CAIRO (AP) — Amnesty International said Thursday that Egyptian authorities detained at least 113 people in 2018 for peacefully expressing their views, saying the country has become more dangerous than at any time in recent history for anyone openly criticizing the government.
In a statement, the London-based rights group said those who dared criticize the government in 2018 were sent to prison, often held in solitary confinement or subjected to forced disappearances.
"Today, it is more dangerous to openly criticize the government in Egypt than at any other time in the country's recent history," said Najia Bounaim, Amnesty's North Africa Campaigns Director.
"Those living under President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi have experienced an unprecedented assault that has seen those who peacefully express their views treated as criminals," Bounaim said. Those detained, it added, faced charges that included "membership of terrorist groups" — Egyptian government parlance for the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group — and "disseminating false news" in "unfair" trials.
There was no immediate comment from the government on Amnesty's statement, but authorities in Egypt have consistently dismissed charges of rights violations or police brutality made by rights groups, arguing at times that they promote the interests of Egypt's enemies or the Brotherhood, whose stalwart Mohammed Morsi was elected president in 2012 but was ousted a year later by the military, then led by el-Sissi.
El-Sissi, a general-turned-president who has made the economy and security his top priorities, denies the existence of political prisoners in Egypt, arguing that everyone in detention is facing legal proceedings. He has also questioned an estimate given by Human Rights Watch — 40,000 — for the number of political prisoners in Egypt.
In office since 2014, el-Sissi has overseen the largest crackdown on dissent seen in the Arab nation's modern history, jailing thousands of Islamists along with secular pro-democracy activists. His government has also rolled back many of the freedoms won in a 2011 popular uprising that toppled longtime autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak, silenced most critics in the media and blocked hundreds of independent news outlets online.
El-Sissi has simultaneously overseen a multi-billion-dollar drive to upgrade the country's faltering infrastructure, build new cities, including a new capital in the desert east of Cairo, and an extensive network of roads. An ambitious economic reforms program has plucked the country out of the economic slump it fell into in the years after the uprising, but that also unleased steep price increases that critics say have hit the poor and middle classes hardest.
The Amnesty statement comes on the eve of the eighth anniversary of the start of the 2011 uprising, which attracted millions of Egyptians to the streets but which later turned into a much maligned landmark by the pro-government media under el-Sissi.
El-Sissi himself has described the uprising as the "wrong remedy for a misdiagnosis" and has vowed, albeit implicitly, not to allow another one to take place, citing the turmoil in which the country was mired after the 2011 revolt. He, however, has made clear he did not share the views of loyalist media that it was a foreign conspiracy or that those behind it were foreign agents.
Surprisingly, el-Sissi paid tribute to the uprising in televised comments aired Wednesday to mark Police Day, which also falls on Jan. 25, the day the protesters specifically chose to start their revolt, which was in large part caused by perceived police brutality under Mubarak.
The January uprising, said el-Sissi, "expressed the aspirations of Egyptians to build a new future in which they enjoyed a dignified life."