Aly Hussin Mahdy ignored his father’s text messages for quite some time. As a politically outspoken Egyptian asylum seeker living in Chicago, he was concerned about leaving an electronic trail that the feared intelligence services back home could read.
“I miss you too,” he eventually wrote on February 2, 2021, not able to bear the lack of communication any longer. But his father never read the message because that same day he was arrested from home. Days before Aly’s uncle had been picked up in a house raid and tortured to reveal the whereabouts of the family. Next, his cousin was taken from a coffee shop.
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Over the course of one week, the Mahdys became one of the dozens of families who have been targeted in Egypt as a punitive measure against a loved one abroad who has spoken out against the regime’s abuses away from home.
Pinned to Aly’s Twitter page is one of the offending videos, of himself wrapped in an Egyptian flag. Speaking to protesters through a microphone, he slates former US President Donald Trump’s cosy relationship with the Egyptian leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Aly was sent death threats and smeared online, a defamation campaign amplified by Egypt’s state-run media, in particular, TV anchor Mohammed el-Baz.
On February 12, after Aly’s family was arrested, el-Baz said they were taken as a preventive measure, similar to efforts put in place by the state to control the coronavirus pandemic.
“Ridiculous as it may seem, this type of rhetoric legitimises the regime’s hostage-taking policy and bully diplomacy,” says Aly. “I want my family out.”
In the decade since the Egyptian uprising and strongman el-Sisi’s rise to power, the North African country has become one of the most repressive in the world, disappearing government dissidents at an alarming rate, systematically torturing them, and extrajudicially killing common citizens.
Stories of what happens inside Egyptian prisons have spread through the community, inspiring fear in a country that in recent years has suffered an unrelenting tide of cruelty. But while the regime has largely terrified the opposition at home into silence, it has struggled to control criticism abroad spearheaded by journalists and rights advocates who managed to escape the country.
At a conference in May 2018, el-Sisi sat on a grey armchair, a blue tie knotted at his neck, and delivered a promise he would later make good on: “I am sending a message to media figures abroad: I swear. I swear. You will be held accountable.” The crowd acknowledged his warning with a wave of applause.
Outside the conference room, the speech became the subject of debate among the Egyptian opposition.
“At the time, we didn’t understand what this message meant,” says prominent media personality Haytham Abokhalil who lives in Turkey.
“At first we imagined that it could be assassinations but the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the backlash that followed made this impossible, so instead they started abusing our families in other ways and the families of people who criticised [el-Sisi] abroad began to be arrested. They began taking our families hostage.”
On October 2, 2019, Egyptian security forces entered the clinic of Haytham’s brother, Dr Amr Abu Khalil, a psychiatrist, and dragged him out in front of his patients. They broke into his apartment, and their mother’s, and stole cash, his computer and mobile phone.
Khalil was taken to the Security Directorate in Smouha in Alexandria. For two days he was tortured by electric shock. He was later taken to Scorpion Prison where he was placed in solitary confinement in a filthy cell with nothing but a blanket and two small pieces of bread to eat a day.
Here was a man who had carried out ground-breaking work in his field, ran popular YouTube lectures, and whose work was so famous at home and abroad that he was once cited on pro-regime channels. Now he was left to rot in a cell because his brother had dared to shine a light on the corruption and nepotism enjoyed by those in power.
Inside the prison, Khalil contracted COVID-19. Despite Haytham’s urgent calls for help on social media and on his popular TV programme – It’s Our Right – his brother died of a heart attack while trying to persuade prison guards to allow in medicine that could have saved his life.
“I feel the pain of loss because he was very dear to me,” reflects Haytham. “I have a huge responsibility to take those who did this to my brother to trial one day.”
The cruelty of these arrests has seen generations of the same family disappear into Egypt’s dungeons. In the summer of 2018, two of political activist Ghada Najibe’s brothers were arrested and at the same time the brother of her husband, film actor-turned-journalist Hesham Abdalla, was also taken.
In November 2020, sitting at home in Turkey, Ghada’s phone vibrated. “Shut up and stop speaking,” read the text. “Remember we have people you love in our hands. You should be worried about them.”
One month later, Ghada received a phone call from a family neighbour in the city of Kafr El-Sheikh in the Nile Delta. It was a small neighbourhood and word had got round that four of their nephews had been arrested in a dawn raid. Ghada and Hesham later found out that a fifth nephew, the son of Hesham’s imprisoned brother, had been picked up in the port city of Marsa Matrouh at roughly the same time.
It is not hard to see why victims of these arrests have drawn comparisons between the regime and the mafia, only the ransom here is not money, it is full surrender to the authorities. The families of victims in kidnaps-for-ransom are warned not to negotiate with the cartel because it encourages them, and in many of these cases, the opposition members have themselves drawn the same conclusions.
“You cannot negotiate with bullies,” says Aly. “I couldn’t keep silent, I returned even more active than before.”
For the most part, Egyptians have been stunned into silence, but for a select few the regime has caught itself in an endless cycle of trying to silence them and at the same time emboldening them, which has become a source of endless fury in political circles.
“What happened to my brother will not stop me talking. On the contrary, it has become a motivation for me and now I speak out more,” says Haytham. “In the beginning, I spoke theoretically but now I speak from experience. I speak as a martyr’s brother.”
That is not to deny the emotional weight that comes with such decisions. “Our relatives in Egypt cut their relations with us since 2018, since our brothers were arrested,” says Ghada, her voice trembling.
“They were scared; no one contacted us, they don’t reply to our calls. There is a kind of indirect pressure on us. We tried to contact them a lot, especially after the latest arrests in December, but they never answer us.”
Aly says it is hard not to feel guilty. “I am terrified for my family’s safety and wellbeing. I do remind myself that it’s not solely my fault. I would like to emphasise that while my activism contributed to their detainment, they are hostages. My activism is not the problem, the security state is.”
It has been more than a month since Aly’s family was kidnapped and there is still no news on where they are. As he falls asleep at night, Aly pictures his younger siblings who witnessed the arrest, imagines what his uncle, father and cousin are enduring and worries about his mother.
He obsessively checks the text message he sent to his father on February 2, “I miss you too”, hoping every time the screen lights up it is a response from his father.