CAIRO—Sherief Abulmagd, 63, shares his cell in an Egyptian jail with a former deputy minister of health and Tarek, an 18-year-old freshman at Cairo’s Al Azhar University.
Abulmagd is a mid-level Muslim Brotherhood figure who also heads the Technological Center at Helwan University. He is an executive member of an Egyptian engineers union. And also, as of last fall, he is a prisoner at Wadi El Natrun jail, making him—and Tarek—among hundreds of Egyptian academics and students arrested in the wake of the six-month-old military takeover as authorities continue to limit dissent and intensify repression.
“After more than four months with no real charges against me, I and other political prisoners started a hunger strike at the beginning of 2014 in the ill-reputed Wadi El Natron Prison,” Abdulmagd said in a letter distributed by his friend. “We are about 1200 political prisoners in Wadi El Natron alone… About a week ago, 19 students of Al Azhar University joined us.”
Large-scale arrests in recent months have focused on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the movement that propelled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi to power in 2012. Since the army forced Morsi aside in August, Egypt’s government has framed widespread arrests of Brotherhood members as necessary to fight terrorism. And many Egyptians support that view. Thousands of Brotherhood figures have been thrown in jail, according to the Interior Ministry, and more than a thousand others have been killed in government crackdowns on Brotherhood-led protests.
In his heavily guarded prison cell, Abuldmagd’s eyes were heavy and red when his son visited him last week. Since he has refused to eat, he can’t speak with ease like he did before he was arrested from his home last September.
“If there was a real trial and if there were real charges, he would be out any minute,” said his son, Ibrahim Abulmagd, who is not a member of the Brotherhood. “But because this is a huge cartoon, they only want him jailed in order to weaken demonstrations.”
Another academic, Emad Shahin, who is a public-policy professor at the American University in Cairo, a renowned scholar, and not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, is facing a slew of charges including espionage and leading an illegal organization.
“It was with severe shock that I received news that I have been named in a case known as the ‘Grand Espionage,’ which also included former president Mohamed Morsi and senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Shahin said in a letter. “These claims are baseless and politically motivated.” Shahin has taught at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the University of Notre Dame.
The crackdown has also extended to students, including some unaffiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Since the start of the academic year in September, more than 700 students from universities across the country have been arrested, according to the Cairo-based Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression.
“Most of them are from the Muslim Brotherhood but also they are arresting other students from different political groups,” said Kholoud Saber, deputy director of the association. At least seven students have been killed in campus violence between protesters and police, Saber said. The most recent one was killed at Cairo University last Thursday.
Students off campus are also facing repression.
Earlier this month, two law students who volunteer with the Strong Egypt party—founded by moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood member—were among seven activists arrested apparently for campaigning against Egypt’s proposed new constitution, which passed mid January in a nationwide vote. Islam al-Akabawy, a law student at Cairo University, and Ali Mohamed Ali, a law student at Al Azhar University, were arrested after hanging “No to the Constitution” posters, a witness told Human Rights Watch.
“The arrests of the Strong Egypt activists fit an increasingly prevalent practice of police detaining political activists solely on the basis of peaceful expression,” Human Rights Watch said.
Of a total of 25 Strong Egypt party members arrested in recent months, 10 were students, according to Ola ElBashir, a party member who is handling their cases. Authorities arrested them on campus, in the streets, at cafes and in their homes, ElBashir said. One was arrested in a hospital.
Among them was a law student, Ayman Maher, who is being detained at a Cairo police station. “He will not be able to continue his exams, unfortunately,” ElBashir said.
In a case with more severe repercussions, 12 Al Azhar University students were sentenced to 17 years in jail last fall after protesting other students’ arrests. University security attacked the students with knives, a statement signed by a dozen Egyptian rights groups said, before handing them over to police, who interrogated the students.
Critics said that verdict threatens academic independence.
“The security-driven policy toward the students’ movement at the current time threatens the independence of the university and the future of students rights and freedoms in Egypt, and raises concerns regarding the imposition of a tight security grip on campus life,” said a statement signed by a dozen Egyptian rights groups.
“During previous months,” the statement continued, “university administrations have abandoned reacting to student breaches through the specified disciplinary punitive measures and decided it was easier to leave the students prey to the authority of the police with no regard to the impact this may have on their educational career.”
At campuses nationwide, administrations are now able to summon the police should they seek more security. But at Cairo University where one student was killed last week, university faculty members are urging administrators to “immediately” remove security forces from campus, according to the Daily News Egypt, an English-language newspaper.
“Cooperation between university administrations and police is worrying in terms of how things are going to go in the next semester,” the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression’s Saber said.
See also a related article: “Prominent Egyptian Article Arrested for Espionage.”