A Weeklong Crackdown on Freedom of Expression in the Arab World

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This week, authorities arrested journalists, bloggers, and human rights activists in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Early Wednesday morning, Egyptian police raided the home of journalist and blogger Wael Abbas and arrested him. His whereabouts are still unknown but authorities confiscated his personal computer, phones, and books, according to a statement published by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). The network condemned the arrest, describing it as a “kidnapping,” given that authorities forcefully took Abbas from his home while he was still in his night clothes. The report also said that they blindfolded him.

A screenshot of Wael Abbas’ last Facebook post, which reads “I am being arrested.”

While Abbas was able to publish a brief sentence on his Facebook account which said: “I am being arrested,” no official statement has yet been issued by the Egyptian authorities on the issue. An Egyptian journalist, known to be closely allied with the authorities, blamed Abbas for publishing “fake news” about the Sinai military operation of 2018.

Abbas’ arrest comes days after another blogger, human rights activist, and labor lawyer, Haitham Mohamedein, was seized by Egyptian authorities. He had been accused of a number of crimes, including “using the internet to incite against the state” and “incitement to protest.” He was detained for 15 days as investigations continued.

Earlier this week, Mada Masr reported that a military court sentenced journalist Ismail Alexandrani to ten years in prison for “obtaining and publishing military secrets, joining a banned organization and publishing false news abroad.” Alexandrani, who has been in pretrial detention since November 29, 2015, contested these charges, arguing that he had been enlisted by international organizations to produce journalistic reports in exchange for monetary compensation. His lawyer also argued that the prosecution did not provide sufficient evidence proving his client had joined a banned organization.

Similarly, Egyptian authorities arrested activist Shadi Ghazali Harb earlier in May, who was accused of “insulting the president and spreading false rumours.” The arrest came after a case was leveled against Al Ghazali for tweets he posted on his account about the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, which Egypt recently transferred to Saudi Arabia.

Shadi Abou Zeid, who had previously worked as a producer on “Abla Fahita,” a well known satirical show, was also arrested for “spreading false information on Facebook about the economic and political states of the country with the intention to undermine trust in the Egyptian state,” among other accusations. He is currently in custody as part of a 15-day detention and is awaiting formal charges.  investigations are pending.

Mass arrests in the Saudi Arabia

In the last week, Saudi authorities arrested a number of human rights activists. In a statement published in the national Saudi Press Agency, these activists were accused of “violat[ing] the country’s religious and national pillars through making suspected contacts in support of the activities of foreign circles and, moreover, recruiting some persons in charge of sensitive government positions, providing the foreign circles with money with the aim to destabilize the Kingdom and breach its social structure and mar the national consistency.”

According to the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), those arrested included Eman Al-Nafjan and Loujain Al-Hathloul, two of Saudi Arabia’s most notable women’s rights activists. Al-Hathloul has been known to be particularly active on social media, where she has garnered a steady following. She was involved in the women’s driving campaign, for which she was previously arrested.

Al-Nafjan, on the other hand, is a university professor, author, and blogger, and has written numerous times about Saudi women and Saudi society. She has also participated in the women’s driving campaign, for which she was arrested twice, in 2014 and 2017.

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