Matthias Monroy, Leil-Zahra Mortada
The German Federal Government expresses its concern about the human rights situation and crackdown on civil society in Egypt. Despite this fact, the two countries have begun to implement a new security cooperation agreement, and in August they concluded another agreement regarding cooperation in the area of migration. According to the Federal Foreign Office, these measures help promote the values and principles of the rule of law.
According to Amnesty International, at least 40,000 politically persecuted individuals are imprisoned in Egypt. The majority of them are members of the Muslim Brotherhood and are thus supporters of former President Mohammed Morsi, who was overthrown by military general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi three years ago. Civil rights and human rights groups, bloggers, journalists and lawyers are also being specifically persecuted. Now the Egyptian authorities are targeting the queer scene in Cairo. Since 22 September, the police have arrested dozens of LGBTQI activists – as well as people they perceive to be LGBTQI activists. The wave of arrests began after rainbow flags were waved in the audience at a concert by the Lebanese band Mashrou‘ Leila in Cairo.
The persecution of homosexual and trans people in Egypt is not a new phenomenon. According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), more than 232 people have been arrested since the end of 2013 and sentenced to prison terms that average three years but are in some cases as long as twelve years. There have been at least 54 new arrests since September, with nine of those affected having already been sentenced to up to six years‘ imprisonment in expedited proceedings. The country’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation has now issued a decree banning all positive portrayals of gay or lesbian people in the media. The decree describes homosexuality as a sickness.
The current wave of raids and searches has, for the first time, affected many well-known activists. The government is prosecuting them under a section of the law on “licentious behaviour” and “debauchery” on the grounds that they either commit such offences themselves or have encouraged or solicited such behaviour. Some of them are charged with membership in an illegal organisation that acts in violation of the law and the constitution. The police have once again conducted forced anal exams, inserting a metal instrument into people’s rectums to prove that they are homosexual. The UN Committee against Torture has condemned this degrading and violent practice. Medical associations such as the Lebanese physicians‘ union and the Tunisian medical council have stated that there is absolutely no medical justification for such “examinations”.
Arrests following Internet monitoring
The police arrested some concertgoers on the basis of photographs that appeared on social media. They were forced to hand over the passwords to their Facebook accounts, which the police then searched for further evidence and contacts. For years, the police have also been using dating apps such as Grindr and PlanetRomeo to arrange fake dates at which the targeted individuals are arrested. The apps‘ profile photos and user location function have helped the police in this pursuit. Germany’s Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) has also faced criticism regarding this practice, as the Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt, BKA) provided training to Egyptian authorities on investigating Internet users in 2011, just weeks before the revolt against the old Mubarak regime. An additional workshop on internet surveillance was planned for December 2016 with a focus on websites that “are misused by terrorists to disseminate their extremist ideology and prepare terrorist attacks”. The workshop was initially postponed and has now been cancelled entirely. Regarding the reasons, the Federal Foreign Office has stated that “some of the knowledge and skills imparted during this training course could potentially be used not only to pursue terrorists but also to persecute other groups of people”. It is not possible to reconstruct a timeline of when the Federal Government arrived at this new point of view. In recent months, however, reports of ever-greater regulation and control of the Internet by the Egyptian Government have become more frequent. The specific monitoring forms and instruments that were to be presented at the internet surveillance workshop are not known. The Federal Ministry of the Interior has named members of the Egyptian Ministry of Interior as the intended participants. These were likely members of the National Security Sector (NSS), with which the Federal Criminal Police Office has carried out similar measures in the past two years. The NSS is a domestic intelligence service with police powers, which has repeatedly been accused of grave human rights violations.
Since May of this year, 434 websites have been blocked, including Deutsche Welle’s site Qantara.de, the German-language website of Reporters Without Borders, the sites of news agencies such as Al Jazeera and Daily News Egypt, and the well-known emancipatory news portal Mada Masr. After the human rights organisation Human Rights Watch issued a report on torture in Egypt, its website was also blocked. Only then did the Federal Foreign Office respond by issuing a critical statement from its Human Rights Commissioner on the suspension of websites in Egypt. This did not help: many VPN services, which make it possible to get around website blocks, have now also been blocked. The encrypted messaging service Signal is also periodically unusable in Egypt.
Cooperation with the Egyptian secret service
The cancellation of the workshop, however, remains a single measure and has no bearing on what is otherwise very extensive cooperation. The projects currently being planned with the NSS include courses on “foundations and methods of analysis”, “advanced training of managers”, “a working visit in the field of negotiation”, and German language courses. The Federal Criminal Police Office works not only with the NSS, but also with the General Intelligence Service (GIS), a secret service with which the Federal Government has started an “expert exchange at a technical level” on “combatting terrorism and extremism”. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the Federal Intelligence Service are also taking part in this at the invitation of the Federal Criminal Police Office. The Federal Criminal Police Office has posted a liaison officer to Cairo to “exchange information on extremist/terrorist matters”. Some of the workshops are designed to train instructors and have taken place in Cairo, Berlin, Meckenheim, Magdeburg and Wiesbaden. Members of the Egyptian secret services have been invited to the Joint Counter-Terrorism Centre (GTAZ) in the Treptow district of Berlin on several occasions. Additional visits to the State Security Division of the Federal Criminal Police Office have also taken place. The topics addressed there included “combatting extremism, (de-)radicalisation, travel by Islamism-oriented persons, and approaches to combatting these”. The training measures also address financial investigations to trace bank accounts and money transfers. In 2015, the Federal Ministry of the Interior, working in cooperation with the Berlin police, hosted representatives of the NSS who shadowed the security preparations for a football game at Olympic Stadium in Berlin.
The head of the Egyptian police training academy has also attended an exchange of information in Germany, where he met with people including representatives of the Federal University of Applied Sciences, the German Police University, the state police of a German federal state, and the Federal Criminal Police Office. Additional visits have been planned, and these are also to include the Federal Police Academy. Federal Police projects also include security at Egyptian airports. Employees of the Federal Criminal Police Office have carried out an evaluation of Egyptian air safety standards together with the Federal Aviation Office and the Federal Police. This evaluation concerns, among other things, passenger controls and the checking of passengers‘ identity documents against international databases. The Federal Police are also working together with the NSS domestic intelligence service on this, and additional training measures for Egyptian police and border authorities are currently being coordinated.
Deportation and voluntary repatriation
In June of last year, the German and Egyptian interior ministries signed a German-Egyptian Security Cooperation Agreement that was the result of a year-long negotiation process. This agreement governs closer cooperation on emergency responses, law enforcement, and technical assistance in the event of disasters. Both sides also want to exchange “experts” and information in these areas. The German Bundestag ratified the security agreement in April. After receiving a green light from the Egyptian Government, the agreement took effect on 30 July 2017.
In August, the Federal Government finally signed an Agreement on Bilateral Dialogue on Migration. The agreement is targeted at joint efforts to combat “trafficking and smuggling of human beings”, as well as to “improve border protection”. Talks on the implementation of the agreement are now to begin. Alongside training measures, awareness campaigns are to be carried out with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in order to “warn of the dangers of irregular migration”. The Egyptian authorities are to be supported in the voluntary repatriation of third-party nationals in Egypt with irregular immigration status. The most important partner in this area is the National Coordinating Committee on Combatting and Preventing Illegal Migration (NCCPIM), which was established in 2016. Improved cooperation in the deportation and voluntary repatriation of Egyptians in Germany who are obliged to leave the country has also been agreed.
Terrorism definition “excessive”
In light of the disastrous human rights situation, which many organisations have confirmed, the conclusion of two new agreements is surprising. Indeed, by its own admission, the Federal Government is aware of the reports about this. Two years ago, the Federal Foreign Office confirmed that “repression of civil society” has increased recently and that the work of NGOs is “closely monitored”. The broad concept of terrorism in the counterterrorism law of 26 November 2014 was described as “excessive” and as being “used repeatedly” by the security authorities and the judiciary “in the context of demonstrations”. Areas of freedom have been “continually reduced” in recent years, according to the Federal Government, which also applies to projects and organisations to which German citizens contribute. These too are sometimes monitored by security authorities. According to the Federal Government, it “regularly raises the topic” of reports related to these issues to the Egyptian authorities, and regularly urges them to respect human rights.
In light of the ongoing wave of arrests of LGBTQI individuals and activists as well as the use of methods that violate human rights, such as forced anal exams, the Federal Foreign Office has recently stated to its Egyptian partners that it is “troubled” and “profoundly concerned”. It has reaffirmed that respect for human rights “is of fundamental importance for bilateral cooperation”. In response to the assertion that this must lead to the consequence of halting all cooperation within the scope of the new security cooperation agreement with Egypt, the Federal Foreign Office writes that the planned measures have been designed in such a way that “human rights violations will not be abetted” through their implementation. The new German-Egyptian cooperation, they write, even focuses on “imparting and fostering the values and principles of the rule of law”.
However, the agreement does not provide for any review of adherence to human rights or the rule of law. On this point, the Federal Foreign Office writes that the corresponding reviews take place on an ongoing basis at the German Embassy in Cairo. According to this, no indications of deterioration of the human rights situation through German police cooperation have been found yet.
Image: Concert of the Lebanese band Mashrou‘ Leila in Cairo.