Egypt: Dissidents abroad denied right to renew their ID documents, says HRW

The Egyptian dissidents abroad have been denied provision or renewal of their ID documents, which undermines access to their basic rights, says Human Rights Watch.

The Egyptian authorities in recent years have systematically refused to provide or renew the identity documents of dozens of dissidents, journalists, and human rights activists living abroad, Human Rights Watch stated.

“The refusal is apparently intended to pressure them to return to near-certain persecution in Egypt,” the human rights watchdog says.

The inability to obtain birth certificates or renew essential documents such as passports and ID cards has hampered access to basic rights for dissidents abroad and their dependent family members. It has effectively undermined their ability to travel, live, and work legally and sometimes jeopardized their ability to obtain essential medical care and educational services or reunite with other family members.

“The government of Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been turning the screws on dissidents abroad by depriving them of essential identity documents,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

“After sparing no effort to crush domestic opposition and public dissent through mass arrests, unfair trials, and rampant torture in detention, the government is ramping up efforts to punish and silence those abroad.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 26 Egyptian dissidents, journalists, and lawyers living in Turkey, Germany, Malaysia, an African country, Qatar, and another Gulf country from June to December 2022, and reviewed dozens of documents such as written correspondences, passports, and official forms relating to the cases of nine of those interviewed.

Seventeen of them had some form of temporary or permanent residence permits, 3 have filed for asylum, 16 live with their spouses and children abroad, and family members of 10 were also denied documents.

Egyptian dissidents in Turkey have faced additional challenges because the Egyptian consulate in Istanbul has effectively closed its doors to Egyptians since around 2018. Interviewees said it only accepts requests for official documentation through its Facebook page, while requiring applicants for virtually all services to fill out extralegal, unofficial forms, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, requesting private details such as why they left Egypt and links to their social media accounts.

Consulate officials routinely informed applicants that security agencies in Egypt must approve all requests before the consulate would file them with the relevant authorities. This practice has blocked thousands of Egyptians in Turkey from filing routine requests for official documents, including passports and IDs.

Al-Sisi’s government’s zero-tolerance policy toward dissent has caused one of the largest politically driven outward migration waves in Egypt’s recent history.

According to official government figures and estimates published in recent years, between 9 and 14 million Egyptians live abroad. Of these, tens of thousands have been living in exile to avoid repression at home, according to estimates by media and human rights reports.

Dissidents and activists interviewed said that it is nearly impossible to legally challenge Egyptian authorities’ refusals to provide official documents, especially when embassies and consulates refuse to process power of attorney requests to authorize lawyers in Egypt to act on behalf of those abroad.

None of those interviewed received an official written rejection. Those who received a verbal response said embassy or consulate officials merely informed them that the security agencies had not approved providing the documents.

Officials told some explicitly to go back to Egypt to “solve their problems” with security agencies. In other cases, officials gave no response or just said the requests were pending for months or years without explanation or formal rejection.

The majority said they had no pending criminal cases against them in Egypt.

However, six said the Egyptian authorities had legally designated them as “terrorists” under an arbitrary and flawed process in Egypt, which automatically prevents the designated people from obtaining or renewing passports.

Those designated as “terrorists” said that in addition to refusing to renew passports, the authorities also refused to provide other documents such as birth certificates and ID cards or refused to process a power of attorney, all of which are arbitrary measures not stipulated even under Egypt’s flawed and draconian terrorism regulations.

An Egyptian engineer living in Germany with his wife and children told Human Rights Watch that his naturalization process in Germany had stalled due to his expired passport, which also resulted in his residency permit in Germany becoming effectively invalid.

He said that Egyptian authorities refused to issue him a new passport because he had been placed arbitrarily on Egypt’s “terrorism” list in 2018, as had hundreds of others, based on court decisions made without hearings or the ability of those designated to challenge the allegations in fair proceedings.

By arbitrarily depriving its citizens abroad from obtaining valid passports and other identity documents, the Egyptian authorities are violating both the constitution and international human rights law. Under international law, everyone has a right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law as well as a right to birth registration.

“Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and PM Mostafa Madbouly should immediately order security agencies and diplomatic missions to end all extralegal impediments to issuing identity documents and facilitate such requests,” HRW stressed, adding that “Countries hosting affected dissidents should not deport anyone to Egypt who would be at risk of persecution, torture, or other serious harm upon return, and should allow people expressing such fears to apply for asylum.”

When assessing these asylum claims, governments, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), and other asylum adjudicators should take into consideration reports documenting ongoing repression in Egypt as well as the inability of many dissidents abroad to obtain identity documents.

“The Egyptian government’s export of repression via its embassies and consulates abroad seeks to destroy the livelihoods of Egyptians living in exile and has become an important aspect of its unrelenting assault on all forms of dissent,” Coogle said.

Since the military ousted the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsy in July 2013, President al-Sisi’s government has overseen a massive crackdown on critics that first targeted actual or perceived members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government outlawed then, before widening quickly to brutally stifle all forms of dissent.

The deprivation of passports, ID cards, birth certificates, and other civil documentation profoundly affects other fundamental rights such as access to health care, education, and work; the right to family life; freedom of movement; and the right to leave one’s own country.

All countries are obliged to register children’s births and to ensure their right to a nationality.

As passports are often treated as the main proof of nationality and identity recognized outside one’s country of origin, deprivation of passports can place people in a situation akin to statelessness.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is party, states that “Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.” The Human Rights Committee overseeing the interpretation of the Covenant said that the right to leave “must include the right to obtain the necessary travel documents.”

The Committee also criticized bureaucratic hurdles and other obstacles to obtaining passports such as high fees, harassment of applicants, and, “refusal to issue a passport because the applicant is said to harm the good name of the country.”