On March 18, 2020, authorities reportedly arrested a group of four intellectuals and activists for their peaceful protest calling for the release of prisoners amid fears of the coronavirus disease known as Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).
First detected in Wuhan, China in December 2019, COVID-19 and the virus that causes the disease (known as SARS-CoV-2) has spread beyond China to a growing number of countries around the world. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, as of March 20, 2020, sixteen countries have over 1,000 confirmed cases, and globally 10,040 deaths and 246,444 cases have been confirmed as of this report. In Egypt, 256 cases have been confirmed as of this report; however, experts suspect the number is far higher.
On March 18, Laila Soueif, a mathematics professor at the University of Cairo, Mona Seif, Soueif’s daughter and human rights activist, Ahdaf Soueif, Soueif’s sister, prominent novelist and public intellectual, and Rabab el-Mahdy, an associate professor of political science at The American University in Cairo, held a peaceful protest to demand the release of prisoners over growing concerns about the transmission of COVID-19 in Egyptian prisons, which they say lack sufficient sunlight and ventilation, and are overcrowded. Police reportedly confronted the intellectuals and activists, asked them to stop their protest, confiscated their posters, and arrested them.
On March 19, after appearing before the prosecutor, Ahdaf Soueif, Seif, and el-Mahdy were released on a 5,000 EGP ($317.53 USD) bail. Laila Souef was reportedly brought before the State Security Prosecutors’ office for further questioning and released later on an additional 3,000 EGP ($189.87 USD) bail. The intellectuals and activists reportedly face charges of “publishing false news” about prisons and “unlawful protest.”
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest and prosecution of scholars and activists in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly — conduct that is protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from restricting or otherwise interfering in the nonviolent exercise of such rights. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, arrests and prosecutions intended to restrict or retaliate against expressive activity undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.