Egyptian authorities have unlawfully prevented scores of citizens from traveling outside the country over the past year. Security agencies are increasingly putting in place restrictive and intimidating measures that include confiscating passports.
Among those who have been denied travel are leaders and members of political parties, youth activists, people associated with nongovernmental groups, and a former aide to ousted President Mohamed Morsy. Egyptian authorities should end these non-judicial restrictions, give citizens recourse to challenge travel bans, and return their passports.
“The Egyptian authorities have jailed thousands of dissidents in the past two years and are now turning the country’s own borders into de facto prison walls,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The total lack of checks on the power of the National Security Agency leaves citizens without recourse.”
Many of those who experienced travel restrictions told Human Rights Watch that they were stopped at the airport while passing through passport control and interrogated by agents of the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency, formerly known as State Security. The agents then barred them from leaving the country, rarely offering a specific reason and often confiscating their passports.
Based on news reports and accounts from activists who spoke with Human Rights Watch, officers of the Interior Ministry’s Passport and Immigration Authority at Cairo International Airport have wide authority to require any citizen to obtain a security clearance to leave the country, no matter their destination or the purpose of their visit.
Human Rights Watch documented at least 32 cases in which airport security officers confiscated the passport of political activists and workers in nongovernmental groups and told them that national security agents “would call them.” The majority have not been able to get their passports back.
Responding to complaints from political parties about these restrictions on their members, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi promised in May 2015 to intervene. But the restrictions appear to remain in effect and many party members have not been able to retrieve their passports. Egypt’s Prosecutor General’s Office has not taken action when people tried to challenge travel bans, activists and lawyers told Human Rights Watch.
The National Security Agency has prevented politicians from traveling to political conferences and activists from attending workshops. In one example, on October 4, national security agents in Cairo International Airport stopped and interrogated a group of young women traveling to Germany on the invitation of a European organization for training on combating violence against women. Suzanne (pseudonym), who works at a humanitarian organization, said that passport control officers told her she had been under a travel ban since September 8. Security agents searched her and her luggage, questioned her, and confiscated her diary and phone.
Agents then halted five other women traveling with her who had been waiting to board their plane, interrogated all of them, and looked briefly into their phones and laptops. The officials returned all her colleagues’ belongings but confiscated their passports, along with Suzanne’s, refusing to give a reason. Suzanne said that the agent told them that each woman would receive a phone call from the National Security Office in their city to get their passports back, but that they have not.
“I was never mistreated verbally or physically, but I was shocked when they said I was on the travel ban list,” she said. “I did not hide anything nor travel secretly.”
On August 31, 10 bloggers and youth activists who were going to a youth conference organized by the Arab Network for Civic Education in Jordan had a similar experience. Mahmoud Abd al-Zaher, a blogger and member of the Constitution (al-Dostour) Party, told Human Rights Watch that passport control questioned them about the purpose of their trip and allowed them to go to the boarding area after they showed invitations to the conference. But at the gate, Abd al-Zaher was asked to go back to “talk with a National Security officer.” A man in civilian clothes interrogated him in a room in the airport’s garage and then brought all of Abd al-Zaher’s colleagues, interrogated them, and confiscated their passports. A few days later, each of them received a phone call from the National Security office in their hometown. Officers interrogated them but have yet to give them back their passports, Abd al-Zaher said.
Abd al-Zaher said that the officers told his colleagues that the travel ban was for “security reasons” and refused to give them written confirmation that the passport had been confiscated. He quoted one officer as saying, “If your father tells you not to travel now, you wouldn’t travel.”
Suzanne, Abd al-Zaher, and Abd al-Zaher’s colleagues filed complaints with the Prosecutor General’s Office about the situation but have received no response.
News media have reported several other cases. On July 15, 2015, the BBC reported that Cairo Airport Security stopped Sheikh Mohamed Jebril, an imam of the historic Amr Ibn al-As Mosque in Cairo, and barred him from traveling to London days after he led a prayer in which he spoke out against “unjust rulers” and prayed for “imprisoned youth.” The Awqaf Ministry, the government body that oversees Islamic affairs, said that Jebril had violated the ministry’s regulations and attacked the state. On October 27, the Cairo Administrative Court, responding to his appeal, ordered his travel ban lifted, and said that the executive authority cannot prevent someone from traveling without a judicial order.
In May, the authorities prevented Saif Abd al-Fattah, a political science professor who had served briefly in 2012 as an adviser to then-President Morsy, from traveling to Malaysia, giving no reason. Other cases cited by local activists and the media include Mohamed al-Qassas, a political activist, in January; Asma’a Mahfouz, a member of the April 6 Youth Movement, in October 2014; and two daughters of Khairat al-Shater, the jailed Muslim Brotherhood deputy leader, in October 2014.
In addition to specific bans, local media have reported that the authorities introduced a new policy in late 2014 requiring all citizens between 18 and 40 years old to obtain a “security approval” before traveling to certain countries, including Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, with some officials claiming the restriction was designed to target potential recruits for armed extremist groups. But one person who was prevented from traveling because he could not obtain permission told Human Rights Watch that he believes they did not give him permission because of his work for a nongovernmental organization. Those who were denied the security approval said they had no judicial or administrative recourse to appeal the decision.
The government never officially announced the details of this policy and the full list of countries affected, but Human Rights Watch documented the policy through the people affected as of December 2014. The Egyptian government’s opaque travel restriction policy violates both the Egyptian constitution and international human rights law.
Article 62 of the constitution guarantees freedom of movement and states that “no citizen may be prevented from leaving the state territory … except by a reasoned judicial order for a specified period of time and in the cases defined by the law.” Article 54 states that anyone “whose freedom is restricted … shall have the right to file grievance before the court against this action.” Egypt has no laws that specifically regulate travel bans, but various decisions by the interior minister, some of which have been ruled unconstitutional, give unchecked powers to security agencies to stop citizens from traveling.
Article 12 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a state party, states that “everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.” Restrictions to this right must be provided by law and be “necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.” Nevertheless, these restrictions “must not nullify the principle of liberty of movement and are governed by the need for consistency with the other rights recognized in the covenant.”
Egypt’s lack of a clear travel restriction policy runs counter to the principle endorsed by the UN Human Rights Committee, the body tasked with overseeing the ICCPR, that it is of “the utmost importance” for governments to make clear in public all of the legal and practical restrictions on the right to leave and that those laws “should use precise criteria and may not confer unfettered discretion.” In 1999, the committee further stated that any restrictions “must be necessary in a democratic society for the protection of these purposes and must be consistent with all other rights recognized in the covenant.”
In 2011, the committee stated that restricting the movement of journalists and others within or outside their country, especially for the purpose of attending human-rights-related meetings, undermines the freedom of expression that is essential to protect human rights.
“Under Hosni Mubarak’s long rule, security agencies used to punish some high-profile activists and Islamists with travel bans, but the travel restrictions practiced under Sisi’s government go much further. It’s so broad that almost any opponent could be affected,” Houry said.