CAIRO — On bad days — and, in recent years, there seemed to be more bad days than ever — Gasser Abdel-Razek, captain, counselor and friend to nearly everyone in Egypt’s shrinking human rights community, tended to counter the tension and stress with food.
So it was, in August 2014, during the worst of Cairo’s blazing summer, that Mr. Abdel-Razek showed up to visit a friend in prison bearing a grin and an ice cream cake. An act of foolishness, maybe — or, as he often called his approach to advocacy under hostile conditions, “strategic denial.”
“If we think about the threats, if we try to assess what will get us in trouble and what won’t, then it would be impossible to work,” Mr. Abdel-Razek, the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said in a recent interview. “We stay focused on our work, and we tell ourselves, whatever happens, we’ll have to deal with it.”
But in the last few weeks, denial became impossible. First, his group’s office manager, Mohamed Basheer, was arrested, followed by the Initiative’s criminal justice program director, Karim Ennarah, and finally, on Thursday night, Mr. Abdel-Razek. Questioned about a meeting their organization held with Western diplomats on Nov. 3, all three were charged with working for a terrorist organization and spreading false information.
The arrests seemed designed to snap one of the few pillars of opposition left standing in Egypt, where President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has jailed thousands of activists, politicians, lawyers, journalists and protesters since taking power in 2014. The government has banned many human rights leaders from traveling, frozen their assets and hamstrung their work. Until last week, however, most had avoided prison.
Political analysts, activists and Western diplomats interpreted the arrests as a signal to President-elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr., who has been more vocal than President Trump on human rights in Egypt. Mr. Trump once saluted Mr. el-Sisi as his “favorite dictator.”
Like a retailer that hikes its prices before dangling 20 percent off, Mr. el-Sisi may be cracking down in hopes of padding his bargaining position. “And then you’ll climb back down from this in six months, and the Biden administration will be very happy,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director, “and then you’re right back where you started.”
The arrests were a thunderbolt, but they could not be called a surprise, certainly not to Mr. Abdel-Razek. Schooled in the brutal vagaries of Egyptian authoritarianism all his life — as a child, he watched his parents, both prominent leftists, be dragged away to prison in raids on their home — Mr. Abdel-Razek, 52, never nurtured a false sense of security. He simply seemed to shoulder risk more lightly than most.
Though rarely in the spotlight, Mr. Abdel-Razek was the one whom others turned to when in trouble. His jokes unerringly punctured moments of tension. Calm and pragmatic after setbacks, including the arrest of an Initiative researcher in February, he would set about calling government contacts and mobilizing resources.
But first, there was always breakfast.
If he found a staffer frazzled after a bout with the courts, Mr. Abdel-Razek made her an omelet as she vented. If he and other advocates were split on strategy, he invited everyone over to resolve their differences over his fava bean breakfast stew, homemade ceviche or steaks served with sauces inspired by hours of testing and cooking shows.
If a comrade was arrested, as happened increasingly often: eggs, ful stew, hot bread. Occasionally, only a jumbo bucket of KFC would do.
Mr. Abdel-Razek studied accounting, but politics was his parents’ world and eventually became his. Beginning his human rights career under President Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Abdel-Razek helped pioneer the use of litigation to overturn oppressive laws and expand legal recognition of rights for workers, women and religious and sexual minorities.
During the heady days of the 2011 Arab Spring revolt that toppled Mr. Mubarak, Mr. Abdel-Razek clung to the vision of a free and tolerant Egypt. “Even though we probably won’t live through another 2011 in our lifetime, you’ve seen the power of human rights work and you’ve seen what you can do with it,” Ms. Morayef said.
In 2013, some Egyptian liberals made common cause with Mr. el-Sisi, then the leader of the military, in the name of overthrowing Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist.
Not Mr. Abdel-Razek. But, pairing pragmatism with idealism, he learned to work under the new regime, shouting for rights at some times, keeping quiet at others.
“Although we feel defeated now, we cannot deny there have been gains from the revolution,” Mr. Abdel-Razek told Mada Masr, one of Egypt’s very few remaining independent news outlet, in 2015. “Something broke ideologically in January 2011 that cannot be reversed, despite attempts by the state to do so.”
The interview was published the year the government began obliterating any remaining spaces for dissent. Arrests accelerated, while obstacles to human rights groups’ legal status accumulated. Many of Mr. Abdel-Razek’s friends and colleagues left the country. He stayed.
“He was telling me, ‘Maybe we’re doing the work for later on,’” said his wife, Mariam Korachy, who said she often wished the Initiative would close because of the danger. “He said, ‘I’ll wait until they come and close the office.’”
Every year, survival seemed harder, as Mr. el-Sisi tightened his grip on power — and on dissent. After eliminating any serious opposition, the president won re-election in 2018, and a constitutional referendum in 2019 extended his rule. He has continued arresting critics, whether major (well-known activists and politicians), minor (a satirist) or even underage (preteen protesters).
“For many of us, we have more friends inside prison than outside, and it was hard to be hopeful,” said Hossam Bahgat, a prominent investigative journalist who founded the Initiative before passing the reins to Mr. Abdel-Razek in 2015. “Even for someone like Gasser, who was ridiculously optimistic and often ridiculed by his friends for remaining optimistic.”
Without an independent judiciary, an empowered parliament, a free press or the ability to organize protests, Mr. Bahgat said, activists were reduced to advocacy on the smallest scale: representing detainees and documenting violations.
Mr. Abdel-Razek believed such incremental work still mattered, friends say, but it was a steep comedown.
Over the last year, he began to contemplate moving on. There was more to his life than politics: He loved desert camping with his young sons; he talked about opening a restaurant. He felt he had done what he could in human rights, he told friends, and maybe it was time for new blood.
The organization’s board had begun looking for a new director when the police started arresting its staff. State-owned media outlets spent days smearing the organization, accusing it of treason.
Mr. Abdel-Razek knew he would be next. In a way, he hoped he would be.
“He didn’t want them to arrest all of his staff and leave him free,” Ms. Korachy said.
He was arrested at home in Maadi, a prosperous Cairo suburb, on the evening of Nov. 19.
After being held incommunicado for several days, he told his lawyers he had been in solitary confinement, not allowed out of his cell even for exercise, and that the cash they had given him to purchase food from the prison canteen had been confiscated, said Ragia Omran, one of Mr. Abdel-Razek’s lawyers and friends.
He had been provided only light clothes, despite the nighttime cold, and no mattress for his metal bed, she said.
Leaving the prosecutor’s office after an interrogation, Mr. Abdel-Razek shouted through the barred window of a police van to his wife: “Mariam! Say hello to the boys. I love you.”
His curly hair had been shaved, but he had, his lawyers said, a smile on his face.
Mona El-Naggar contributed reporting.