LONDON — I missed the first call from Karim. I was watching TV, and my phone was on silent. The previous day, one of my husband’s colleagues from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights — one of the last remaining human rights organizations in Egypt — had been arrested. But Karim reassured me: He was taking a few days’ break on the beach; he said there was no need to worry. He always tells me that.
Two months ago, Karim Ennarah and I were married in a short ceremony at Cairo’s Ministry of Justice. Whenever Karim enters government property, he gets nervous — which is understandable. He is a human rights defender in a country where some 60,000 people have been arrested as political prisoners. The wedding had taken months to arrange, and this was the final bureaucratic hurdle. Just as we were about to sign the marriage contract, the I.T. system went down and a Justice Ministry official warned us that it could take hours or days to get it running again. My Egyptian visa was going to expire the next day; a long delay would have sent us back to square one. When the computers rumbled back on a few minutes later, it felt like a sign. We walked out of the building as husband and wife, ready to start a new life.
When I finally returned Karim’s call on Monday, Nov. 16, that life rapidly fell apart. He told me that a team of police officers had just been at his mother’s house to arrest him. “I’m so sorry, I should have left Egypt sooner, I love you so much,” he said, his voice breaking. I felt my stomach twist and started shivering. Two days later, state security forces arrived at a beachside restaurant where Karim was eating — it was one of his favorites, on account of the coconut ice cream — and took him away. The news hit me while I was cycling home from the dentist. I slumped over my bike crying.
It was only later that evening that I realized that there was a direct connection between the American presidential election and my sobbing by the side of the road in East London. As the director of the Criminal Justice Unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Karim has spent years documenting arbitrary detention, state torture and mass executions carried out by the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former army general who came to power in a military coup. Karim did this work at the same time as the United States offered Mr. Sisi aid, arms and political support.
It is no coincidence that Karim has been arrested just as President Trump — who once called Mr. Sisi his “favorite dictator” — is on his way out of office, and the Biden administration is preparing to assume power.
Karim’s arrest is a deliberate and provocative attempt to “move the goal posts” ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration. Mr. Biden has vowed: “No more ‘blank checks’” for Mr. Sisi. The Egyptian government, which receives $1.4 billion a year from Washington — more than any other country bar Israel — is trying to call his bluff and prove that these threats won’t stop it from arresting even the most prominent activists in Egypt.
Karim, along with his colleagues Mohammed Basheer and Gasser Abdel-Razek — the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights’ director and a father figure to Karim, who lost his father when he was young — are being used as pawns in a game of geopolitical brinkmanship.
All are being held at Tora, one of Egypt’s most notorious prisons, where Amnesty International warns, the conditions are “cruel” and “inhumane.” But for their partners, their children and their many friends all over the world who have mobilized to demand their freedom, this is not a game. On Monday, Gasser was briefly allowed to see his lawyers and informed them he was being kept in solitary confinement in a cold cell without winter clothing, and sleeping on a metal bed with no mattress; his hair had been forcibly shaved. Since Karim entered Tora last Thursday, we have yet to have had any contact with him.
Brave, compassionate and deeply committed to the freedom and welfare of his fellow citizens, Karim is the kind of person Egypt should be building its future around. Instead, he and his colleagues face trumped-up charges, including the ludicrous accusation of being members of a terrorist group. We are terrified that they may soon join the ever-swelling ranks of those who disappear into Egypt’s jails indefinitely.
The work that the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights does is praised internationally, and earlier this month the organization hosted diplomats from 13 Western countries, including Britain, France and Canada, to brief them on the deteriorating human rights situation in Egypt. Karim tried to downplay the significance of the meeting to me, but I could tell he was excited; that morning he sent me a picture of the suit he was wearing. It now seems like that meeting was the trigger for the subsequent arrests.
The Egyptian government wants to send the message that despite paying lip service to human rights concerns, its international allies — including Mr. Biden and his new administration — would never dare to actually fight for them. The moment has come to prove them wrong.
Next year, Karim was planning to move to London to live with me. I couldn’t wait to have him by my side. In three weeks, Congress will vote on whether it should continue funneling American taxpayer money toward a dictatorship that uses it to jail innocent people like my husband and separate them from their loved ones. I urge them to do the right thing. When facing criticism for cozying up to tyrants, politicians often defend themselves by insisting that this is the price of being able to exert influence when it matters. It matters now.
Jess Kelly (@jeky_kelly) is a documentary filmmaker focused on the Middle East.
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