Lebanese security agents stormed the apartment of exiled Egyptian activist Abdelrahman Tarek, known to friends as Moka, on May 24, telling the 29-year-old to pack a bag. He was fearful that he would be deported to Egypt and arrested again.
He was released six hours later, but Tarek’s detention triggered fears that Egypt is pressuring regional governments to round up its critics. The incident also raised questions about safety in Lebanon, where dissidents from around the Middle East have long sought refuge from authoritarian regimes and have been able to speak freely.
A critic of Egyptian 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 accused of “joining an illegal organisation” and “funding terrorism”.
According to rights groups, the Egyptian regime often accuses human rights activists like Tarek of terrorism links in order to silence dissent.
Once he was taken in for questioning, “Moka asked for a lawyer but was told there’s no need and that they will be finished quickly,” said Farouk Moghrabi, Tarek’s lawyer.
Moghrabi told Al Jazeera that he was not given a warrant or any other paperwork ordering his client’s arrest.
His arrest sparked a wave of action to free him by Beirut’s civil society, activists, at least three foreign embassies and the international human rights community.
“I was filled with anxiety because I had no idea 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 hadn’t done anything wrong and all his legal papers were in order.”
“I am scared the same thing could happen to me even though I haven’t done anything against the law.”
Beirut as a safe space
The day after the incident, Tarek published an account of what happened on his Facebook page. He said that after being told to pack a bag, he was taken to the intelligence unit’s bureau in Jounieh, north of Beirut, where he was greeted respectfully by an officer.
The officer told him he would not be deported and that the investigation was simply to find out about people on Lebanese soil.
According to Tarek’s firsthand account, the officer asked him about the Egyptian government’s interest in him and designation of him as a terrorist, prior trips to Gaza, and if he had had contact with any Israeli organisations.
Tarek also seemed to suggest that Egypt had applied pressure on Lebanese security forces to detain him.
“The question is whether the role of the Egyptian government is to track its citizens abroad,” Tarek wrote on his Facebook page.
When contacted for comment, the intelligence bureau pointed Al Jazeera to Tarek or his lawyer.
Egypt has coordinated with other governments in the region to arrest regime critics, according to Ramy Shaath, an Egyptian-Palestinian activist who was jailed by the el-Sisi regime.
He told Al Jazeera that while Interpol no longer acts on Egyptian calls to arrest its political dissidents, el-Sisi’s government has found other avenues to harass and capture his critics abroad.
“We know that the Egyptians used the platform of Arab interior ministries to issue arrest warrants and get people from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia,” he said over the phone from France, where he now lives.
In January 2022, a Badr Airlines flight from Khartoum to Istanbul was diverted to Luxor and an Egyptian opposition activist was taken by security officials. In September 2022, Saudi Arabia deported several Egyptian political dissidents. And in December 2022, the UAE arrested an activist who criticised the COP27 climate summit, which has held in Egypt.
“At least recently, people’s political activism and political position have not been reasons for their detention in Lebanon,” Ayman Mhanna, director of the media and cultural freedom organisation SKeyes, told Al Jazeera.
Mhanna added that some Syrian opposition figures had been picked up in the past but those cases were linked to residency issues and did not lead to repatriation.
‘We gave them hell’
Activists and others involved in pushing for Tarek’s release lauded Lebanese civil society for their mass mobilisation efforts and effectiveness.
“We gave them hell,” Shaath said. “Thank god, Lebanon remains a country with freedom of speech and remains a country that does not yet have a bad history in handing over dissidents, politicians, activists or human rights defenders.”
Shaath also said he saw the incident as a “warning”, but that the result was “a good sign for other dissidents in Lebanon”.
Mhanna of SKeyes said that most Arab dissidents who fled their homes to Lebanon over issues related to freedom of expression tended to be “worried non-stop,” even before Tarek’s case. But he was hesitant to say that a precedent has been set.
“I think now they need to be more cautious rather than worried,” he said. “They should make sure to follow some measures to limit their exposure if they believe they are in imminent risk.”
Tarek refused to keep quiet after his release. He criticised Egypt’s National Dialogue, which is intended to generate debate about the country’s future between a carefully curated opposition and the el-Sisi regime.
In the months leading up to the dialogue in March, el-Sisi authorised the release of hundreds of political prisoners, yet some of them were subjected to new criminal charges immediately after they were pardoned.
More than 60,000 political prisoners are believed to be languishing in jail, according to rights groups.
The continuing repression has people like Tarek believing that the National Dialogue is just a way for el-Sisi to deflect attention from the rights crisis in the country, while also attempting to silence dissidents abroad.
“[F]or all the parties participating in the National Dialogue, do you agree with the behavior of the security services?” he wrote on Facebook.
“Your dialogue falls if it is useless and only because you follow the instructions of the security services. Withdraw or at least suspend your participation until the violations stop.”
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