Lebanese security agents stormed the apartment of exiled Egyptian activist Abdel Rahman Tarek, known to friends as Moka, on May 24 and told the 29-year-old to pack his bags. He fears he will be deported to Egypt and arrested again.
He was released six hours later, but Tarek’s detention has raised concerns that Egypt is pressuring local governments to round up critics. The incident also raised questions about the security of Lebanon, where dissidents from across the Middle East have long sought to escape the authoritarian regime and be able to speak freely.
A critic of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Tarek fled to Lebanon after being arbitrarily imprisoned and tortured for seven years in Egypt last winter for his human rights activism. In September 2020, he was charged with “joining an illegal organization” and “financing terrorism”.
The Egyptian regime routinely accuses human rights activists like Tarek of links to terrorism in an effort to silence dissent, according to human rights groups.
Tarek’s lawyer, Farouk Moghrabi, said that after he was brought in for questioning, “Moka asked for a lawyer but was told it was not necessary and they would end it soon.”
Moghrabi told Al Jazeera that he did not have a warrant or any other documents ordering the arrest of his client.
His arrest sparked a wave of calls for his release from Beirut civil society, activists, at least three foreign embassies and the international human rights community.
“I’m full of anxiety because I don’t know why [Tarek] was arrested and taken from his home,” Mostafa Al-a’sar, an Egyptian journalist, human rights researcher and former political prisoner now living in Beirut, told Al Jazeera. “He has done nothing wrong and all his legal papers are in order. . “
“I’m afraid the same thing will happen to me even though I didn’t do anything illegal.”
Beirut is a safe place
The day after the incident, Tarek posted what happened on his Facebook page. After being told to pack his bags, he was taken to the intelligence services office in Jounieh, north of Beirut, where he was greeted respectfully by an officer, he said.
The officer told him that he would not be deported and that the investigation was only to learn about people on Lebanese territory.
Based on Tarek’s first-hand knowledge, the official asked him about the Egyptian government’s interest in him and its designation as a terrorist, previous trips to Gaza, and whether he had contacts with any Israeli groups.
Tarek also appeared to suggest that Egypt was pressuring Lebanese security forces to detain him.
“The question is whether the role of the Egyptian government is to track its citizens abroad,” Tarek wrote on his Facebook page.
When contacted for comment, the intelligence agency pointed Al Jazeera to Tarek or his lawyers.
Ramy Shaath, an Egyptian-Palestinian activist who was once held by Sisi’s regime, said Egypt had coordinated with other governments in the region to arrest regime critics.
He told Al Jazeera that while Interpol no longer responded to Egypt’s calls to arrest its dissidents, Sisi’s government had found other ways to harass and arrest his critics abroad.
“We know that the Egyptians used the platform of the Arab interior ministries to issue arrest warrants and grab people from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia,” he said by phone from France, where he now lives.
In January 2022, a Badr Airlines flight from Khartoum to Istanbul was diverted to Luxor and an Egyptian opposition activist was taken away by security officials. In September 2022, Saudi Arabia expelled several Egyptian dissidents. In December 2022, the UAE arrested an activist who criticized the COP27 climate summit in Egypt.
“At least recently, people’s political activism and political affiliation has not been the reason for their detention in Lebanon,” Ayman Mhanna, director of media and cultural freedom organization SKeyes, told Al Jazeera.
Mhanna added that some Syrian opposition figures had been arrested in the past, but those cases were linked to residency issues and did not lead to repatriation.
‘We gave them hell’
Activists and others involved in pushing for Tarek’s release have praised Lebanese civil society for its mass mobilization efforts and effectiveness.
“Let’s go to hell with them,” Shas said. “Thankfully, Lebanon remains a free speech country and remains a country with no bad history of handing over dissidents, politicians, activists or human rights defenders.”
Shaath also said he took the incident as a “warning”, but that the outcome “bodes well for other dissidents in Lebanon”.
SKeyes’ Mhanna said most Arab dissidents who fled to Lebanon because of issues related to freedom of speech were often “worried,” even before the Tarek case. But he would not say it was a precedent.
“I think now they need to be more cautious and not worried,” he said. “If they think they are at imminent risk, they should make sure there are steps in place to limit their risk.”
Tarek refused to remain silent after his release. He has criticized Egypt’s national dialogue, which is aimed at debating the country’s future between the orchestrated opposition and Sisi’s regime.
In the months leading up to the March dialogue, Sisi authorized the release of hundreds of political prisoners, some of whom faced fresh criminal charges immediately after being pardoned.
More than 60,000 political prisoners are believed to be suffering behind bars, according to human rights groups.
The ongoing crackdown has led people like Tarek to see the national dialogue as simply a way for Sisi to distract attention from the crisis in power in the country, while also trying to silence dissidents abroad.
“[F]Or all the parties involved in the national dialogue, do you agree with the behavior of the security services? ’ he wrote on Facebook.
“If the conversation is not working, your conversation will fail, simply because you followed the instructions of security. Withdraw or at least suspend your participation until the violation stops.”