Human Rights Violations in Egypt

Human rights encompass a broad area of human activity in the civil,

political, economic, social, and cultural spheres. While the corpus of

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international human rights standards is designed to be interdependent and indivisible,8 it is possible to focus on particular basic rights as indicators of overall human rights conditions. The rights to life, liberty, and security of person, which include basic rights to be free from arbitrary killing and arbitrary detention and torture, as well as the right to fair trial and equal treatment under the law, may be considered core rights. Another subset of rights, having to do with basic freedoms of expression, association, and conscience, as well as the right to take part in the government of one’s country, will be considered in the context of the government’s deliberalization policies.

Governments bear the primary responsibility for upholding and protecting human rights. They agree to be bound by the treaties they ratify, and generally speaking they are the grantors and guarantors of rights and freedoms to their citizens and others falling under their jurisdiction, the grantees. There are nongovernmental entities, like opposition groups and multinational corporations, which have taken on sufficient governmental characteristics in some circumstances to be considered accountable to international human rights standards.9 In Egypt, where extremist Islamic opposition groups have engaged in numerous acts of political violence in which members of the security forces and civilians have been killed and seriously wounded, the government has sometimes argued that the real perpetrators of human rights violations have been the extremist groups, usually referred to as terrorists by the government. The violent actions of terrorist groups are indefensible and the government is fully empowered to take all necessary measures to apprehend perpetrators and protect society from the scourge of terrorism. However, it is misleading to refer to criminal acts by armed opposition groups in Egypt as violations of human rights. They are criminal acts, violations of the law. The government has the right and obligation to hold perpetrators of such acts accountable in accordance with the law.

For these reasons, this review of human rights violations will concentrate on government actions. Egyptian law and the Egyptian Constitution uphold the basic freedoms provided in international human rights instruments. However, exceptional laws have facilitated the wholesale disregard of basic rights and freedoms, especially with regard to protection from arbitrary detention and torture, and the right to a fair trial.

The Emergency Law10 has been maintained throughout the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, who came to power after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. This law cedes to the president, or his designated agent, broad powers to detain without charge or trial individuals suspected of involvement in activities deemed harmful to national security. It provides for the trial of those suspected of crimes against

national security by emergency state security courts from which there is

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no appeal, and whose verdicts must be ratified by the president.11 Tens of thousands of Egyptians have been detained without charge or trial under the emergency legislation since 1981.

It is often stated that the government’s resort to repressive tactics came in response to an upsurge in political violence by Islamist opposition groups. While this is certainly part of the explanation, it does not tell the whole story. The emergency legislation predates the escalation in Islamist violence in the early 1990s. Such legislation has in fact been in force in Egypt, with only a short break in 1980-81, since 1967. Egypt’s near permanent state of emergency, like other elements of the state’s repressive apparatus, is a holdover from the one-party rule of the Nasser era—a legacy that the ostensibly democratic Mubarak regime has been in no hurry to shake off.

The government did intensify its repressive powers in response to political violence. Law 97 of 1992, the Anti-Terrorism Law, increased the number of offenses punishable by death, introduced a broad catchall definition of terrorism, and made it possible for the president of the republic, or his representative, to refer civilians accused of terrorism for trial before military courts.12 Trials before military courts fall far short of minimum internationally agreed upon fair trial standards.13 Unlike Egypt’s civilian judges, who are appointed for life by the Higher Judicial Council, military judges are appointed for renewable two-year periods by the minister of defense. Military judges are not independent. Since 1992 military courts have been used to try defendants accused of violent crimes and, since 1995, to try defendants from among the government’s ostensibly peaceful political opponents.

The state also sought to close off the political space in which the Islamic opposition to the government was organizing. For example, the November 1992 executive order for the closure or nationalization of private mosques was aimed directly at diminishing the influence of the political Islamic movement. A succession of other restrictive measures certainly had the Islamists in its sights, but resulted in damaging a much broader range of targets among independent political and civil society groupings. These included laws designed to strengthen governmental control over such bodies as professional syndicates, rural local government, and university faculties.14

If these restrictive measures may be seen as primarily targeted against the Islamists, others such as Law 93 of 1995,15 which imposed new restrictions on the press designed to silence journalists engaging in strident criticism of government policies as well as exposing corrupt practices by senior government officials and their family members, had other purposes. For example, on February 24, 1998, a Cairo court sentenced two

journalists for the opposition Al-Sha b newspaper, Magdi Ahmad Hus-

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sein and Muhammad Hilal, to one year’s imprisonment for publishing articles suggesting that Ala al-Alfi, son of the minister of the interior, Hassan al-Alfi, had profited corruptly from his father’s position. With the passage of the new press law, even in its revised form, the number of libel suits filed against journalists increased dramatically.16

The sustained official hostility toward independent nongovernmental human rights organizations gathered pace during 1995 and culminated in the now suspended Law on Associations, Law 153 of 1999, and was similarly indicative of a growing official intolerance for independent criticism of all kinds. In May 2000, the U.N. Committee for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, reviewing Egypt’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, stated that the law ‘‘gives the government control over the rights of NGOs to manage their own activities, including seeking external funding.’’17 In 1998, the government had signaled its hostile intent toward Egyptian nongovernmental human rights organizations by bringing charges against the secretary general of the EOHR, Hafez Abu Sa’da, for ‘‘receiving foreign funds without permission,’’ using Decree Law 4 of 1992, an emergency measure introduced in the aftermath of the devastating Cairo earthquake designed to cut off funding for independent Islamic relief agencies, which were outperforming the state’s relief efforts. This draconian measure was used again in the prosecution of Saad Eddin Ibrahim and staff members of his Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in 2001. Dr. Ibrahim is one of Egypt’s foremost campaigners for democratic reform and one of the founders of the contemporary human rights movement.

The evolution of Decree Law 4 of 1992 from an exceptional measure with a specific purpose to a tool of more general repressive application serves as a good model for how restrictions of basic freedoms are facilitated in Egypt. The government is in the habit of passing exceptional laws, which bypass constitutional and internationally guaranteed human rights safeguards available in Egyptian law, in order to meet particular needs of the moment. Rather than rescinding these exceptional powers when the particular circumstance for which they were designed is past, the laws remain on the books in perpetuity. Thus the executive branch of government has a wide array of exceptional powers available to it, dating back to the Nasser period and beyond, which in practice remove any notion of legal consistency from the protection of human rights and basic freedoms for its citizens. In the language of the spiral model theory, despite their presence in Egyptian laws and statutes, human rights standards have no prescriptive force when the government chooses to

apply an alternative set of laws, stripped of human rights protections.

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