Since Egypt’s rare release last week of three prominent human rights workers, many in the country have been focusing on Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson over her role in an international pressure campaign that has been credited with pushing Cairo to make the move.
Last week, Egypt freed three members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), including its executive director Gasser Abdel-Razek, its criminal justice director Karim Ennarah and administrative director Mohammed Basheer, although on Sunday a court froze all their assets. A fourth member of the group, Patrick Zaki, had his detention extended.
They were arrested after the organization hosted foreign diplomats from 13 Western countries to discuss the human rights situation in Egypt. They were accused of belonging to a terrorist group and spreading false information.
Egypt under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has overseen the heaviest crackdown on dissent in the country’s modern history. Officials have targeted not only Islamist political opponents but also pro-democracy activists, journalists and online critics.
The latest crackdown against EIPR raised an alarm in many parts of the world. The United Nations, some foreign governments, international rights groups, politicians and celebrities — including Johansson and fellow actress Emma Thompson — called for the three to be freed.
In a December 1 video, Johansson described the detainees as “the best of us,” calling for their immediate release and for the “bogus” charges against them to be dropped.
“Speaking out in Egypt today is dangerous,” she said in the video, published on EIPR’s YouTube page. “I want to highlight the plight of four people wrongfully arrested for their work fighting for the dignity of others — Gasser, Karim, Mohammed and Zaki — from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.”
“These men have spent their lives fighting against injustice and now they find themselves behind bars. They all face bogus charges that could lead to many more years in prison. In fact, their only crime has been to stand up for the dignity of Egyptians.”
Since then, Johansson’s name has been trending in Egypt, with many commending her for speaking out while prominent public figures have criticized her, sometimes while mentioning her Jewish identity and “Zionist” beliefs.
“We don’t need anyone to intervene in Egypt’s internal affairs, okay?” said Nashat al-Dihi, a presenter and commentator on TeN TV.
He slammed the American-Danish actress as “a Jewish actress who has links to the settlements and to the Zionist entity,” likely referring to Johansson starring in a 2014 ad for Israeli company SodaStream while it had a factory in the West Bank.
“She supports the Zionist products and it is well known that she is Jewish and that she’s on the Israelis’ side,” al-Dihi ranted.
Egyptian actress Laila Ezz El-Arab posted a social media video arguing that Johansson “does not know anything about the judicial system of Egypt,” and suggesting the country “has no detainees.”
She urged Johansson to focus “on the United States’ problems, like Black Lives Matter, like battered women” and poverty.
رد الفنانة ليلي عز العرب علي سكارليت جوهانسن ????????#ScarlettJohansson_interfering_in_egyptian_affairs pic.twitter.com/c8EB5W7Fn9
— ﮼رغدة﮼السعيد (@RaghdaaElSaeed) December 3, 2020
Egyptian news sites also highlighted commentary by Jewish American lawyer and analyst Irina Tsukerman, who has claimed Johansson was paid by Qatar to attack its regional enemy Egypt.
“These ignorant self-righteous celebrities are getting paid off for virtue signaling on issues they know nothing about,” she tweeted. “They don’t care about the people or asking basic questions or fact-checking.”
Others have been thanking Johansson, including many on social media. Some proceeded to make a series of requests from the actress, such as demanding that she tell the government to increase the size of subsidized bread loaves.
Egyptian actor Amr Waked, who starred alongside Johansson in the 2014 film “Lucy” and now lives in exile, thanked her but added that more steps were needed: “The charges must be dropped, and all other prisoners should be released. Enough injustice.”
Even the EIPR director himself, Hossam Bahgat, mentioned Johansson in reporting about the release of his staff members.
“I can confirm my friends and @eipr colleagues Gasser, Basheer and Karim have been released and are home which I guess means we (and you) managed to #FreeEIPRstaff,” he tweeted.
In a follow-up tweet, which has since been deleted, he joked: “By ‘you’ I obviously mean Scarlett.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.