Douma, 38, was one of the founders of the 6 April Movement which began organising protests against former president Hosni Mubarak in 2008. Arrested in December 2013, and charged with rioting and attacking security forces, he was sentenced to 15 years in jail and fined LE6 million.
“I would have liked to have said that I am happy after 10 years [in detention], but honestly I am postponing the celebration until everyone is out,” Douma told Reuters hours after his release from prison on Saturday.
MP Tarek Al-Khouly, a member of the Presidential Pardon Committee, said that since the launch of the National Dialogue proposed by President Al-Sisi in April 2022, 1,400 pretrial detainees and high-profile political activists have been released.
Last month, Al-Sisi pardoned Egyptian-Italian human rights researcher Patrick Zaki and human rights lawyer Mohamed Al-Baqer. Two weeks ago, prosecution authorities released 33 pretrial detainees, including political activists Youssef Mansour and Ahmed Hassanein and economist Omar Al-Sheneti.
Al-Khouli said the decision to pardon Douma came in response to appeals from the National Dialogue’s Board of Trustees and opposition figures for greater political openness ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for early 2024.
“As long as political detainees were not involved in terrorism-related incidents or have blood on their hands the chances they will be pardoned are good,” said Al-Khouli.
Al-Khouli dismissed claims that presidential pardons are being granted under pressure from the US administration. The Washington Post reported this week that the US State Department will decide whether Egypt has made sufficient progress in human rights to warrant the release of conditional military aid by 30 September.
“Releasing and pardoning political activists is part of the human rights strategy Egypt published in October 2021, and an extension of the work of the National Dialogue, launched in April 2022 to debate political, economic, and social reforms,” said Al-Khouli.
MP Mohamed Abdel-Aziz said the pardoning of prisoners shows the political leadership wants to open a new page and give activists a chance to reintegrate into society.
“Douma and many others were arrested when Egypt was fighting the forces of terrorism. Now the country is stable and strong the climate is favourable for pardons,” said Abdel-Aziz.
Douma’s release was welcomed by leftist forces. The Press Syndicate, led by Khaled Al-Balshi, hailed the release, while the syndicate’s Freedoms Committee called upon authorities to release 24 detained journalists, some arrested just days ago.
“We hope this initiative progressively encompasses every individual detained for expressing their thoughts, especially journalists, and particularly our female colleagues who are grappling with health issues that warrant their immediate release,” the syndicate said on Saturday.
The syndicate also reiterated demands for amendments to the pretrial detention law to forestall the detention of more journalists.
Former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi thanked President Al-Sisi for the pardon.
“The decision was a source of joy for those who value Ahmed Douma and are aware of his dedication. It is a milestone on the road to closing the files of prisoners of conscience in Egypt,” Sabahi posted on his Facebook page.
Activist Khaled Dawoud revealed that the Civil Democratic Movement — a coalition of opposition forces — has submitted a request to prosecution authorities to release 30 pretrial detainees, including high-profile activists Mohamed Adel, Hala Fahmi, Sherif Al-Roubi and Nermine Hussein.
“We are happy that the president exercised his presidential powers to pardon some prisoners like Ahmed Douma and we hope more will be pardoned,” said Dawoud. He added that the release of political prisoners will help create a climate of mutual confidence ahead of presidential elections.
Head of the Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party Senator Farid Zahran said he hoped Douma’s release signaled the beginning of a comprehensive pardon for all political activists.
“In sessions held by the National Dialogue we have stressed the importance of releasing all political prisoners not involved in terrorism-related crimes or in inciting violence,” said Zahran. He recommended that in its coming sessions the National Dialogue focus on amending the detention law to limit the period during which activists can be held in pretrial custody which in some cases extends beyond two years.
The release of Douma came days after the National Dialogue finalised a raft of recommendations for political, economic, and social reforms and dialogue General Coordinator Diaa Rashwan said the issue of pretrial detention would top of the agenda of human rights discussions in coming sessions.
“There is no question that releasing pretrial detainees and prisoners like Douma creates amore conducive atmosphere for the National Dialogue to complete its mission on political reforms,” said Rashwan.
Other MPs and Senators were more cautious in their reactions to Douma’s release. Senator Mohamed Abdel-Aal, head of the Tagammu Party, said those pardoned and released from prison should take the chance to renounce any form of confrontation and adopt peaceful politics.
MP Mustafa Bakri said he was surprised that Douma, who had been found guilty of inciting violence, had been pardoned.” Those involved in inciting violence should be viewed as terrorists and not as politicians,” he said.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly