In December 2020, political and human rights activist Ghada Naguib became the first Egyptian citizen to be stripped of her nationality over her criticisms of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government and its human rights abuses. Naguib and her family now face an uncertain future in Turkey, where she has lived in exile since 2015. Like many Egyptians exiled in Turkey since Sisi's 2013 coup, Naguib fears that the warming relationship between Sisi and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will result in less tolerance in Turkey for criticizing the Egyptian government and greater danger for political and human rights activists who have settled in the country.
Naguib and her husband, Egyptian opposition figure and prominent actor Hisham Abdullah, were forced out of Egypt in December 2015, after Egyptian security agencies threatened to frame Abdullah in a trumped-up terrorism case. They relocated to Turkey, joining the large Egyptian diaspora and many political exiles living in Istanbul.
As an activist, Naguib, now 50, looked forward to life in Turkey, where she would have a greater ability to speak freely and criticize the Sisi government for its repression at home. However, after she repeatedly criticized the Egyptian intelligence services, and specifically Lt. Col. Ahmad Shaaban, the intelligence officer who oversees the government's handling of the media, Naguib again became a target for the Egyptian government. Naguib faced pressure to remain silent on these issues, and in December 2020, the Egyptian government made the extraordinary decision to revoke her nationality.
Egypt's Official Gazette published the government's decision on Dec. 24, 2020, which was signed by Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly. Noting that Naguib lived abroad, the decision was based on Law No. 26 of 1975, which allows the government to revoke a citizen's nationality without legal oversight or judicial review. The government's decision falsely claimed that Naguib "was originally Syrian," even though it also stated she was born in Cairo. Naguib's mother was Egyptian and her father was Syrian, but Naguib only had an Egyptian passport and lived most of her life in Egypt. She has never visited Syria.
Although Egypt's nationality law gives the government great latitude in conferring and revoking citizenship, this decision effectively made Naguib stateless, as she does not have Turkish citizenship. Human rights organizations criticized the move as "arbitrary and abusive" and in violation of Egypt's international human rights obligations. Human rights defenders also noted that stripping her of her citizenship would set a dangerous precedent. And so it has, as the Egyptian government has used this tactic to force other political and human rights activists to renounce their nationality, often as a condition for their release from prison, like it did against Ramy Shaath earlier this year, who was a dual citizen of Egypt and France.
In March 2021, Naguib appealed the Egyptian government's decision to revoke her nationality at the State Council. A hearing was scheduled for February 2022. On the day of the hearing, Feb. 27, the court decided to suspend the ruling. Although the suspension of the ruling temporarily bars the government's action, it does not resolve the issue of Naguib's revoked citizenship. The court justified its decision to suspend the ruling because there is a lawsuit before the Supreme Constitutional Court challenging the constitutionality of the nationality law. The court found that it is necessary to wait for that ruling on the law first, and then rule on Naguib's appeal.
As a result, Naguib remains in a legal limbo. She must wait for the Supreme Constitutional Court to rule on the overall constitutionality of the law before a lower court interprets how this ruling will affect her case, if at all. A finding that the law is constitutional would likely prove problematic for Naguib, given the breadth of discretion that the law provides government officials to revoke a citizen's nationality.
Before being forced to leave Egypt in late 2015, the Egyptian authorities targeted Naguib and her husband for their political activities and opposition to Sisi dating back to his coup in 2013. Human Rights Watch documented how Egyptian officials harassed, intimidated and arrested members of both their families in July and August 2018. In January 2019, a Giza court sentenced Naguib and Abdullah to five years imprisonment in absentia as part of a mass trial in Supreme State Security Prosecution Case No. 1102 of 2017, known as the Ikhwan or Muslim Brotherhood Media case. Like many political activists, Naguib and Abdullah faced spurious charges of joining an illegal organization and disseminating false news to undermine national security. The prosecution presented no credible evidence to substantiate these claims, and the court only heard testimony from national security officers regarding the defendant's peaceful political activities.
In an interview with DAWN from her home in Istanbul, Naguib said that Sisi's regime "does not hesitate to do anything" to silence opponents. She added that she does not know what will become of her four children, "nor about my fate in forced exile after I became stateless."
The following transcript has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
"I have four children. I do not know what will become of them, nor about my fate in forced exile after I became stateless."
- Ghada Naguib
Why have you and your family been subjected to this campaign by the Egyptian government?
Since I left Egypt, the media campaigns against me and my husband have not stopped. The regime, through its media arms, has accused me of several charges, placed my husband and me on terrorist lists, reported us to Interpol, and fabricated charges and cases for slander.
The security crackdowns affected us abroad, and my husband was arrested in Turkey and listed on terrorism code 87 [a Turkish regulation that many Egyptians in the country are subject to, which involves a police request to arrest a person and deport them to their home country, despite the country's legal obligation to enforce the principle of non-refoulement]. He was pardoned by President Erdogan and released following a four-day detention, but he remains listed on the terrorism code.
The campaigns against Hisham and me were not limited to us, but also extended to our relatives in Egypt. In the same week that Egyptian authorities revoked my citizenship, five people from my husband's family were arrested and have been in detention since December 2020, bringing the number of family members detained by the regime to seven. My brothers, Islam and Yusuf, and Hisham's brother, Abdul Dayem, were also arrested.
In 2018, my younger brother, Islam, was released. Unfortunately, they kept my other brother, Yusuf, and my brother-in-law, Abdul Dayem, in prison. Following the end of their pretrial detention, the government chose not to release them, but recycled their charges and added them to a different case, as the regime does with many detainees. However, this time the campaign was different. They threatened my life, and targeted my eight-year-old son Thaer. The regime attacked me through its media arms, both on its television channels and websites, claiming that I had given birth to Thaer from another man and raised him as Hisham's son. My son's pictures were posted on their news websites, and they also used the hashtag, "Whose son is he, Hisham?" under my son's pictures.
Why do you think they launched this campaign?
I am not sure of the real reason, but I think it's because of my solidarity with Doaa Khalifa, one of the founders of the Tamarod movement, who worked on Sisi's presidential campaign. She is one of the arms of the government's media system and writes on several websites, including al-Dustour newspaper. She belongs to this regime, but we were surprised by her posting a video [in 2020] appealing to Sisi to save her from intelligence officer Ahmed Shaaban, whom she described as "Egypt's executive director."
We don't know exactly the reason for the dispute between her and Shaaban, but we do know that she was working with him, because he oversees the media file in Egypt. After posting the first video, she posted another video denying the plea video and claiming that it was fabricated. The Egyptian media launched a campaign against Khalifa for a month, and then she disappeared. No one knows anything about what happened to her.
During her disappearance, Doaa was able to send audio clips and stated that Shaaban kidnapped her from her home and threatened to harm her 18-year-old daughter to force her to retract what she said in the plea video. She also talked about the role of Shaban in the media. My husband posted one of these clips.
At that time, I decided to expose Shaaban and his personal account. I held him responsible for Khalifa's disappearance and attempted to protect her because she was afraid of being killed, or "liquidated," as she stated in one of the audio clips. The Egyptian media then immediately launched its campaign against me and my son Thaer.
Why do you stand in solidarity with Doaa Khalifa, a Sisi supporter?
We stand in solidarity with our principles and what we believe in, not with people. We stand in solidarity with any human being who has been abused. We do not consider their affiliations, and we do not care about their positions or ideologies. To me, she is a woman who has been kidnapped and abused, even if she is part of this regime and helped it oppress me and others. Human solidarity and human rights are not selective; they are as blind as justice and do not differentiate between people according to their affiliations.
Who is behind this campaign?
Lt. Col. Ahmad Shaaban, a powerful intelligence official in Egypt's General Intelligence Directorate (GID). Shaaban is the assistant to Maj. Gen. Abbas Kamel, head of the GID. Shaaban oversees the media file in Egypt and is known as "the commander" in media circles. No one dares to mention his name, and he is a member of the inner circle of Sisi and his son Mahmoud.
Has Ahmed Shaaban ever led similar campaigns against opponents inside or outside Egypt?
A journalist, a news website or a television channel in Egypt does not dare to write about a sensitive topic without his direction. I think that the "sent from a Samsung" scandal, which is how a female anchor concluded a news bulletin on an Egyptian channel, reveals how the media is managed in Egypt. The regime sends its guidance through the official in charge of the media file and circulates it to its media arms.
[Editor's note: In this notorious incident, an Egyptian news anchor concluded a brief segment on the death of former President Mohammed Morsi by saying "sent from a Samsung device," exposing how she was simply reading the government's script that was put in her teleprompter. The independent Egyptian news website Mada Masr reported that the same 42-word story on Morsi's death was sent to news editors across Egypt "by a government entity" via WhatsApp.]
Do you think that Ahmad Shaaban is retaliating because of your solidarity with Doaa Khalifah?
Certainly. The recent slander campaign against me and my son's lineage was revenge for various reasons, including my solidarity with Khalifa, as well as my husband's posting of her audio clips that exposed Shaaban. And perhaps because I revealed Shaaban's identity and posted a picture of him. He is nicknamed the "shadow man" in Egypt, because no one knows who he is.
To what extent did Shaaban threaten you?
Before Shaaban resorted to threatening me, he sent one of the opposition media figures to negotiate with me. His only requests were for me to shut up and not mention his name, to stop posting his picture, and to stop referring to him and claiming that he is behind the campaign against me and my son. I refused and posted a video in which I revealed Shaaban's desire to negotiate with me to silence me. Then the threats began.
I was threatened with everything. I was threatened with my close family, and maybe he meant my detained brother and brother-in-law. I was threatened with my detained friend Nermin Hussein. I was also threatened with my youngest son Thaer. What hurt me the most psychologically is that one of these threats came from an opposition figure. The Egyptian regime does not hesitate to do anything. Unfortunately, this person was blackmailed, maybe by personal things, to pressure me and my husband and silence us.
"This is my message to the Egyptian regime: Stop punishing anyone who opposes it, and release my family and the family of my husband from its prisons."
- Ghada Naguib
If the Egyptian regime, through Shaaban, wanted to negotiate with you, what would you ask them to do?
Indeed, this happened and a message was sent to me from a regime affiliate in Egypt. He told me that if I remained silent, my brothers could be released from prison. I replied that I could actually shut up if a number of detainees were released. Of course, my request was rejected categorically. I was literally told that if I wanted to be listened to, I should make a reasonable request—just talk about your brothers—and this is what I refused.
Do you feel safe for you and your family in Turkey?
What worries me the most now is the targeting of my sons, following the threat against my young son Thaer, or the targeting of my husband and having a similar fate to Jamal Khashoggi. This is not out of the question.
Naturally, the Egyptian opposition outside of the country stands in solidarity with you.
It is natural that all those who believe in the principles of truth and justice, and anyone who rejects injustice and the muzzling of voices, should stand with me. The last campaign was unprecedented in its vileness. Unfortunately, a few of them did not support me, perhaps out of fear that Shaaban might harm their families in Egypt. I understand where they are coming from. This regime does not hesitate to do anything.
Are you satisfied with the amount of solidarity shown by the Egyptian political opposition?
I'm certainly not satisfied with the amount of solidarity. A few people have shown support. But I understand everyone's reasons, except the opposition media, which was not up to the required standard. It is supposed to be the voice of the oppressed.
When the Egyptian Cabinet issued its decision to revoke your citizenship, how did you feel?
I did not understand the decision for a while and felt overwhelmed and cried. The government based its decision on my stay abroad. I was convicted in absentia in a terrorism case, about which I know nothing, and I was sentenced to five years imprisonment. The Egyptian government also claimed that I am a Syrian national, which is simply not true. I am Egyptian since birth, and Article 6 of the Egyptian Constitution gives me this right. Their law on nationality is unconstitutional because the main purpose of passing this law is to punish the opposition.
You say that they used this decision to punish you. What is your evidence of the erroneous decision, and do you have documents to prove it?
First, the decision is unconstitutional, and I have proof that I am Egyptian from birth, contrary to their claim that I acquired citizenship by marriage. I presented all the documents in a video, proving that I am Egyptian since birth.
How did the decision affect you and your family?
The decision is definitely terrifying and has affected us psychologically. I have four children. I do not know what will become of them, nor about my fate in forced exile after I became stateless.
My plan is to appeal the decision, although I am sure that the Egyptian judiciary is not independent and fair, but I have no alternative.
How do you expect international human rights organizations and the international community to support you in this case?
I expect human rights organizations to support me in every possible way, first as a woman who is targeted by a dictatorial regime like the Egyptian government, as an opposition figure, and as the wife of an Egyptian opposition figure and actor, who are being targeted for our political views that are opposed to the Egyptian government.
What message would you like to send to the Egyptian regime and the international community?
This is my message to the Egyptian regime: Stop punishing anyone who opposes it, and release my family and the family of my husband, actor Hisham Abdullah, from its prisons, targeted only because they are our relatives.
As for the international community: Stop supporting Sisi, and stop giving him the legitimacy that made him a monster who carries out extrajudicial killings and arrests of Egyptians under the pretext of fighting terrorism, although what he is doing with the opposition, journalists and lawyers is terrorism itself.