CAIRO — Egyptian authorities are currently on heightened security alert amid calls by exiled Egyptian contractor Mohamed Ali to protest in order to demand the protection of the Nile waters. These calls coincide with the approaching eighth anniversary of the June 30 Revolution marking the military-led ouster of late Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi.
Security forces, secret police forces and women’s police are deployed in the streets of Cairo and the main squares across the Egyptian governorates. Passersby have been randomly arrested and searched, and some were even asked to show the content of their personal accounts on social media.
Ahmed Nasser, who works as a reporter for a news website in downtown Cairo, which he did not want to name, said that as he was walking near Tahrir Square on the evening of June 10, police stopped him and questioned him about the reasons for his presence in the square. He was searched and forced to show his cellphone. The policemen checked his posts on his social media accounts to find out his position on the Egyptian regime.
Nasser, who was detained and questioned by police as they searched his bag and phone while returning from work, told Al-Monitor, “This is not an isolated incident. Many citizens like me were held up waiting for the officer to finish going through their phones and bags. Some got back their personal belongings and left, and others were waiting for the decision of the officer in charge,” adding that “They warned me not to return to Tahrir Square or the surrounding streets in the coming weeks, in light of the state of security in anticipation of protests. I left but others who were stopped by the police were not free to go and didn’t know what would happen to them.”
This is not the first time security forces deploy in the streets to search citizens’ phones and check their private messages. A similar campaign had taken place in 2019, also in conjunction with protests called by Ali to demand the departure of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
At the time, the National Council for Human Rights condemned the random arrest of passersby. “The arrests of citizens in the streets and squares without allowing them to contact their families and without informing them of the charges against them is tantamount to a transgression of their rights guaranteed by the constitution,” the council said in a statement in October 2019.
The council also criticized the arrest of passersby who were forced to show police officers the content of their cellphones. It said this practice violates many provisions stipulated in the constitution that protect the sanctity of private life as well as the immunity of citizens’ correspondence and communications.
An Egyptian human rights lawyer told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation that human rights lawyers have been receiving calls for help from families whose members were subjected to police harassment in the streets or unlawful arrest and detention.
The source said, “An officer or a policeman detains anyone they suspect of having any political activity or who has political or opposition posts on his phone, and transfers them to the police station for investigation. There, the individual will be asked about the reasons for his presence in the area [where he was arrested], and whether he was there by coincidence or to take part in the [anticipated] protests.”
The lawyer added, “Some people are released if it turns out that they do not have any political or partisan activity. Those who have a record of activism get an arrest warrant or are faced with charges, while others get transferred to the National Security Agency where they are questioned more intensely. Some are forcibly disappeared, only to be later released.”
An official at the media office of the Ministry of Interior denied any constitutional violations, unlawful arrest of citizens or illegal arrests, asserting that the law conferred to law enforcement officials the right to search citizens in flagrante delicto.
The official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Reports about people being illegally searched or restrictions on citizens’ movement aim at stirring confusion. This false news aims to spread chaos.”
Article 54 of the 2014 Egyptian Constitution states, “Personal freedom is a natural right that is safeguarded and cannot be infringed upon. Except in cases of in flagrante delicto, citizens may only be apprehended, searched, arrested or have their freedoms restricted by a causal judicial warrant necessitated by an investigation. All those whose freedoms have been restricted shall be immediately informed of the causes thereof, notified of their rights in writing, be allowed to immediately contact their family and lawyer, and be brought before the investigating authority within 24 hours of their freedoms having been restricted.”