Egypt arrests Coptic community rights activist amid heightened surveillance measures

Thursday, December 5, 2019

CAIRO (RNS) -- In the early hours of Nov. 23, seven plainclothes police officers arrived at the home of Ramy Kamel, a 33-year-old tailor and civil rights advocate for the Coptic community in Egypt.

At 1:45 a.m., a squad from Egypt's Homeland Security -- which has arrested hundreds of community activists, street demonstrators and independent journalists in recent months -- confiscated Kamel's books, laptop computer, digital camera and mobile phone.

Egyptian and international human rights groups say the security officers beat Kamel and proceeded to interrogate him without his lawyer present.

The following day, the Coptic activist known for advocating for Egypt's urban poor and rural peasants was charged with joining and financing a terrorist group and disrupting public peace.

According to the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, a nonprofit that monitors the compliance of international human rights law throughout the Arab region, the Supreme State Security Prosecution in Cairo's Fifth Settlement neighborhood also charged Kamel with inciting public opinion against the state and using social media to exacerbate tensions between Muslims and Christians.

The Coptic community, thought to number at least 15 million in a nation of 110 million, is outraged and worried.

"Ramy Kamel has been the voice of the weakest, most marginalized group in our society, especially in Upper Egypt," said Makarios Lahzy, a Cairo-based attorney who called for Kamel's immediate release at a U.N.-sponsored global minority rights conference in Geneva last week.

Lahzy fears Kamel's arrest indicates that the government under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi will no longer tolerate any criticism of how Egypt treats the largest population of Christians in the Middle East. "His targeting is a blow to the Coptic human rights movement," Lahzy said.

The state prosecutor sentenced Kamel to 15 days' imprisonment pending investigation in Case no. 1475, an ongoing file maintained by State Security involving multiple defendants charged with participating in a violent anti-state conspiracy.

"The 'crime' of disturbing public peace and joining a terrorist group has become a sword over the necks of citizens," said Nabil Ghobrial, a lawyer representing Kamel. "Accusations that he financed a terrorist group are illogical because Ramy is the sole breadwinner of his family (and he doesn't have extra money). And as for joining a terrorist group, they have yet to announce which group he joined ... or what he did."

Meanwhile, other Coptic Christians are also known defendants facing charges in the case.

Over the past month alone, 42-year-old union organizer Khalil Rizk was accused of "joining a terrorist group," after publishing pay hike demands by workers at a government-controlled pharmaceutical company. Also, police detained 25-year-old automotive repairman Fady Samir during what are now routine stop-and-frisk operations to check social media accounts on the mobile phones of young people in downtown Cairo.

Last week, Amnesty International published a report that documented the ways the SSSP is "routinely misusing counter-terror legislation to prosecute thousands of peaceful critics and suspend guarantees to a fair trial."

Kamel is the most visible of the imprisoned Christian activists because of his wide-ranging advocacy.

"Kamel's arrest is a message of intimidation to silence the few remaining voices," said Ishak Ibrahim, a minority affairs researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a group that monitors attacks and discrimination against the Coptic Christian community. "He did not create the problems he wrote about."

Kamel's work includes campaigns for the preservation of Coptic monasteries, protection of poor neighborhoods threatened by government-directed construction projects, and opposition to this year's referendum on Egypt's constitution that enabled el-Sissi to remain in office until 2030.

"After the Jan. 25 revolution, Kamel was hoping, like a majority of young people, that the slogans of the revolution would turn into a reality," said Ibrahim. "But the sectarian violence targeting Copts came soon after -- from the demolition of the Atfih church to the clashes in the (poor Cairo neighborhoods) of Manshiyet Nasser and Imbaba to the 2011 Maspero massacre (where 24 people died)."

Kamel led the Maspero Youth Union, a group formed in the wake of the burning of another Coptic church in Upper Egypt. In October 2011, about 10,000 Copts and their Muslim allies staged peaceful protests outside the main state television building in downtown Cairo. The demonstrations were halted by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and resulted in 24 deaths and 212 injured.