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Geopolitics

When The Only Way Out Of Prison Is The Price Of Your Citizenship

Several notable political prisoners in Egypt have renounced their citizenship to gain freedom. The choice is a difficult one to make personally, and the practice is highly questionable politically.

#FreeRamySaath posters displayed in the street as part of an Amnesty International campaign.

#FreeRamySaath posters displayed in the street as part of an Amnesty International campaign.

Osman El Sharnoubi

CAIRO — On January 8, Egyptian-Palestinian activist Ramy Shaath arrived in Paris after Egyptian authorities released him from prison and deported him after over 900 days in remand detention. He walked out of Charles de Gaulle Airport with his wife Celine Lebrun-Shaath to a cheering crowd of supporters. Yet the conditions of his release were no cause for celebration — Shaath was forced to renounce his Egyptian citizenship in exchange for his freedom.

Shaath's detention was part of a continuing crackdown on political dissent under Egypt's president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which has trageted liberal critics.


In a statement announcing his release, Shaath’s family said: “No one should have to choose between their freedom and their citizenship. Ramy was born Egyptian, raised as an Egyptian, and Egypt has always been and will always be his homeland; no coerced renunciation of citizenship under duress will ever change that.”

Freedom, finally — but at a cost

Throughout the two and a half years of Shaath’s imprisonment, his wife Celine Lebrun-Shaath, a French national who was deported from Egypt upon his arrest, led a longstanding public campaign for his release. French President Emmanuel Macron also made a direct demand for Shaath to be released during a December 2020 press conference alongside President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, held after bilateral talks at the Elysee Palace in Paris.

Over the last six months, the National Security Agency had been communicating with Shaath’s family to begin the process of his citizenship renunciation, and to arrange for his deportation, according to a source informed of discussions around his release, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. Those procedures came to a head on Jan. 1, when Shaath’s lawyer submitted an official document to the Supreme Administrative Court saying that he would drop his Egyptian citizenship, the source added.

Shaath was released on January 6, according to the family, and handed over to a representative of the Palestinian Authority at Cairo International Airport, where he boarded a flight to the Jordanian capital, Amman. He then traveled on to Paris.

Egypt offers "only way out" 

The controversial practice is based on a decree — known as Law 140 — issued by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Nov. 2014 that allows the repatriation of foreign prisoners to their home countries, at the president’s discretion, to serve their time or be retried there.

The choice between citizenship and freedom is not really a choice

The decree was issued five months after three Al-Jazeera journalists — Australian Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed — were sentenced to between seven and 10 years in prison on terrorism charges in a high profile case that sparked international condemnation and was criticized by human rights groups, Western governments and the United Nations. According to lawyer Negad al-Borai, who represented Fahmy in the case, Law 140 was issued to allow for the release and deportation of Greste to his native Australia. Less than three months after the decree was issued, Greste was indeed deported.

Around that time, Fahmy renounced his Egyptian citizenship in the hope of being deported to Canada. Fahmy toldMada Masr at the time that senior officials had visited him in detention and told him that renouncing Egyptian citizenship was his “only way out”. Fahmy refused at first, but said he felt pressured and wanted to get out of prison. The move did not work and he was only released, along with Baher Mohamed, after they received presidential pardons in Sept. 2015 following a retrial. Fahmy has since regained his Egyptian citizenship.

Months earlier, in May 2015, Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American activist imprisoned for over 640 days, was forced to relinquish his citizenship in order to be released from prison and deported to the United States after direct appeals from the Obama administration.

An unconstitutional practice

Soltan’s case included an additional twist. During a visit to Capitol Hill in July 2021, Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel insisted to US officials that Washington had promised in 2015 that if Egypt released Soltan he would serve out the rest of his life sentence in a U.S. prison, according to Politico. Kamel even handed congressional staffers what appeared to be a signed agreement between Egyptian and American officials laying out such an arrangement. Sources told Politico that a State Department employee signed the document when it was pushed on them at the airport at the last minute, as U.S. officials were trying to get Soltan out of the country, and that the document was not legally enforceable.

In any case, forcing Egyptians to renounce their citizenship in order to be deported remains a highly controversial, and arguably illegal, practice.

Lawyer Gamal Eid of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information says that Law 140 is unconstitutional, as it creates a privilege for non-Egyptians. “The idea was to cower to foreign governments and polish the regime’s image, but the decree breaches the principle that all are equal before the law, which is a supra-constitutional principle.” Eid says he is not condoning the continued imprisonment of dissidents, rather, he says they should all be released, not just the foreign nationals.

To be a citizen necessarily means not to be free

While the decree doesn’t force anyone to drop their nationality, the choice between citizenship and freedom is not really a choice. Hussein Baoumi, an Egypt researcher at Amnesty International told Mada Masr it is more accurate to say that Shaath and Soltan were forced to cede their Egyptian citizenship, which he says is unconstitutional.

The choice between citizenship and freedom

“This practice we arèe now seeing in Egypt of trading citizenship for freedom is against the constitution and the citizenship law, and is also a blatant breach of the stipulations of international law about rescinding one’s citizenship. It circumvents the provisions of the law regulating such a measure,” Baoumi says.

The 1975 citizenship law stipulates that a number of conditions be met before the state can rescind citizenship from an Egyptian national. Yet, this law does not apply in Shaath or Soltan’s case because they technically relinquished their citizenship themselves. However, both Soltan and Shaath contend they had no choice in the matter.

Following Shaath’s release, Soltan tweeted: “To be given a choice between your freedom and your citizenship is easy, for freedom always and forever comes first, and this doesn’t take away from your belonging to your country because that is in the heart. As for a regime that conditions enjoying your most basic citizenship rights of freedom and life upon your dropping your nationality, it is a regime that is reinforcing its repressive philosophy: to be a citizen necessarily means not to be free.”


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