Egypt. Al-Sisi, a Human Rights Illusionist

During the last six months, Cairo has announced a series of ostentatious reforms aimed at improving its mediocre record in human rights. In fact, however these are merely window-dressing meant to dupe the “international community” and ease the moral pressures on the regime.

Badr City, 16 January 2022. The brand new “Correctional and Rehabilitation Centre”, photo taken during a tour organised by the government for the media
Khaled Desouki/AFP

On 25 October 2021, in a series of grandiloquent messages posted on the social networks, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi announced that for the first time in four years he was not going to prolong the state of national emergency, asserting that Egypt “has become an oasis of security and stability in the region.” The end of this regime, which granted the executive and the security forces considerable powers while restricting judicial oversight, has long been a pressing demand from Egyptian civil society. But it quickly became apparent that this change was merely cosmetic.

In a press release published the day after this announcement, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), one of the main organisations fighting for human rights in the country, pointed out that during the last few years, the Egyptian authorities have adopted a “repressive legislative arsenal” such as the stringent laws regulating street protests and the “war on terror”. And these laws, originally associated with the state of emergency, have in fact been incorporated into ordinary criminal law. This procedure continued after 25 October 2021, since the executive and legislative authorities hastened to enact several judicial amendments aimed at prolonging the state of emergency through more permanent measures. Among these are an extension of presidential powers as well as harsher prison sentences and stiffer fines under the terms of the anti-terrorist law. The broadening of the jurisdiction of military prosecutors and courts over civilians has been reinforced as well as the restrictions on the publication of information about the armed forces. “Under Sisi, the institutionalisation of repression dates from 2013. Restrictions have been added to many laws and hence the government no longer needs the state of emergency,” Amir Magdi explains. He is a research fellow with Human Rights Watch (HRW), specialising in North Africa and the Middle East.

“Cosmetic” measures

Not long before the President’s announcement, some fifty persons were tried by at least five special courts. These were human rights defenders, activists and politicians who had been held for long periods in preventive detention. Among them were Alaa Abdel Fattah, probably the best-known political prisoner in Egypt, attorney Mohamed El-Baqer, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a presidential candidate in 2012 and leader of the Strong Egypt Party, former MP Ziad El-Elaimay, and Ezzat Ghoneim, chairman of the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF). The special courts do not admit motions for appeal and are still trying cases brought before them during the state of emergency even after this was lifted.

The ballyhoo surrounding the end of the state of emergency was not an isolated instance, for this was one of a series of “cosmetic” reforms announced by the regime over the past few months and which are in fact aimed at a particular sector of the international community: those countries which are the most ill at ease with Egypt’s lamentable human rights record.

Among the gadgets made public with great fanfare was the National Human Rights Strategy of 11 September 2021, a document of some ten pages laying out for the first time the government’s five-year plan for improving the human rights situation in the country, a plan overseen by the Supreme Standing Committee for Human Rights, chaired strangely enough by the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

“Actually, we know that what has changed since last year is the rhetoric, not the reality on the ground” observes Hossam Bahgat, director of the EIPR. "In spite of this, the Egyptian government has gained a lot by playing this card because, since September 2021, it is much less criticised in the United States on this score», he adds.

The depoliticisation of human rights

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies stresses the fact that the document which has become the State’s cornerstone in these matters contains a dubious definition of human rights in Egypt, since it draws a distinction between civil and political rights, on the one hand, and cultural, social, and economic rights on the other. This enables Cairo to deliberately prioritise the latter and therefore claim to have made progress in terms of human rights in general.

One of the most critical aspects of this strategy involves a re-examination of the broad use of the death penalty, Egypt having been during recent years one of the countries in the world most frequently applying the death penalty as well as extending the list of crimes to which capital punishment applies. In 2020, Amnesty International counted more than 100 executions in Egypt and HRW has recorded 51 during the first six months of 2021. Despite the government’s wishes to improve its image abroad, these revelations did not prevent the Ministry of Interior Affairs from ordering the execution of five more prisoners convicted of violating the anti-terrorist law.

"In a private meeting, a Western diplomat declared that he knew for a fact, as do the Egyptian diplomats and heads of the National Council for Human Rights who toured Europe to lecture on [Egypt’s human rights strategy] that it was an empty document. “However, it is useful to alleviate the pressure on our boss,” declared Bahey Eldin Hassan, chairman of the CIHRS.

At the same time, Egypt is trying to implement a reform of its penitentiary system, which is regularly the object of criticisms. In October 2021, the authorities inaugurated with much fanfare, a prison at Wadi El-Natrun, to the North of Cairo, in keeping with what Sisi considers “American standards” — without explaining exactly what he means. This prison is meant to accommodate several thousand inmates and make it possible to shut down some dozen penal facilities across the country, i.e., a quarter of their total number. The diplomatic missions and press correspondents were invited for the occasion. They visited the new installations, among which a swimming pool and sporting fields were conveniently highlighted. In the same vein, Cairo does not scruple to use euphemisms to qualify prison life, for example by calling prisons “centres for reform and rehabilitation” or referring to penitentiary authorities as “units of social protection”.

Releasing a few, the better to incarcerate others

This smokescreen has not prevented associations such as The Committee for Justice (CFJ) from continuing their investigations, authenticating the dozens of enforced disappearances, especially within the detention centres themselves and the many cases of torture and ill-treatment. In addition, some twelve deaths were recorded in detention centres across the country between October and November 2021 alone, most of them due to negligence. Among the victims was former MP Hamdi Hassan who died after having been denied medical care for eight years, according to the CFJ.

Egyptian authorities have also threatened in recent months to change their policies regarding political prisoners. Thus, while Cairo has agreed to set free certain figures such as Egyptian-Palestinian activist Ramy Shaath, Qatari biologist (and daughter of theologian Yusef Al-Qaradawi) Ola Al-Qaradawi, Patrick George Zaki, a scholar specialising in women’s rights, not to mention Sanaa Seif, human rights activist and sister of Alaa Abdel Fattah, and activist for Coptic rights, Ramy Kamel.

But despite these welcomed releases the human rights defence groups insist on the fact that they are exceptions, mere drops in the bucket, and that thousands of political prisoners, most of them unknown to the public, remain behind bars. The associations continue to record hundreds of arbitrary detentions. In the meantime, prominent political prisoners like Alaa Abdel Fattah, El Baqer or blogger Mohamed “Oxygen” Ibrahim have been given stiff sentences from which the time already spent in preventive detention will not be deducted. Moreover, even the men and women who have been released from prison remain officially indicted by the Department of Judicial Affairs and the charges against them have not been dropped unless they have completed their sentence.

“Even if only one family can sleep well because their relatives have been set free, this is certainly an achievement under Al-Sisi’s repressive regime,” in the opinion of HRW’s Magdi. “But these are not signs of a political sea change,» he warns.

“2022, the year of civil society”

Last October, in a symbolic gesture, the Egyptian parliament approved the revival of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), a body composed of 27 members, headed by former ambassadress Moshira Khattab and various personalities who are in close touch with Cairo’s community of foreign diplomats. As for President Al-Sisi, at the closing ceremony of the World Youth Forum held last January in the city of Charm El Sheik in South Sinai, he declared that 2022 shall be “the year of the civil society.”

A few days earlier, the Arab Organisation for Human Rights, a well-known network which has been active since 2004, issued a press release announcing the suspension of its operations and activities in Egypt because of the increasing contempt for the rule of law in that country and the intensification of police harassment. During the same period, the government decided to extend for a year – i.e., until January 2023 – the delay granted non-governmental organisations to legalise their status in Egypt. At the time this additional delay was granted, over 40% of the organisations representing the civil society had still been unable to settle the matter of their legal status within the framework of the new law dealing with it, a law criticised for the radical restrictions it has introduced regarding their funding and activities.

“This is not to deny or underestimate the good will of certain members of the NCHR,” Magdi insists. “I know there are people who are making sincere efforts to free the prisoners and convince the Al-Sisi government to change its course, and I think it is important to recognise those efforts. I simply wonder how much power they have and what are the limits they run up against.”