Western governments should demand Egypt stop its ‘murderous repression’
‘The guests at the “investment summit” should realise they aren’t just there to watch powerpoints and pony up cash. Their presence is complicity; they’re lending their credibility to a criminal regime’
Omaima (left), Fatima and Somaia Halawa, sisters of Ibrahim Halawa, who is currently in prison in Egypt. ‘Now, with 493 other defendants in a grotesque mass trial, he faces the death penalty for alleged murder and terrorism.’ Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Ibrahim Halawa was 17 when he was arrested. He’s 19 now. He may be dead before he’s 20. An Irish citizen, he was visiting Cairo in August 2013 when he and his three sisters were caught up in the chaos of anti-government demonstrations. They took refuge in a downtown mosque, and there Egyptian security forces seized them. Authorities freed his sisters; but Ibrahim has been held for a year and a half, kept in solitary and tortured. Now, with 493 other defendants in a grotesque mass trial, he faces the death penalty for alleged murder and terrorism.
From western governments’ feeble response, you’d think Ibrahim was a dangerous reject, one of those lost children of Europe who have gone off to augment the Islamic State. But he wasn’t. Even if he joined the demonstrations – and there is absolutely no evidence for the dictatorship’s claims – these were predominantly peaceful protests against the overthrow of the only freely elected government in Egypt’s history. The military killed more than a thousand dissidents in those few days, most in cold blood. Ibrahim is lucky to be alive.
On March 13th-15th, the government that wants to kill Ibrahim Halawa will host a gala “economic summit” to beg for money. Thousands of foreign businessmen and international lenders have been invited. The investment opportunities on offer are unpersuasive: they include a $20 billion project for the tallest skyscraper in Egypt, a monument to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s pharaonic fantasies but unlikely to profit anyone except the cement industry. The summit is less about economics than politics – hence the governments on the guest list, there to cajole their captains of commerce into following. John Kerry is expected; David Cameron is sending a delegation. Sisi needs desperately to legitimise his rule with foreign investment and support. The attendees are offering public endorsement to one of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East.
Sisi has brutally suppressed Egyptians’ human rights. Four years after a popular revolution overthrew Hosni Mubarak, the state crushes opposition with a ferocious ease that the elder dictator – now freed from jail – must envy. Human rights activists estimate there are over 40,000 political prisoners in concentration camps and penitentiaries. A ruthless protest law punishes almost any public gathering with prison. The authorities threaten civil society with extinction; many organisations have already been closed down, and a presidential decree permits life sentences for activists who accept foreign funds.
But it’s not just political dissent that faces reprisal. Since October 2013, police have carried out a spreading crackdown on alleged gay and transgender people, arresting over 150 for homosexual conduct. Prison sentences have ranged up to 12 years. The vice squad raids private homes to sweep up victims and, by its own admission, keeps fake profiles on internet sites to “monitor” their doings.
A regime that persecutes Islamists and gays with comparable fervour is at least an equal-opportunity oppressor. But the campaign against LGBT Egyptians puts the lie to official claims the repression combats “terrorism”. These arrests aren’t about preserving security; they are about showing the pure power of the surveillance state. The trials of LGBT people and the terrorisation of misbelieving Muslims share an overriding purpose. They remind ordinary Egyptians that they have neither privacy nor rights, that their lives are vulnerable and their homes porous, that intimacy and belief and the integrity of the person are all under state control.
The guests at the “investment summit” should realise they aren’t just there to watch PowerPoints and pony up cash. Their presence is complicity; they’re lending their credibility to a criminal regime. Governments such as the US and UK that prominently participate in the charade should face hard questions at home. Why do their vocal promises about defending human rights – including the rights of LGBT people – go out the window when Sisi cynically demands support?
What about the businesses that will attend? Consider the WPP Group, the advertising and PR giant that keeps its executive offices, for tax purposes, in Ireland. Its chief executive, Sir Martin Sorrell, features prominently on the speakers list. WPP has extensive business interests along the Nile, and a pliant history with Cairo’s powers. During the 2011 revolution, when Egypt’s phone and internet providers did Mubarak’s bidding and shut down services to stifle the uprising, Sorrell took to the editorial pages with an impassioned defence of Vodafone Egypt. He failed to mention that Vodafone Egypt was a WPP client.
It’s perhaps optimistic to expect WPP to say much in defence of human rights. Yet corporations are responsible not just to abstract principles, but to their own employees. And WPP has made promises it must keep. WPP’s “Code of Business Conduct” protects all LGBT staffers against discrimination. It also pledges to “give appropriate consideration to the impact of our work on minority segments of the population, whether that minority be by race, religion, national origin, colour, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age or disability”. How can WPP protect its LGBT workers in Egypt when it works with a government that wants to jail them? How does its promotion of Sisi’s regime “impact” LGBT Egyptians, facing arrest and torture with little international protest?
Many western firms attending Sisi’s summit have made similar commitments, on LGBT rights or human rights in general. Remind them what they’ve promised. All attendees at Sisi’s money-grubbing party should use the platform to speak out. They must demand the state stop its murderous repression. They must insist economic progress is inseparable from human rights. Blood money rubs off. If Sisi’s guests don’t raise their voices, they’ll never wash their hands clean.
Scott Long, a former Human Rights Watch director and activist for LGBT people’s human rights, lives and writes in Cairo. He blogs at paper-bird.net