Lebanese security agents stormed into the apartment of exiled Egyptian activist Abdelrahman Tarek, known to friends as Moka, on May 24, demanding the 29-year-old man pack up. He feared that he would be deported to Egypt and recaptured.
He was released six hours later, but Tarek’s detention has raised concerns that Egypt is pressuring regional governments to round up their critics. The incident also raises questions about safety in Lebanon, where dissidents from across the Middle East have long sought refuge from dictatorships and can speak freely.
A critic of Egypt President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Tarek fled to Lebanon last winter after being arbitrarily imprisoned and tortured in Egypt for seven years for his human rights activism. In September 2020, he was charged with “joining an illegal organization” and “financing terrorism”.
According to human rights groups, Egyptian authorities often accuse human rights activists like Tarek of having links to terrorism in order to silence dissidents.
Farouk Moghrabi, Tarek’s lawyer, said when taken for questioning, “Moka asked for a lawyer but was told it was unnecessary and they would end it quickly.”
Moghrabi told Al Jazeera that he was not issued a warrant or any other paperwork to order the arrest of his client.
His arrest sparked a wave of action to free him by Beirut civil society, activists, at least three foreign embassies and the international human rights community.
“I am extremely worried because I don’t understand why [Tarek] was arrested and taken from his home,” Mostafa Al-a’sar, an Egyptian journalist, human rights researcher and former political prisoner now based in Beirut, told Al Jazeera. “He hasn’t done anything wrong and all his legal papers are valid.”
“I’m afraid the same thing could happen to me even though I didn’t do anything illegal.”
Beirut is a safe space
The day after the incident, Tarek published an account of what happened on his Facebook page. He said that after being asked to pack his bags, he was taken to the intelligence unit’s office in Jounieh, north of Beirut, where he was respectfully greeted by an officer.
The officer told him that he would not be deported and that the investigation was simply about people on Lebanese soil.
According to Tarek’s direct account, the officer asked him about the Egyptian government’s interest in him and considering him a terrorist, previous trips to Gaza, and whether he had any connections to anyone. any Israeli organization or not.
Tarek also seems to suggest that Egypt put pressure on Lebanese security forces to arrest him.
“The question is whether the role of the Egyptian government is to spy on its citizens abroad,” Tarek wrote on his Facebook page.
When contacted for comment, the intelligence agency pointed Al Jazeera to Tarek or his attorney.
Egypt has coordinated with other governments in the region to arrest regime critics, according to reports Ramy Shaathan Egyptian-Palestinian activist who was imprisoned by the el-Sisi regime.
He told Al Jazeera that while Interpol is no longer acting on Egypt’s calls to arrest dissidents, el-Sisi’s government has found other ways to harass and arrest people. criticized him abroad.
“We know that the Egyptians used the platform of the Arab interior ministries to issue arrest warrants and arrest people from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia,” he said by phone. phone from France, where he currently lives.
In January 2022, a Badr Airlines flight from Khartoum to Istanbul was diverted to Luxor and an Egyptian opposition activist was detained by security officials. In September 2022, Saudi Arabia expelled a number of Egyptian dissidents. And in December 2022, the UAE arrested an activist critical of the COP27 climate summit, held in Egypt.
Ayman Mhanna, director of media and cultural freedom organization SKeyes, told Al Jazeera: “At least recently, people’s political activity and political standing have not been the reason for their detention. in Lebanon.
Mhanna added that some figures of the Syrian opposition had been selected in the past but those cases were related to residency issues and did not lead to repatriation.
‘We gave them hell’
Activists and others involved in promoting Tarek’s release have praised Lebanese civil society for their efforts and effectiveness in mobilizing the masses.
“We gave them hell,” Shaath said. “Thank god, Lebanon is still a country with free speech and still a country that has not had a bad history of handing over dissidents, politicians, activists or defenders. human rights defenders.”
Shaath also said he considered the incident a “warning”, but that the outcome was “a good sign for other dissidents in Lebanon”.
SKeyes’ Mhanna says that most Arab dissidents who have fled their homes to Lebanon because of issues related to freedom of speech tend to be “anxious,” right away. even before Tarek’s case. But he hesitated to say that a precedent had been set.
“I think now they need to be more cautious than worried,” he said. “They should make sure to follow some measure to limit their exposure if they believe they’re going to be at risk.”
Tarek refused to remain silent after his release. He criticized Egypt’s National Dialogueaims to generate debate about the country’s future between the handpicked opposition and the el-Sisi regime.
In the months leading up to the March dialogue, el-Sisi authorized the release of hundreds of political prisoners, however some of them were charged with new criminal offenses shortly after being pardoned.
According to human rights groups, more than 60,000 political prisoners are believed to be languishing in prison.
The continued repression leads people like Tarek to believe that the National Dialogue is just a way for el-Sisi to distract attention from the human rights crisis in the country, while also trying to silence political dissidents. ants abroad.
“[F]or all the parties to the National Dialogue, do you agree with the behavior of the security services?” he wrote on Facebook.
“Your dialogue will fail if it is useless and only because you follow the instructions of the security services. Please withdraw or at least suspend your participation until the violation ceases.”