Egypt's government has increased its targeting of journalists and activists, raising concerns among rights groups and journalists about the fate of the freedom of expression in a country that has increasingly grown authoritarian in recent years.
The government in Cairo is accused by some rights groups of using the country's anti-terror laws to justify the ongoing crackdown on reporters, activists and dissidents critical of the government's policies.
The most recent case of government's crackdown on the press occurred last week with security forces raiding the office of Mada Masr news outlet, one of the few remaining independent news organizations in the country.
Security forces raided Mada Masr in the capital, Cairo, following an article that was published by the outlet on Mahmoud el-Sissi, the son of the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who was removed from a senior position in the country's intelligence agency, known as General Intelligence Services (GIS), and re-assigned to Russia as a military attaché.
In a statement posted on its website and social media account, the news outlet described the raid as violent with security forces confiscating everyone's phones and laptops, and arresting three reporters, including the outlet's editor-in-chief Lina Attalah and two reporters, Mohamed Hamama and Rana Mamdouh.
"They then gathered everyone's ID cards and made people sit in containment in the newsroom," Mada Masr said in a statement published on its website.
The government downplays the reassignment of Mahmoud el-Sissi and portrays it as an effort by President el-Sissi to forge closer relations with Moscow. Some sources inside the government, however, told local media that the move was an attempt to prevent further public scrutiny of Mahmoud el-Sissi, who has allegedly not been able to handle his high-profile responsibilities with due diligence.
Mada Masr quoted an unnamed source within GIS, telling the news outlet that the decision was "based on the perception within the president's inner circle that Mahmoud el-Sissi has failed to properly handle a number of his responsibilities and that his increasingly visible influence in the upper decision-making levels of government is having a negative impact on his father's image."
After the release of the article, security forces carried out the raid, which prompted reactions from the U.S. State Department, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanding the release of the detained journalists.
"As part of our long-standing strategic partnership with Egypt, we continue to raise the fundamental importance and respect for human rights, universal freedoms and the need for a robust civil society," Pompeo said Tuesday in reaction to the raid.
"We call on the Egyptian government to respect freedom of the press, and to release journalists that were detained in a raid last weekend," Pompeo added.
The three journalists have reportedly been released, but their whereabouts are unknown.
Amnesty International released a report last week criticizing Egypt's security institutions, including Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP), a branch of the Public Prosecution Office tasked with investigating matters of national security, of serving as a parallel judiciary in the country and using counterterrorism legislation to crack down on "peaceful critics."
"In Egypt today, the Supreme State Security Prosecution has stretched the definition of terrorism to encompass peaceful protests, social media posts and legitimate political activities, resulting in peaceful government critics being treated as enemies of the state," Amnesty stated in its report.
VOA contacted the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding those allegations, but got no response.
State of emergency
Amr Magdi, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, who closely follows developments in Egypt, says that security agencies have been emboldened by the so-called state of emergency procedure which gives authorities extended powers to crack down on those deemed a national security threat.
"What we see in these arrests is a systematic raiding by security officers who do not identify themselves, and failure to show any arrest or search warrant. They search homes in a violent way, wrecking possessions and seizing passports, laptops, personal belongings and cash that disappear and never show up among the confiscated materials in the persecutor's office," Magdi told VOA.
Magdi added that when people are arrested, they go through a pre-detention period where they might spend weeks or even months in prison without being charged and when charges are finally brought against them, they are related to terrorism and extremism.
Egypt imposed a state of emergency in April 2017 in the aftermath of two church bombings that claimed the lives of at least 45 people and injured more than 100 others. Islamic State terror group claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The country has been extending the state of emergency every three months. Last month, the law was extended for the 10th consecutive time.
Some critics of the government have fled the country. Security forces now allegedly target their family members.
Last month, Egyptian security forces raided Amr Abu Khalil's psychiatry clinic in the port city of Alexandria in northern Egypt.
Abu Khalil, a well-known psychiatrist in his city, was allegedly dragged out of his office in front of his patients.
Abu Khalil is the brother of Haitham Abu Khalil, a journalist and critic of the Egyptian government who has been living in Turkey since he fled Egypt in 2014 following a crackdown on his Alexandria-based human rights organization.
"Security forces raided my mother's house, too, and terrorized my sisters. Then they took my brother and for four days, we did not know where he was. My brother reappeared before Egypt's Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP). He is currently held in dire conditions in al-Aqrab prison," Abu Khalil told VOA.
Al-Aqrab prison, also known as Tora prison, is a maximum-security prison located south of Cairo. The prison has a reputation among human rights groups for its abusive conditions.
Abu Khalil said the government has no tolerance for any form of criticism against its figures, policies and violations.
"Not only journalists are attacked, but also anyone who posts anything on social media. Mada Masr news outlet was raided last week after they published information about the president's son," Abu Khalil said.
VOA's Jamie Dettmer contributed to this story.