“It is difficult to implement European standards of human rights in a country of 90 million people that is fighting terrorism,” President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said during a press conference with then French president François Hollande held in Cairo in April 2017. Al-Sisi added that he had assured Hollande that “Egypt considers human rights a top priority,” adding that he was asking “our European friends to consider our broader vision regarding human rights issues which includes the right to education, health and housing”.
Egypt has faced mounting criticism over its human rights record since the 30 June uprising. International human rights organisations and local human rights’ observers and NGOs have condemned the government’s record while the regime has defended itself by stressing that while it respects freedoms and human rights it must give priority to stability and security.
A report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in September denounced the “widespread and systematic” use of torture by Egyptian security forces. A month later, during a visit to France, Al-Sisi denied he had allowed security forces to use torture, telling a Paris news conference “we do not practise torture and... we must be wary of all information published by rights organisations.”
During a meeting with the head of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) Mohamed Fayek last year Al-Sisi said Egypt will continue its efforts to maintain human rights and basic freedoms while confronting terrorism and protecting national security.
Since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in 2013 Egypt has been fighting an Islamist insurgency led by the Islamic State’s branch in North Sinai, formerly known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis. Hundreds of soldiers and police have been killed. Though Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis is at the forefront of militant groups launching attacks against security targets smaller militant groups — most notably Hasm and Lewaa Al-Thawra — have emerged during the last couple of years, carrying out terrorist attacks in Cairo and provincial governorates.
Human rights advocates and observers’ believe the last four years have seen a serious deterioration in human rights. “We will witness an escalation in violence if things do not change,” warns veteran political activist and member of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) George Ishak.
In the last year a number of news websites have been blocked. Some sites are affiliated to newspapers, including Daily News Egypt for which Al-Sisi wrote two articles in 2014 and 2015, Al-Badil, Al-Borsa and Al-Masryoon. The list also includes Mada Masr and Masr Alarabia, HuffPost Arabi, Al-Horreya Post, Cairo Portal and Al-Gornal.
Article 70 of the 2014 Constitution states that “freedom of the press, printing and paper, visual, audio and electronic publication is guaranteed”.
Article 71 reads: “It is prohibited to censor, confiscate, suspend or shut down Egyptian newspapers and media outlets.” But Egypt’s 59-year-old emergency law, which Al-Sisi invoked on 11 April following twin church bombings by the extremist group Islamic State, allows the authorities to censor publications.
Pro-Al-Sisi commentators argue constitutional articles guaranteeing press and media freedoms can only be applied after the state establishes a media and press system that conforms with the constitution which it is in the process of doing. It will be the job of newly formed regulatory authorities – the Higher Council for Media Regulation (HCMR), the National Media Organisation (NMO) and the National Press Organisation (NPO) – to uphold the independence of the media, they say.
In addition to blocking news websites, critics of the regime say dissenting political and public figures are prevented from appearing in the media. They warn that polarisation has reached unprecedented levels and anyone who differs with the regime is immediately labelled a traitor by a media that had been cowed into compliance.
When Al-Sisi declared a state of emergency in 2017 Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal said social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube would fall under state of emergency censorship provisions.
Hundreds of complaints of torture in police custody and detention centres have been documented by NGOs which receive reports on police abuse, including cases of death in detention.
Defenders of the regime argue that Al-Sisi has pledged to hold accountable any policeman guilty of “violations” after a series of deaths in police custody sparked a major public outcry. They claim the last four years have seen a positive development as more police officers are summoned for investigation and referred to trial.
A Cairo criminal court has set 15 February as the opening day of the trial of two policemen charged with beating 21-year-old Mohamed “Afroto” Abdel-Hakim Mahmoud to death in police custody in Moqattam, Cairo, last month.
Magdi Makeen, a 50-year-old Coptic fish vendor, was allegedly tortured to death inside Al-Amiriya Police Station shortly after being arrested on 13 November 2016. Family members say his body showed unmistakable signs of “beating and lynching”. In December of the same year Makeen’s lawyer said the autopsy report issued by the Forensic Authority concluded that torture was the cause of Makeen’s death. Public prosecutors subsequently ordered the questioning of a police officer and nine low-ranking policemen over the incident.
Human rights observers also warn the right of peaceful assembly has been undermined by the protest law which they say is unconstitutional. Since the law, which requires all demonstrations to be first approved by the Ministry of Interior, was issued after hundreds of demonstrators had received harsh prison sentences for taking part in protests.
Pro-regime voices counter by noting that some protesters have been released following presidential pardons. A Detained Youth Committee was formed in October 2016 following a directive from Al-Sisi to examine cases of young Egyptians detained since the 25 January Revolution. The committee says it will soon complete a fourth list of detainees recommended for a pardon.
In June 2017 Al-Sisi pardoned 502 prisoners. In March of the same year 203 prisoners were pardoned and in November 2016, 82 prisoners were released.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly