Egypt: Arbitrary travel bans, the regime’s crushing tool against dissent

The Egyptian authorities have for years resorted to this repressive practice to limit the freedom of movement of key members of civil society

For example, Karim Ennarah, a ‘criminal justice’ researcher working with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a leading human rights organization, was released from prison in early December 2020.

While his intention was to move as soon as possible to the UK with his wife, Jessica Kelly, his plans were soon curtailed by a travel ban.

Ennarah had been detained along with two other colleagues shortly after they held a meeting with top diplomats from 13 Western countries.

As it is often the case with other human rights lawyers, journalists and activists arrested in Egypt, vague terrorism charges were brought against them. Due to their prominence, the arrests quickly sparked a strong media and diplomatic reaction, and they were soon released.

But despite the fact that they still faced severe restrictions following their release, the attention on their cases began to fade away.

About a week after being released, Ennarah went to the airport to catch a plane that would take him to the UK to reunite with his wife. But just as he was about to board, the Egyptian authorities blocked his way and prevented him from flying.

Although no one provided any explanation at the time, Ennarah soon discovered that he was subject to a travel ban. And since then, he has been unable to leave Egypt and only sees Kelly when she can visit him.

“It’s a very clever and insidious tactic, because it’s just kind of easy for people to side-line it,” Kelly stated. “What people don’t realize is that you are kind of in a much bigger prison, where you still don’t have any freedom to live your life,” she added.

Intimidation and punishment

Ennarah’s case is only one isolated example of the arbitrary, widespread and ambiguous use of travel bans by the Egyptian authorities against key members of civil society and others, according to human rights groups that have thoroughly documented this practice.

While the bans are issued within a vague legal framework and take a profound toll on those subject to them, they receive little attention inside and outside Egypt – compared to other abuses.

“Part of the problem is that when you look at the scope of the human rights violations that are happening in Egypt, there are simply so many,” Allison McManus, research director at the Freedom Initiative, a human rights group that has documented the abuse of travel bans in Egypt, stated.

“So, it can be hard sometimes to feel the sense of urgency about someone who is not able to leave the country.”

“But in many ways, the outcome is still the same: the regime uses these [bans] in a very similar way they use other, more egregious forms of human rights violations,” she added.

“They are arbitrary and nobody knows what the redline might be that will get them banned from travel or get thrown in jail or get tortured. So it creates a chilling effect.”

Human rights groups such as McManus’ define travel bans as exit-related restrictions, however temporary, and consider them a tool systematically weaponized by the Egyptian authorities to restrict the freedom of movement of certain citizens.

Their opaque and arbitrary nature makes it impossible to know how many people are or have been banned from travel. And while many have been issued against former detainees, like Ennarah, there are also individuals who have never been arrested who face ones as well.

Although there is a loose regulatory framework on travel bans, human rights groups insist that this practice adheres neither to international standards nor to Egypt’s constitutional obligations, and warn that the bans are largely shrouded in a legal vacuum.

This ambiguity allows the country’s judicial bodies and security agencies to apply the bans arbitrarily, which results in individuals subject to them having little or no information about what prompted the ban, who issued it, and, ultimately, how to challenge it, human rights organisations say.

“Politically speaking, arbitrary travel bans are a cheaper way for the Egyptian authorities to punish their opponents and critics, and to make sure that those that have been released cannot leave the country and therefore will not be able to continue being as vocal as they were before, because they know they can be detained at any time,” Hussein Baoumi, Egypt and Libya researcher for Amnesty International, stated.

Many of those subject to a ban have reported that the measure has had a negative impact on their personal, professional or educational lives, depending on the reason they intended to travel, and in some cases has affected their health and financial circumstances.

Human rights groups also warn that travel bans leave people in a very vulnerable situation.

“There’s a lot of fear of speaking out because if you can’t leave it means you have already been targeted. You already know that they have your name, they’ve put you on a list, and you are being watched,” McManus of the Freedom Initiative said.

“That’s the message this is intended to tell people.”

Under these circumstances, human rights groups are calling on the Egyptian authorities to lift all unlawful bans and, simultaneously, enact a comprehensive law that would address all types of travel bans, set clear limits, determine which authorities have the power to issue them and the potential reasons to enact them.

They also call for the creation of an independent oversight and accountability body that would provide information about the bans and how to challenge them.

McManus, however, admits that such a legal reform would only represent a small step forward. “In Egypt there are plenty of laws that on the book look fine. Like, the law on pre-trial detention doesn’t look that different than it might elsewhere, but it’s how the laws are applied.

“So, even a legal reform may only get you half-way. At least you know what your rights should be, even if it doesn’t mean that the authorities will respect it.”

These groups also call on foreign governments to recognize travel bans as a significant human rights abuse, consider them a form of deprivation of liberty akin to detention and even a possible form of state hostage-taking, and to include them in their communications with Cairo regarding human rights issues.

They also request sanctions against officers or members of the security apparatuses credibly implicated in issuing unlawful travel bans, and that greater support be provided to individuals subject to them at the consular level.

“It’s important for foreign governments to realize that [travel bans] are actually very much designed to keep information from leaving Egypt,” McManus noted.

“We have noticed that people who are targeted with a travel ban have in common the fact that, if they leave the country, they are witnesses to abuses that they could speak and testify to.”

“Egypt’s allies, in particular in North America and Europe, really need to raise this issue with the Egyptian authorities more seriously,” Baoumi of Amnesty International said. “They need to point out that these measures are arbitrary, are in violation of Egyptian and international law.”

“It’s important to note that among those who are subject to these arbitrary travel bans, many are already living abroad, in European countries, for example, or have family members there,” he added. “So, in a sense, it is an issue that has direct connection with these nations.”

In addition to the actions of human rights groups, some of those affected by travel bans, like Kelly, have sought to push their home governments to take action.

For instance, last July, ahead of a meeting in London between Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and his then British counterpart Liz Truss, Kelly launched a campaign to have Ennarah’s case addressed. However she noted that, for many, such cases are still not a priority.

“It’s very difficult to raise attention on both sides. In Egypt it’s difficult because a lot of people who work on human rights know a lot of people who are in prison, so mobilizing friends and colleagues to try to work on travel ban cases is often a lower priority,” Kelly said.

“Then again, in the UK there is a kind of unspoken message that I should be happy that Ennarah is not in prison anymore,” she added. “But for the UK government this shouldn’t be a difficult task, it’s just a question of making it clear.”