Egypt released seven people on Saturday, including a journalist and a researcher serving prison sentences on terror-related charges, the latest steps by the government to reach out to the opposition amid a grinding economic crisis.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s administration is grappling with the crisis and spiraling economy, spawned by Russia’s war on Ukraine. Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, imports most of its wheat from the two Slavic countries.
Saturday’s freeing of journalist Hisham Fouad and anthropology researcher Ahmed Samir came a day after el-Sissi pardoned them, along with five others, according to state-run media.
The two were released from the Tora prison complex in Cairo and images shared online showed them hugging families and friends outside the prison.
Fouad was arrested along with several other secular activists in June 2019, shortly after the group met with political parties and opposition lawmakers trying to hash out how to run in the 2020 parliamentary elections. Among the detained were Hossam Monis and Zyad el-Elaimy, prominent activists in the country’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
They were convicted last year of conspiring to commit crimes with an outlawed group, a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt has banned as a terrorist organization. Fouda and Monis were sentenced to four years in prison each while el-Elaimy received a five-year sentence. Monis was released in a presidential pardon in April.
El-Elaimy’s mother, Ekram Yousef, joined Fouad’s family while they awaited his release outside the prison. Yousef, who carried a bouquet of flowers for Fouad, later posted on Facebook that he told her he felt guilty that he was free while her son was still in prison.
Samir, who is doing his master’s in anthropology at the Vienna-based Central European University, was detained in February 2021 on charges of disseminating false news. His four-year sentence was lowered to three years in a retrial earlier this year.
Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg welcomed the release of Samir, who had been on a visit home when he was arrested. The minister told the Austria Press Agency that Austrian officials had repeatedly expressed concern to Egyptian authorities about his conditions of detention and “in our view, disproportionate sentence.”
“We worked behind the scenes with great patience and constant commitment toward this important result,” Schallenberg was quoted as saying.
Also released on Saturday were leftist activist Abdel-Raouf Khatab and actor Tarek el-Nahri, who were sentenced to seven years and 15 years respectively on charges of attacking and burning state buildings during protests and clashes with security forces in 2011.
Lawmaker Mohamed Abdel-Aziz and rights lawyer Tarek el-Awady, both members of the Presidential Pardon Committee, also confirmed the latest pardons.
Among the outreach steps taken by el-Sissi was the recent release of other prominent activists and a government-initiated national dialogue with opposition parties and government critics, which started earlier this month.
Thousands of political prisoners, however, remain detained in Egypt, according to rights groups, as the government wages a wide-scale crackdown on dissent.
Egypt is eager to improve its image abroad as it prepares to host the next U.N. climate change summit in November.