Egypt slaps travel bans on critics
CAIRO - When he arrived at Cairo Airport to fly to the United States for a seminar on rights and freedoms a few weeks ago, democracy campaigner Hossam Eddin Aly was told he was banned from travelling.
Aly, the head of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, was travelling at the invitation of the US State Department and said he thought it must be a case of mistaken identity. However, when an Egyptian security officer questioned him, he realised there was no mistake.
“The officer asked me about why I would travel, who invited me to the seminar and who I would meet in the US,” Aly said. “This was the first time I was invited to visit the US.”
Aly is on a long list of Egyptians banned from leaving the country, apparently for angering authorities. Egyptian rights activists said the government uses travel and entry bans to punish opponents.
The rights group Daftar Ahwal has documented the cases of 554 people who have been banned from leaving or entering Egypt since February 2011. It said 46% of those were political activists, 39% of them men of religion and 8% rights activists such as Aly.
The local non-profit Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms recorded 404 instances of people banned from travelling since July 2013, with 277 of those bans coming in 2014.
The organisation said the travel bans were politically motivated, noting the most flagrant case was that of a 17-year-old who was prevented from travelling to California to participate in an international technological innovation contest in 2014. The young man was accused of joining the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement and forming a “rebel group”.
Rights advocates said this was a violation of the Egyptian constitution but government supporters accuse activists of spreading lies about human rights in Egypt.
“This is a violation that gives a very bad impression about this country,” said Abdul Ghaffar Shukr, a veteran of Egyptian politics. “The authorities have no right to prevent people from travelling without a judicial order.”
Retired police major-general Farouk al-Megrahi accused activists and some politicians of trying to tarnish Egypt’s reputation.
“Only those implicated in legal violations examined by the nation’s courts are banned from travelling,” Megrahi said. “It is a precautionary judiciary measure to prevent them from escaping, which means that travel bans have nothing to do with politics.”
Bringing a court case is an easy matter for authorities, who insist the judicial system is independent and not politicised. Some observers said the claim of independence is mostly true but cannot explain why the country’s activists are being charged in such large numbers.
A rights advocate was prosecuted recently for proposing a law to prevent torture at police stations.
Other activists, including founder of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information Gamal Eid and investigative reporter and human rights campaigner Hossam Bahgat were banned from travelling, having been accused of receiving funds from foreign agencies and governments. The case against them dates to December 2011 when authorities raided the offices of a number of pro-democracy groups, including the office of US-based non-governmental organisation Freedom House, accusing them of receiving funds to destabilise Egypt.
A number of foreigners were implicated in the case but Egypt’s then military rulers allowed the foreigners to leave. They only reopened the case recently.
Those who have followed Aly’s case said they know the true reasons for his treatment.
In August 2013, Aly accepted an invitation to go to an eastern Cairo square, where thousands of people were protesting the overthrow of Islamist president Muhammad Morsi.
Aly’s academy has also called for tough measures against administrative corruption. The academy organises workshops to educate the public in democratic practices, elections and transparency.
Restrictions to freedom of movement, however, could threaten Egypt’s relations internationally.
On March 8th, the European Parliament called for the suspension of security assistance to Egypt, citing human rights violations, including travel bans on activists and politicians.
On March 18th, the United States expressed concern over what it described as the “deterioration” of the human rights conditions in Egypt, saying restrictions to civil societies would produce neither stability nor security.
Aly said the decision to prevent him from travelling would be received negatively and give a bad impression.
“When anybody asks me about the reasons why I did not attend the seminar in the US, my answer will be that I had been banned from travelling,” Aly said. “This will surely negatively affect the way others see us as a people and a country.”