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Ahmed Salem, the director of the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, has been under an aggressive smear campaign after the rights group issued a report on Egypt's construction of a fortified zone on the border with Gaza and Israel.

Reprisals Follow Reports on Gaza Border Activity 

(Washington D.C, February 26, 2024) – The Egyptian authorities and affiliated groups have responded to recent reporting by the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, an Egyptian human rights group with a focus on Egypt’s militarized North Sinai, with a smear campaign and threats against the group and its director, Ahmed Salem, 13 civil society organizations denounced today.

Since mid-February 2024, several government and pro-government figures and entities have engaged in an aggressive smear campaign against the Sinai Foundation and Salem on television, in newspapers, and social media. Salem, a United Kingdom-based Egyptian human rights activist, said that, through intermediaries close to Egyptian authorities, he received threats that he “would be brought back to Egypt” if he did not drop his work. One of these threats, through a government-appointed Sinai local clan leader, warned that Salem “is not far from reach even abroad.”

“The Egyptian authorities should immediately end the threats against the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights and its director Ahmed Salem,” said Seth Binder, [Advocacy Director, Middle East Democracy Center]. “The Egyptian authorities should ensure the safety of his family in Egypt, and end their smear campaigns and the relentless, years-long crackdown on human rights groups and independent organizations.”  

On February 14, 2024, the Sinai Foundation issued a report based on witness accounts, photographs and videos about the Egyptian authorities’ hurried construction of a fortified zone on the border with Gaza and Israel in Egypt’s North Sinai which it reported was “for the purpose of receiving refugees from Gaza in case of a collective displacement” as a result of the ongoing armed conflict in Gaza. The report has been widely covered by major international news agenciesand newspapers.      

Salem said that, since February 15, 2024, according to two sources in North Sinai, the Egyptian military has increased patrols and checkpoints in the area, stopping residents and construction workers, and looking into the contents of their mobile phones in an attempt to intimidate locals and prevent reporting about the construction work of the fortified zone.

On February 17, 2024, a prominent pro-government television anchor and a member of the government’s Supreme Media Regulatory Council, which plays a leading role in censorship and the government’s crackdown on independent reporting, described Salem on the pro-government TEN television as an agent linked to terrorist groups and the Israeli Mossad among other allegations presented without evidence. 

The official X (formerly Twitter) account of the Sinai Tribal Union, the main pro-army militia group in Egypt’s North Sinai, described, on February 16, the Sinai Foundation, without naming it, and independent reports, as efforts by conspirators to “spread poison against the Egyptian State.” Several pro-government pages on X and Facebook published photographs of Salem with similar allegations. 

Satellite images of the border area captured between the 5th and the 19th of February and analysed by Amnesty International’s Evidence Lab show the clearing of land and construction of a new wall.

Satellite imagery from 5 February 2024 shows the border area of Egypt, Israel and Gaza Strip. This includes the two major crossings, Rafa and Keram Shalom. There are three established security posts that will become the border for the new wall to be constructed. © 2024 Planet Labs, Inc.
By 19 February 2024, satellite imagery shows approximately 15 sqkm of vegetation has been scraped. A new wall hasbeen erected along the security posts west of the border and the wall is being continued along the south. Long lines of trucks continue to sit at the Rafah crossing and it appears many have gathered in the northwest corner of the area scraped. © 2024 Plant Labs, Inc.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian government has launched a public relations exercise to deny the news about building camps for Palestinians in Sinai. On February 16, 2024,Egypt’s State Information Service denied in an official statement that the government was preparing to receive Palestinians in Sinai and said that such reports “give a wrong impression, falsely propagated by some, that Egypt is participating in the crime of (forced) deportation that some parties in Israel have been advocating for.”

For over a decade, the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has used media smear campaigns to intimidate human rights activists and discredit their work as part of a multifaceted campaign to obliterate Egypt’s once vibrant civic space. Those campaigns have often been led by television anchors who are close to government and security circles or hold official positions, and have included aggressive forms of disinformation and statements that in some cases include incitement to violence and threats of harm

Such campaigns have frequently involved transnational repressiontargeting human rights defenders based outside Egypt, including by  harassment, arbitrary  arrests, prolonged detentions and prosecutions of family members of those living in exile. Despite living in the United Kingdom with his wife and children, Salem expressed fear that the authorities could target his family members in Egypt. The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, said on February 22 that she “urge(s) the Egyptian government to ensure his (Salem) & his family’s safety.” The Egyptian government should heed this call and prevent any retaliation against Salem’s family members, the organizations said.

The Sinai Foundation has been one of the main independent, credible sources of information about developments in North Sinai, where the Egyptian government forces, mainly the military, have battled armed militants of Wilayat Sina’ (Sinai Province), an armed group that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014. Both the military and ISIS militants have committed serious abuses, some of which amount to war crimes according to Human Rights Watch, but the armed clashes remained largely hidden due to Egyptian military restrictions on reporting. 

Under the pretext of battling this armed group, Egyptian security forces have displaced tens of thousands of North Sinai residents and imposed restrictions on the movement of people and goods, which have brought commercial and economic activity, for several years, to a near halt. According to Human Rights Watch’s research, thousands of North Sinai residents have been subjected to mass arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, abduction, torture, and extrajudicial killings. Since then, North Sinai has turned into a closed military zone under a tight government media siege to prevent the flow of information and curtail access to journalists and independent observers. 

Even though the military has apparently been able to largely eradicateWilayt Sina’, and its attacks have almost ceased since 2022, the region effectively remains a closed military zone where independent reporting has been severely restricted. Massive home demolitions, farmland destruction and forced evictions by the military in border and non-border areas have been among the main grievances of the local population. The fortified zone currently being built by the Egyptian government includes some of the areas from where the local population had been forcibly evicted.

The Egyptian authorities should immediately halt reprisals against critics living abroad and end its zero-tolerance policy of independent reporting which is effectively criminalizing freedom of association and expression and human rights work. The Egyptian authorities should also immediately allow independent journalists and independent civil society to work freely in Sinai, and report on the grievances of its residents following a decade of military operations hidden from public scrutiny as well as any impact of cross-border developments on the ongoing armed conflict in Gaza.

“Instead of intensifying its chokehold on reporting in Sinai, the government should ensure that the human rights abuses committed during a decade of military operations there are independently investigated, including those bravely documented by the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights,” Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch said. 

Signatories: 

Amnesty International 

Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)

Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)

DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture

Egyptian Front for Human Rights (EFHR)

Egyptian Human Rights Forum (EHRF)

EgyptWide for Human Rights 

EuroMed Rights

FairSquare

Human Rights Watch 

International Service for Human Rights 

Middle East Democracy Center (MEDC)

Committee for Justice  Amnesty International

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