Human rights in post-Mubarak Egypt: the jury is still out

Yasmine Fathi , Tuesday 20 Sep 2011

Some optimistic commentators point out that gains have been made in the transitional period, whereas others are concerned about the high levels of torture and number of military trials under SCAF

Mohamed Abdul Quddus
Mubarak policemen arrest dissident journalist Mohamed Abdul Quddus (Photo: AP)

When the battered face of a corpse of a 28-year-old man becomes one of the most famous images associated with the Egyptian revolution, it says a lot about the human rights situation in the country during the Mubarak era.

The man, Khaled Said, was beaten to death by police in the summer of 2010 in Alexandria. His murder opened the lid on decades of abuses directed by Mubarak and his men against political activists and ordinary Egyptians. Many also believe that Khaled's brutal end was one of the main triggers of the Egyptian revolution.

By the end of Mubarak’s rule, the use of torture in Egypt had become a practiced art. Europe and the United States even sent their own prisoners to be serviced in Egyptian prisons under programmes of extraordinary rendition.

But torture and police brutality were not the only black spots of the Mubarak regime. As a brutal dictator, he deprived the Egyptians of many of their basic rights, including the right to express themselves, the right to become politically active and the right for workers to make a decent living.

Now, seven months since his ousting and with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) ruling the country, many are asking, has the human rights situation in Egypt changed?

Police brutality

The Egyptian revolution was launched on January 25 for a reason. It was National Police Day, and since police brutality and torture in Egypt had reached an unprecedented high,protesters felt that it would be an ironic twist of fate to schedule the revolution on the day the country’s torturers celebrated and slapped each other on the back for a job well done.

During the Mubarak era, the use of torture had become systematic among Egypt’s security forces.

While the State Security Intelligence (SSI) focused on Mubarak’s political enemies, which included everyone from Islamists to bloggers, police stations used torture against normal civilians and even their families in order to extract confessions for crimes that took place in the neighbourhood. During this time, all sorts of torture mechanisms were used, including electrocution,waterboarding, sodomy, and psychological humiliation.

Now, after the revolution, it is still not clear if the situation has improved or not.

The Egyptian police famously fled the streets on 28 January, dubbed the Friday of Rage by Egyptians, and later released thugs and prisoners into the streets in an attempt to terrify protesters.

After Mubarak was ousted on 11 February, the police remained largely off the streets for a long time, and therefore it is difficult for human rights activists to determine the scope of the problem at this stage.

“The police force only returned to their jobs in May, and the SSI has still not been able to regain its strength to this day,” explains Magda Adly, human rights activist who works in the El-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

“Therefore, not enough time has passed to be able to accurately assess if the use of torture has receded in Egypt or not,” he added.

However, if the jury is still out on what is happening inside the stations, Adly says that there have been many reports of violations taking place outside on the streets, with the center receiving complaints from citizens who reported that they were attacked or shot by police for no apparent reason.

In one case, 21-year-old Mohamed Shams in Alexandria was shot in the eye with a firearm by a police officer while driving with his friend. Shams was on his way home and no reason was ever given for the incident, which took place on 22 May, only three months after the fall of the Mubarak regime.

“We have had similar cases in Bulak and Giza,” says Adly. “It is a form of revenge by police who are disgruntled because they were humiliated by protesters and wanted to lash out at them.”

Hossam El-Hamalawy, prominent blogger and political activist who was previously detained and tortured by the Mubarak regime, says that the use of torture in Egypt remains a fact, and only the faces have changed.

“I think the situation has definitely gotten worse,” says El-Hamalawy. “In the past it used to be the police and SSI who did it; now you still have those two in addition to the intervention of the military. And I believe that torture by the military is even more brutal than the police.”

El-Hamalawy added that the military is also much more blatant in their use of violence towards detainees, and gave the example of Ramy Essam, dubbed the “singer of the Egyptian revolution” because of the patriotic songs he used to belt out in Tahrir during the uprising. Essam, 23, was rounded up along with other Egyptian protesters by the military on March 9 and electrocuted and beaten with belts and wires.

“At least in the past, when the police picked up activists, they were concerned that they may speak out about the abuse, so were careful about not leaving any marks and usually resorted to psychological torture only or used torture techniques that didn’t leave any marks,’ says El-Hamalawy. “But the military doesn’t care,” he added.

Additionally, Gamal Eid, director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, says that a new form of torture was introduced in post-Mubarak Egypt, namely sexual assaults on female activists. Eid cited the example of the notorious virginity tests conducted by the military against female protesters last March.

“Mubarak’s violations never reached this level,” says Eid. “Of course the military stopped virginity tests later on, but they never punished those who did it.”

However, Atef Shahat Said, a lawyer and human rights researcher who wrote, "Torture—under Mubarak- is a crime against humanity,” says torture is still used.

“We have had four documented incidents in which victims were tortured to death,” Said told Ahram Online.

“There have been other tons of incidents of torture by military police. And I would say it is systematic. I say this because nobody has ever been arrested by military police and then spoke of decent treatment. Systematic means simply that it is widespread and used all the time.”

However, says Eid, regardless of how many incidents are taking place, torture is still no longer as widespread as it was during the Mubarak era.

“You do get individual cases of torture, but I believe that what the military did against the protesters was a result of inexperience in dealing with public,” said Eid. “But it was not a result of a political will to reintroduce torture into Egyptian society,” he concluded.

Military trials

The transfer of civilians to stand trial in military courts has also become a point of bitter contention between post-Mubarak revolutionaries and the military council.

According to human rights organisations, 12,000 civilians have been transferred to military courts during the last eight months. That’s a huge jump considering that the number of civilians transferred to military courts during the three decades Mubarak was in power did not exceed 2,000.

Another damning fact for the army is that during the Mubarak era, most of those who faced military prosecution were Islamists or other political detainees. However, now, in post-Mubarak Egypt, the majority of those detained are non-political citizens.

“These days, the people who are arrested by the military are not part of any political movement or party,” explains Rajia Omran, co-founder of the No to Military Trials Campaign which represents victims of army abuse.

“They are just poor people who broke the curfew, or were involved in street fights and so were rounded up and transferred to a military court,” Omran explained.

Statements released by the military council in which they said they only use military trials in cases of thuggery, arms trafficking and rape, did not sway critics.

Civilians facing military trials are usually not able to contact their family or choose a lawyer, face a harsh prosecution, are often mistreated while they are detained, and receive verdicts that are handed down in 24 to 48 hours.

”Also, according to statements released by the head of the military judiciary, the number of people found innocent after their military trials did not exceed 2 per cent (compared to 50 per cent before civilian courts),’ explains Said.

However, according to Eid, there are reasons to be optimistic. "The numbers of military prosecutions are decreasing. In April, May and June, we used to have five or six cases per week and now we have one case per week,” says Eid.

State Security Intelligence (SSI) versus National Security Sector (NSS)

During the Mubarak era, the SSI terrorised political activists and detainees, making heavy use of torture against anyone who dared to speak out against the ousted president.

After the revolution, angry protesters stormed the SSI headquarters in Lazoghli and Medinat Nasr areas in Cairo and took photos and video footage of torture equipment and prison cells where political activists were detained.

When the military council announced last March that they would dissolve the apparatus and replace it with the NSS, it was hailed as a tremendous victory for the revolution.

However, despite reassurances that the NSS will be subject to judicial oversight and will work only as a civil-intelligence gathering agency, there are still huge question marks around the new entity.

El-Hamalawy alleges that least 25 per cent of the officers who worked in the SSI were transferred to the NSS, which means that not much has changed. Some generals in the NSS are even working in the same positions they held in the SSI.

“The same officers, the same ministry, the same mentality,” El-Hamalawy says.

However, Said says that ministry of interior officials held a meeting two months ago with human rights representatives and made several assuring statements but it is still not clear what exactly the role of the NSS is.

“We need to know clearly how this new body is organised and working,” says Said.

“Only time can show us if there is a difference,” he wondered.

Political freedom and the right to organise

During the Mubarak era, his ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP), monopolised the political scene. Many politicians who wanted to establish a political party were often rejected by the Political Parties Commission, which was headed by Safwat El-Sherif, one of Mubarak’s top men, and Secretary-General of the NDP.

As a result, many political groups were repeatedly denied licenses.

A few weeks after Mubarak was ousted, new and much anticipated legislation on political parties was issued. But much to the chagrin of activists and politicians, it wasn’t what they hoped for.

The new law prohibited religion-based parties, put a judicial committee in charge of the application process, and stipulated that each party should have at least 5,000 members.

However, despite their concerns, many activists are optimistic about the possibilities for new political voices.

“On 24 January, one day before the Egyptian revolution began, we only had 26 political parties,” says Eid. “Now, just a few months later, we have 70 new parties.”

Another positive step, says Said, is that the new committee that oversees the parties is made up of judges and is independent, and therefore unbiased, unlike the previous committee.

“Also [in the new law] the restrictions for forming new parties are much fewer than under the old law, which contained many unreasonable clauses, such as the stipulation that a new party may not be against the Egypt-Israel Peace Accord,” explains Said.

In contrast, the new anti-strike law which was approved by the cabinet on 24 March is considered by many to be a major setback in the field of human rights.

The law criminalised strikes, protests, demonstrations and sit-ins which interrupt private or state-owned businesses or harmed the economy. Anyone who broke the law was punished with a maximum of one year in prison and fines of up to half a million pounds.

The law earned the cabinet the wrath of revolutionaries who felt that it was a blow to the values of a revolution which succeeded in the first place because determined protesters in Tahrir Square and across Egypt held an 18-day act of civil disobedience: a sit-in.

The law has not been consistently applied on the ground, as Egypt has witnessed its largest wave of industrial action and strikes ever.

But the fact that many workers have been summoned by the military prosecution makes the law a looming threat.

Freedom of expression

Mubarak’s stance towards freedom of expression was not as tough as that of his predecessors Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar El-Sadat , both of whom controlled the press with an iron fist.

Nevertheless, during the Mubarak years, many journalists and bloggers faced hefty fines and prison sentences for what they published. In 1995, the government issued Press Law 93, which was dubbed the “Press Assassination Law,” by journalists because of its tight control of the media. It was followed by Press Law 96 of 1996, which gave the state permission to impose control of the press in cases of emergency, war or in circumstances that affect national security.

Since Mubarak stepped down, political activists agree that there has been a wider room for freedom of expression, but still this freedom is not without limits. The military has recalled several bloggers and journalists for criticising the military council, with El-Hamalawy, ONTV presenter Reem Maged, Amro Khafagy, editor-in-chief of El-Shorouk newspaper, and activist Asmaa Mahfouz -  all faced potential military prosecution for openly criticising the army.

According to Said, the administration of morale affairs in the Egyptian army also released a document in which they ordered media reporters and agencies not to report anything about the army without consulting them first.

“This is an unjustified limit on freedom of information and expression,” insists Said. “Now while the critics are ‘free’ to talk about abuses in Mubarak’s era, a new red line is created by the military council.”

Additionally, a decision by the military council to ban licenses for satellite channels and to tighten legal actions against existing channels because these channels 'are used by political activists to create chaos and divisions among Egyptians' has also left Egypt’s media reeling with shock.

“For me this is the biggest setback since the revolution began,” says Ayman El-Sayyad, editor of Weghat Nazar magazine. “The words they used to justify the decision and the vocabulary they chose, which included references to ‘national security,’ and ‘tensions,” was reminiscent of a decision taken by Mubarak’s minister of information Anas El-Fekki, who used it to close many channels under the old regime.”

Eid, however, says that cases involving violations of freedom of expression brought against bloggers have greatly decreased since Mubarak was ousted.

"It's less than half," says Eid. "They are still monitoring the media, but it is no longer state policy and usually done because of panic by the military who is not used to dialogue or freedom of expression. But I would say there is no political will to gag the media anymore."

Workers' rights

In August, a decision to dissolve the state-run trade unions' federation, which was full of Mubarak supporters, was hailed as a great achievement for Egypt’s labour movement. The decision was preceded by a declaration in March by the minister of manpower in which he said the government would guarantee free trade unions and a plurality of unions.

However, no tangible changes have been made on the legal side. The hated Trade Union Law 35 of 1976 which restricts workers' freedom to form labour unions is still active. A new freedom of syndicates law which recognises the plurality and freedom of syndicates, and which was discussed by Egyptian workers and businessmen and approved by the cabinet has been gathering dust for a month now in front of the military council.

“The law which they would not sign gives the right to workers to freely create their unions without any interference from the government, or their employers,” explains socialist lawyer Haytham Mohamadein.

However, activists believe that there have been several positive steps taken.

“When the revolution began, there were only three independent unions, and now we have 90,” says El-Hamalawy. “However, these achievements are a result of the enormous effort made by the Egyptian workers, and not because the government and the military council are responding to our demands.”

El-Hamalawy believes that Egyptian workers have not yet reaped the fruits of the revolution. Despite mass strikes and sit-ins since the revolution began, their long-term demand to institute a national minimum wage of LE 1,200 has not yet been met.

“I will only feel that the revolution has succeeded when I see both a minimum and maximum wage created,” says El-Hamalawy. “Also, they need to stop the privatisation programmes that began during the Mubarak era, and all public sector companies which were privatised should be re-nationalised.”

The jury is still out

It seems that not enough time has passed to truly assess if any progress has been made in giving Egyptians back their basic human rights.

"Having no president, no parliament and a huge legacy of corruption left from the Mubarak regime, it is important," says Eid, "to have reasonable expectations on how much can really be achieved during this transitional period."

However, many activists think that many of the rights gained, especially workers' rights, are due more to the efforts of the people than to the military council's willingness to grant reform.

Despite this, some believe that the situation has indeed changed for the better.

“I see that in seven months, there has been a lot of improvement,” says Eid. “We are definitely on the right path. If I compare September 2011 to September 2010, there is a big difference."

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