Egypt President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s pardon of a prominent activist who spent 10 years in prison was welcomed as the latest attempt to heal the wounds of a clampdown that began at the time of his arrest.
Campaigner Ahmed Douma, 37, was a leading figure of the 2011 uprising that toppled autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak after nearly 30 years in power.
But while some see the high-profile pardon as a goodwill gesture, others pointed out that arrests have continued in the 16 months since the Egyptian leader first ordered the release of more than 1,000 jailed critics in batches.
The releases are part of a carefully measured drive by Mr El Sisi to achieve national reconciliation during the current economic crisis – just months ahead of a presidential election.
Mr El Sisi's opponents claim tens of thousands of government critics remain in pretrial detention.
“After 10 years in prison, I wish I could say that I am happy after being released,” Mr Douma told reporters on Saturday after leaving his prison on the outskirts of Cairo.
“I postpone any celebrations until everyone is free. I wish we can celebrate soon.”
On Sunday, Mr Douma listed in a Facebook post the names of 16 mostly well-known government critics who remain behind bars, including British-Egyptian Alaa Abdel Fattah and former presidential candidate Abdel Monaim Abul Fotouh.
“And there are thousands of others who have also been crushed by an unjust system just like I was … There will be no joy without loved ones from among family, comrades and even foes being free as well,” he said.
Mr Douma was arrested in the large-scale clampdown that followed the 2013 ouster by the army, then led by Mr El Sisi, of Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist who was elected president in 2012.
Mr Douma was initially sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2015 for clashing with security forces, but this was reduced on appeal to 15 years in 2019. Later that year, Egypt's top appeals court upheld the reduced sentence.
Rights activist Hossam Bahgat welcomed the pardon, but said the decision was made “without any transparency or understanding of why some people were selected (for a pardon) and others ignored”.
Mr El Sisi’s government, he added, was “showing no indication of moving towards ending the crisis of political prisoners in Egypt.”
The issue of pretrial detention has been openly debated over the past year, with critics and experts calling on Mr El Sisi in online articles and social media posts to end it. They label it as the government’s roundabout way of keeping dissidents jailed without being formally charged or put on trial.
The government insists there are no political prisoners in Egypt and that everyone in detention is facing due legal process.
Mr El Sisi has argued that the actions were needed to safeguard the nation against a terror campaign that followed Morsi’s removal.
He has also launched a national dialogue that brought together the opposition, experts, trade unionists, pro-government politicians and academics to try to chart the country’s future.
The dialogue began in May. Last week, it delivered recommendations to the president to reform the electoral system with the aim of making parliament’s two chambers, currently dominated by El Sisi supporters, more representative.
The dialogue is expected to send more recommendations to the president, who has the prerogative to accept or dismiss them.
Mr El Sisi has yet to say whether he will seek a third term in office, but is widely believed to have every intention to contest the forthcoming election expected in early 2024 and which he is virtually certain to win.
Mohammed Zaree, an award-winning rights activist, believes the release of Mr Douma and others are not part of a political reform campaign, but more of an attempt to defuse growing frustration with the economic crisis.
“Political reform is not something that is in progress at this point of time,” he said.
In the past 17 months, Egypt devalued its currency three times, leaving its pound stripped of some 50 per cent of its value. Inflation is at record levels, reflecting in large part steep rises in the price of food.
A dollar crunch has cast doubt on the nation’s ability to repay its huge foreign debt – more than $160 billion – and led to the suppression of imports and the subsequent disruption of industries reliant on imported material.
Mr El Sisi, in charge of the economy since taking office in 2014, has placed the blame on the coronavirus pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war while defending his handling of the economy.
“It is a difficult challenge, but will it end? Absolutely, this is the way of the world,” he said during a visit last week to Egypt’s north-west coastal region. “People are gravely impacted by the crisis and I know that prices are high. We are doing everything in our power to mitigate the impact of this crisis.
“Everything will be fine with your good prayers,” he told scores of local dignitaries in televised remarks.