False News From the Sisi State

My friend Mostafa Massouny has one of the most eclectic music collections of anyone I know. I initially typed “had” and “knew,” because I fear Mostafa is dead.

We met at a party where I was impressed by a playlist of Nubian musicians he played. Since then, he shared some of that collection with me, often via Facebook or Twitter messages sent at the oddest of hours, accompanied with a simple “listen.” The two most recent gifts I got from him, last year: Chet Baker and Paul Desmond’s “Autumn Leaves,” followed by Hugo Díaz’s “Guitarra Mia.” It was always a delight to receive a YouTube or SoundCloud link from him.

I am ashamed, and immensely regretful, that I didn’t respond to the last message he sent me, a short one aimed at breaking the ice of an earlier unanswered message and missed attempts to meet. But we always think we can afford carelessness, especially with younger friends.

On March 26, he turned 27. His birthday also marked nine months since he — known to his friends simply as Massouny — disappeared after leaving a friend’s apartment in downtown Cairo to buy food.

Massouny hasn’t been charged with anything, there is no record of his detention anywhere, and his body hasn’t shown up at any morgues. All we know is that two weeks into his disappearance, the domestic security agency, National Security, called his workplace, where he was a video editor, to confirm that he was employed there. His family has said that National Security told them that Massouny was in their custody and would be released after an investigation was concluded.

In early October, a social media campaign with the hashtag #WhereIsMassouny trended in Egypt. After that, the Interior Ministry denied that Massouny had been arrested by the police or any affiliated security apparatuses.

We have no reason to believe them.

This, after all, is the same Interior Ministry that blamed a gang, which it said was impersonating police officers and kidnapping foreigners, for the murder of an Italian doctoral student named Giulio Regeni, whose body was found on a desert highway in early February, several days after his disappearance on the anniversary of the Jan. 25, 2011, revolution. Last month, the Interior Ministry said that all four members of the gang had been killed in a police shootout.

Skepticism about this claim was reflected in the scorn that many on Egyptian social media heaped on the Interior Ministry and the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for this absurd attempt to close a case that has placed its brutal security services under an international spotlight. Italian investigators, politicians and Mr. Regeni’s family all rejected the convenient explanation of Mr. Regeni’s abduction and death. Human rights groups and Egyptian activists maintain that the unmistakable signs of torture on Mr. Regeni’s body indicate he was killed by the security services, an allegation the regime denies.

Mr. Regeni was a foreigner whose government seems determined to pursue the truth, a luxury afforded to very few Egyptians like Massouny. Young Egyptians, especially, have been among the most vulnerable to enforced disappearances since Mr. Sisi led an ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. The Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms claims to have recorded 1,840 such cases in 2015.

The Interior Ministry’s evasions and lack of transparency are especially galling at a time when the authorities, ever keen to police public morality, are cracking down on those who report “false news.” Last month, a court sentenced a blogger named Taymour el-Sobki to three years in jail with hard labor on such a charge, after he’d said on a TV show that many Egyptian women were ready to cheat on their husbands.

The writer Ahmed Naji is serving a two-year sentence handed down by an appeals court in February for violating “public modesty,” after sexually explicit excerpts from his novel were published in a literary magazine. (Mr. Naji has just been honored with an award from the writers’ organization PEN.)

Why is a military-backed government that is battling an Islamist insurgency in North Sinai, a flailing economy and a hard currency crisis busying itself with prosecutions of bloggers and writers?

Because that’s what a paranoid regime, aware of its failures yet equally cognizant of its Western allies’ reluctance to hold it accountable, does. Human rights groups in Egypt claim that since the appointment of Maj. Gen. Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar as Egypt’s interior minister in March 2015, enforced disappearance has become the de facto security policy of the Sisi government.

In such an environment, it is imperative to understand that for every Massouny — a disappeared person with a widely known name and face — there are countless others whose relative anonymity hides their absence from public view. On March 26, a brave group of young women, wearing an image of Massouny’s face on T-shirts, protested in front of the presidential palace in the Cairo suburb Heliopolis.

One of them, Sanaa Seif, knew only too well the risk they were taking. In 2014, she was sentenced to three years in jail for violating an anti-protest law passed soon after Mr. Sisi came to power. She was later pardoned by the president, but her brother, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, remains in jail on a similar conviction.

Massouny has no foreign government tenaciously pursuing the truth about what happened to him. Yet there are still Egyptians who, against the odds and in spite of real dangers, are still willing to risk protest in the face of the Sisi government’s own “false news.”

Mona Eltahawy is the author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, and a contributing opinion writer.

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