behalf of my Egyptian sisters. However, as an activist, I can make a call in my individual capacity for them. I call on the government of Egypt to immediately and unconditionally stop judicially harassing and threatening political activists. I urge the government of Egypt to stop maliciously silencing those voices who are legitimately striving for a democratic Egypt.
Their struggle is a true source of inspiration for those not only in Egypt but across the globe.
Semanur Karaman is a feminist activist from Turkey who has been specialising in freedoms pertaining to civil society, with a specific focus on Women Human Rights Defenders in the Middle East and North Africa. She is the Women Human Rights Defenders Programme Coordinator at AWID: the Association for Women’s Rights in Development. The article reflects the author’s own views.