The Egyptian government has put out mixed explanations as to why it denied entry to prominent scholar and analyst Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who had been invited to attend a conference organized by the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs. An organization with close ties to the government, it lists former Egyptian Ambassador to the United States Mohamed Shaker as its board chairman.
On December 13, security services at Cairo International Airport told the press that Egypt's Homeland Security agency, the main successor agency to the infamous State Security Intelligence Service, had placed Dunne's name on a list of those to be denied entry for national security reasons. By December 14, the foreign ministry was claiming that Dunne was denied entry for not having a valid visa.
The first explanation has the ring of truth, and the second is a canard apparently intended to divert attention from the government's heavy-handed efforts to restrict the free exchange of ideas. It is vital that the government's disingenuous visa claims should be exposed for what they are: a ploy to restrict free exchange of ideas and inhibit independent reporting, intellectual inquiry, and civil society activity in Egypt.
I have been traveling to Egypt on behalf of human rights organizations since 1985 and have always done so on a tourist visa. For as long as such visas have been available, I have been purchasing them at the airport on entry. I have done this when on "official" visits, meeting with ministers, or attending conferences organized by state backed institutions, and when meeting with NGOs and private citizens. Although I am fairly often delayed at the airport, I have never been denied entry. My colleague, Brian Dooley, entered Egypt last month on a human rights reporting mission and was not stopped at the airport.
If NGOs without deep pockets are to continue to plan human rights visits to countries like Egypt, then we need some certainty that our staff will not be turned away at the point of entry. This uncertainty will itself have a chilling effect on usual exchanges and interactions between Egyptians and international human rights organizations -- no doubt one of the reasons why they decided to block Dunne's entry to Egypt.
Egypt is not the only country that uses visa regulations to interfere with the free functioning of human rights organizations. In 2007 I was attending an international human rights conference in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. Russian police came to the conference and took representatives of international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the World Organization against Torture (OMCT), to the police station for questioning. I was issued with "an administrative violation" for engaging in activities not commensurate with the terms of my visa and advised that when I come to Russia I should look at the many beautiful monuments, but not engage in conversations with its people.
It is sad but not surprising that Egypt is targeting visitors who might depart from the officially approved version of what is happening inside the country. Since the military takeover and removal of President Morsi on July 3, 2013, Egypt has been on a path of mounting repression, escalating restrictions on basic freedoms of assembly, association and expression, and brazen use of the dominant state-controlled media to spread propaganda with little basis in reality.
At his speech to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York in September, President Obama pledged that it would be a "mission across the U.S. government ... to oppose efforts by foreign governments to restrict freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and expression." Arbitrary denials of entry designed to curtail the free exchange of ideas between Egyptians and foreign analysts, researchers and activists, as in the case of Michele Dunne, are one such restrictive measure.
The U.S. government should seek assurances from the Egyptian authorities that independent scholars, and others who may have critical things to say about the policies of the Sisi government, will not be excluded from Egypt on bogus grounds of national security or disingenuous claims about visa regulations.