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Middle East expert weighs in on string of prison releases in Egypt

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

In Egypt, authorities have freed dozens of political prisoners in recent days, among them, prominent journalists, activists and lawmakers jailed by the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as part of a years-long crackdown on free speech. Despite these releases, many thousands of Egyptians are thought to still be in prison on what critics say are mostly bogus charges.

Joining us to discuss this is Mirette Mabrouk. She is the founding director of the Egypt program at the Middle East Institute here in Washington. Welcome.

MIRETTE MABROUK: Thank you so much.

FLORIDO: What do we know about why these people were released?

MABROUK: Generally speaking, there is an annual amnesty drive. It's usually done around Eid and always on Sinai Liberation Day, and there would always be people released. What was interesting this time is that among the people released were political detainees. And typically speaking, that has not happened for a while. So for a lot of people, it's something hopeful.

FLORIDO: And these dozens of political detainees who were released as part of this broader amnesty for thousands of people, why were they arrested in the first place?

MABROUK: Generally speaking, since 2013, room for freedom of expression and political dissent in Egypt has shrunk perceptibly, so many of these people have been detained on charges of joining a terrorist organization, on charges of releasing incorrect information harmful to the state. So it's generally the sort of charge that says, you have said the wrong thing, and we don't like it.

FLORIDO: Well, President Sisi has been in office since shortly after the military coup that removed President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, and he's faced intense criticism for political repression from the start. But recently, the U.S. withheld some aid to Egypt over human rights concerns. And I'm wondering if you think it's possible that the release of these political prisoners is a direct response to that pressure?

MABROUK: Egypt does not respond well to external pressure. It never has. So no, these releases I don't think are at all a response to that. I think that they're a response to internal pressure. And I think in Egypt's case, there is a realization, perhaps, that they need to reopen up the political sphere. Now, the other good news is that the president is calling for national dialogue, and there are people who think that it is serious this time.

FLORIDO: Egypt has taken other steps, aside from what you've just mentioned, to seemingly sort of try to open up the political sphere. It ended the longtime state of emergency. It established a national human rights strategy. Are these meaningful steps, do you think?

MABROUK: Whether or not they're meaningful depends on how the government decides to proceed, OK? It's kind of like saying that you are going to go on a diet but then, you know, having a muffin in the morning or something. So I think people are waiting to see how the government decides to proceed.

FLORIDO: And so are there specific things that you are keeping an eye on to signal how the government intends to actually handle free speech issues going forward?

MABROUK: Yeah. There are a few things. The release of more political prisoners would be welcome, but I think, more basically, there needs to be a discussion on alternatives to detention. Basically, the way you treat prisoners is going to be indicative of how serious the government is. Are you going to lock them up, or are you going to try and find a different way, possibly more humane way of dealing with them?

FLORIDO: Mirette Mabrouk is with the Middle East Institute. Thank you.

MABROUK: You're very welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOMBOX'S "MIDNIGHT ON THE RUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.