There is an expression that came out during President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s era that every Egyptian is familiar with: “behind the sun.” It was used to describe the unofficial detention centers used by Nasser’s regime to detain political dissidents. Detainees would disappear for years, and their families and lawyers would not be informed of the place they were being kept or other legal details. Plainclothes policemen would arrive at the suspect’s home at dawn, and take them without showing any legal warrants; these became known as “the visitors at dawn.”
This well-known practice is exactly what is described in international law as forced (or “enforced”) disappearances. The process of arresting such detainees during Nasser’s era is very similar to what still happens in Egypt today, but the regime is using the public’s unfamiliarity with the new term, and the fact that the exact term is not present in Egyptian law, to discredit the allegations of the crime and claim it is a term coined by the Muslim Brotherhood to defame and stigmatize the government and damage its reputation internationally. With the help of pro-government media outlets, the regime has actually succeeded in branding the term this way, given that public reaction to reports of forced disappearance has mostly been denial that the crime exists. It is quite shocking to see such a reaction from the public when everyone knows that the practice existed in Egypt and occurred systematically for decades.
Forced disappearance is defined in the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance as “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.” Even though Egypt has not signed or ratified this convention, what this convention describes is an elaboration of what is stated in other conventions to which Egypt is a party, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which describes forced disappearances in Article 9. The term “forced disappearance” first appeared in Egyptian media in 2003 to refer to the case of journalist Reda Helal, who disappeared in August of that year. It was suspected that he was detained by Egyptian security for criticizing President Hosni Mubarak; Helal’s fate remains unknown even today.
Recently, there has been widespread discussion about forced disappearances in Egypt. Human rights reports have documented hundreds of cases of forced disappearances, most of which have been denied by the government. Victims of forced disappearances have been reported missing and then—after days, weeks, and sometimes months—are found to have been in custody, either when released or presented to the prosecution. In a report by the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms that covered the period between August 2016 and August 2017, there were 378 documented cases of forced disappearances. Among them, 182 cases were later found to be in detention, 52 were released, one was tried and convicted in court, and the rest are still missing. Such reports refute government claims that forced disappearances occur and show attempts by the regime to cover up human rights violations.
Nevertheless, in March 2017, during a press conference held by the Egyptian delegation at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Egyptian Minister of Parliament Affairs Omar Marwan stated that forced disappearances do not occur in Egypt and that they are instead missing persons cases, possibly of people who were seeking to migrate illegally, killed while participating in terrorist acts, or who fled their homes. Such claims were reflected in the Egyptian response to a report by the BBC on forced disappearances, in which a woman claimed that her daughter Zubeida had been forcibly disappeared as well as raped and tortured by “Egyptian security agents,” asking authorities to reveal the fate of her daughter. Two days later, the daughter appeared in an interview with media presenter Amr Adib broadcast on the OnTV television channel. During the interview, she denied her mother’s allegations and the story of her forced disappearance, but as of now, no one has confirmed whether she was really in custody or found by security bodies. A few days later, her mother and her lawyer were reported to have been arrested. The Egyptian regime is using this case as an example to claim that forced disappearances are actually missing persons cases.
The Egyptian regime is using the fact that forced disappearance is not explicitly mentioned in Egyptian law as a pretext to deny that this violation takes place. Moreover, the regime appears to think that releasing the disappeared or presenting them to prosecution means that there was no crime. However, provisions in the constitution and laws do apply to cases of forced disappearances as defined by international law. According to Article 54 of the Egyptian Constitution, “All those whose freedoms have been restricted shall be immediately informed of the causes therefor, 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.” So from this text, it is clear that the case of any detainee who is not allowed to contact their family or lawyer immediately and not taken to the prosecution within 24 hours is a violation of the law, and the definition of forced disappearance applies. Therefore, it is impossible to accept a statement from the government totally denying any cases of forced disappearance in Egypt, considering the history of detainees’ rights violations in the country.
The Egyptian regime is using legal technicalities to deny the existence of a severe crime and a human rights violation that is used systematically, and which has affected thousands, in an attempt to suppress opposition and silence human rights voices. It is also using the novelty of the term—which appeared officially in United Nations documents only in 2007—to its advantage, even though forced disappearances have taken place in Egypt for decades. This gives the regime a chance to escape public condemnation. Using vernacular phrases such as “behind the sun” to describe forced disappearances may bring more public attention to the issue and help the public view recent reports within a familiar context. People can react standoffishly to terms they are not familiar with, especially when the state claims that the term is created by the Brotherhood. It may help people react more sympathetically to cases, because after Anwar Sadat took over after Nasser’s death, the phrase “behind the sun” became more notorious as part of propaganda to gain support for Sadat. Putting forced disappearances within a local legal framework and historical context should help clarify confusion about the crime and help hold authorities accountable for committing it.