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Freed activist Ramy Shaath says Egypt is ‘a big cell’

Egyptian-Palestinian activist Ramy Shaath denounced Egypt as “a big cell” weeks after his release from jail and departure for France, saying he was determined to keep fighting for the Palestinian cause despite threats against his family.

The 50-year-old was a prominent figure of the 2011 uprising in Egypt and the coordinator of the country’s chapter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

“Egypt today is a big cell and we were in a much smaller one,” Shaath said from Paris after almost two and a half years in prison. “It’s becoming a terror state in every sense of the word.”

Shaath was arrested in July 2019 on charges of aiding a “terrorist organisation”.

He said of the hundreds of people with whom he shared cramped, crowded prison cells during his incarceration, “all of them had the same exact accusation with absolutely no proof, no substance, no incidence, nothing.

“Just a few words they tell you and that is enough to keep you in detention.”

Shaath said at first his fellow prisoners were mostly civil society activists or Islamist supporters of groups including the Muslim Brotherhood. Mohamed Morsi, a member of the organisation, held power from 2012-13 before being removed by the military.

But during his incarceration, increasing numbers arrived who had been detained for still more arbitrary reasons, down to a social media “like” for the wrong person or page, according to Shaath.

He said up to 32 people shared cells of just 23 square metres (250 square feet), where a single hole in the ground with a shower head above it served as toilet facilities.

Prisoners did not receive due process and were placed in solitary confinement if they complained, he added, saying one of his friends died in one of the one-square-metre punishment cells.

‘Rotting in hell’

After his release, “there were threats and warnings not to open my mouth, and especially not to open my mouth about jail conditions and legal conditions,” Shaath said.

Although he said threats were also made against his family in Egypt, he added: “I cannot personally go to sleep every night thinking of hundreds of friends and thousands of innocent Egyptians still rotting in hell and not speak about them.”

But Shaath still has hope for “a better Egypt, a more human Egypt, where I can go back and live, where my daughter can live safely with her family”.

He said BDS was a “non-violent way of fighting both occupation and dictatorship” and that “growing regional relations between Egypt and Israel have made the Egyptian government not want to hear internally anything about Palestine.”

Shaath said his opposition to a rapprochement between Israel and Arab nations brokered by the previous Trump administration in Washington was the final trigger for his arrest.

“That’s what I heard internally, that my position against Donald Trump’s and [Jared] Kushner’s ‘deal of the century‘ and my position towards the Egyptian role in it is what finally decided” the arrest, he said.

Following the opening up to Israel, “those same dictators that suppress their people are suppressing people’s aspiration for a freer Palestine,” he added.

Nevertheless, Shaath said he does not think the Arab Spring uprisings last decade failed.

“The Arab Spring began in 2011 but the end of it is not anywhere close. A change is a must, it’s gonna happen,” he said.

“I can see the regime in Egypt being scared and being suppressive, and being bloody, because it realises that what happened in 2011 has changed Egyptians in a way that they can’t go back.”

‘Rules of the game’

In an interview with CNN, Shaath called on the European Parliament to change the rules of the game in its policies towards Egypt, demanding it support freedoms and human rights as part of an approach seeking stability.

“As long as you do not take action against the regime and hold it accountable for its violations, it will not heed your previous appeals and demands,” he said, addressing the European Parliament.

“Real action will have a direct impact on the reality and future of human rights in Egypt,” he added.

In a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, Shaath made the same appeal.

“Egypt is boiling from within. If you want strategic relations with Egypt, you must first commit to defending freedom of opinion and expression and respect for human rights,” he said.

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