Filmmaker Who Mocked Egypt’s President Dies in Prison
The cause of death of the filmmaker, Shady Habash, 24, was not immediately clear. But it brought new scrutiny to conditions in Egypt’s notoriously crowded prisons, where the death of an American this year caused a rare rift with the Trump administration, and which have been the subject of growing calls for a mass release of prisoners to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Mr. Habash was imprisoned in March 2018 after he directed a music video by an exiled musician, Ramy Essam, that mocked Mr. el-Sisi as a “date.” When the video spread widely on social media, Mr. Habash was arrested and jailed, said his lawyer, Ahmed el-Khawaga.
The writer of the song, Galal el-Behairy, was also arrested and charged, as was a third man who set up Mr. Essam’s Facebook page. In August 2018, a military court sentenced Mr. el-Behairy to three years’ imprisonment.
Although Mr. el-Sisi has amassed greater power than any other Egyptian leader in decades, he has consistently shown little tolerance for those who dare to mock him. In 2015, a 22-year-old student was jailed for three years after posting a cartoon on Facebook that depicted the president as Mickey Mouse.
In 2016, a comedian who played a prank on the police in Tahrir Square, the site of the Arab Spring protests in 2011, was arrested and remains in jail. Numerous other Egyptian actors, writers, satirists and sports stars have fled into exile to avoid Mr. el-Sisi’s wrath, and some have been prosecuted in absentia.
Mr. Essam, the singer, became popular during the Arab Spring, but later fled to Sweden after he was briefly detained. He hired Mr. Habash, who had worked with other musicians, to make his video about Mr. el-Sisi.
In a letter from prison in October that was later published by friends on Facebook, Mr. Habesh spoke of his despair. “Prison doesn’t kill, loneliness does,” he wrote, describing what he called his struggle to “stop yourself going mad or dying slowly because you’ve been thrown in a room two years ago and forgotten.”
Political prisoners in Egypt are often held for years without trial, frequently in what rights groups say are dirty, overcrowded conditions with poor medical treatment. In March, Amnesty International called on Mr. el-Sisi to release thousands of prisoners who are vulnerable to an outbreak of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Mr. el-Sisi released 4,000 prisoners last month, in a traditional gesture of clemency for Sinai Liberation Day, marking Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai in 1982. But those released were convicted criminals, and political prisoners were not included.
Lawyers, lawmakers and translators are among those who have been arrested by the security services in recent months, including Kholoud Sayed Amer, the head of translation at the prestigious Library of Alexandria.
Alaa Abd El Fattah, a prominent political prisoner, started a hunger strike on April 12 to protest what he called his unjust detention. He is subsisting on water and tea, said his aunt, the writer Ahdaf Soueif, who was herself arrested in March for protesting about his conditions.
Although President Trump has generally offered unstinting praise to Mr. el-Sisi, the death of an imprisoned American, Moustafa Kassem, in January caused a rare chill in relations between the two countries.
Mr. Kassem died after six years in prison and despite pleas from Vice President Mike Pence for his release. He had been on a hunger strike at the time of his death, and the State Department later considered cutting military aid to Egypt in retaliation for the death.
Egypt sent a planeload of medical aid to the United States in late April, in what many analysts viewed as a gesture of coronavirus diplomacy. But the issue of prison conditions remains an American priority.
In a call on April 23 with Egypt’s foreign minister, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “emphasized that detained U.S. citizens be kept safe and provided consular access during the Covid-19 pandemic,” a State Department spokeswoman said.