On September 11, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi announced a “National Strategy for Human Rights” for the years 2021-2026. The plan to protect human rights is a first in Sisi’s seven years in power.
Sisi, a former general, became president in 2014 after a military-led campaign that ousted President Mohammed Morsi over protests against his Muslim Brotherhood-led government. Sisi retired from the military and ran for presidency that May, claiming to win 97% of the vote in an election that international observers and human rights groups said was rigged.
The new 78-page human rights strategy was announced at a high-profile ceremony in Cairo.
“The Egyptian state confirms its commitment to respect the right of physical safety, personal freedom, political practice, freedom of expression, forming civil societies and the right of litigation,” Sisi said at the unveiling. “Egypt has always welcomed diversity of opinions.”
But that is false as far as history goes. In fact, human rights watchdogs say tens of thousands of political prisoners are still being held in Egyptian prisons. Describing Egypt in its latest annual report, Freedom House writes:
“Meaningful political opposition is virtually nonexistent, as expressions of dissent can draw criminal prosecution and imprisonment. Civil liberties, including press freedom and freedom of assembly, are tightly restricted. Security forces engage in human rights abuses with impunity. Discrimination against women, LGBT+ people, and other groups remain serious problems, as does a high rate of domestic violence.”
Freedom House gave Egypt only 18 points on its 100-point measure of political and civil liberties. (A low score is less free.)
In March 2021, the U.S. State Department said in its 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices that the laundry list of abuses under Sisi’s government included the following:
“[U]nlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents and terrorist groups; forced disappearance; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners or detainees; [and] politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside the country.”
On September 15, the United States said that because of the human rights abuses, it would withhold $130 million out of $300 million in financing for Egypt’s military and place restrictions on how the remaining $170 million can be used.
The money is part of the $1.3 billion in military aid that the U.S. gives Egypt annually. Egypt’s critics say the withholding falls short of the pressure needed to force change.
Amnesty International said in its latest annual report on human rights that Egyptian authorities continued to restrict political parties and the work of human rights organizations.
Amnesty similarly accused Egypt of clamping down on the freedom of expression, arbitrary imprisonment and unfair trials, enforced disappearances and torture, denying detainees medical care, and discriminating against women and girls and Christians.
“Thousands of people remained in prolonged pre-trial detention, including human rights defenders, journalists, politicians, lawyers and social media influencers,” Amnesty said.
According to the Geneva-based Committee for Justice, which tracks violations in Egypt’s prisons, more than 500 people have died in Egyptian prisons since 2017 due to dire conditions, torture, lack of health care and suicide.
Just 48 hours after Sisi announced his national human rights strategy, political prisoner Alaa Abdul Fattah, an iconic figure of Egypt’s 2011 Tahrir Square uprising, told his lawyer he was thinking of committing suicide. Fattah has been in pre-trial detention for almost two years after being intermittently jailed starting in 2011.
In January, Egypt marked 10 years since the beginning of the Tahrir Square uprising, in which thousands gathered to demand change. With the support of the army, Egypt’s longtime President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. He was succeeded in 2012 by Morsi, whom Sisi ousted in the coup a year later.
As Sisi announced the rights strategy, Patrick George Zaki, a researcher and human rights advocate accused of spreading fake news, went on trial. Zaki, 30, had been arrested in February 2020 for writing about his hardships as a Coptic Christian in Egypt. He has been in pretrial detention for 19 months.
International Christian Concern, an organization that advocates for the rights of Christians worldwide, said in a statement that in addition to Zaki, Ramy Kamel and Peter Ragheb are imprisoned for their advocacy of human rights and religious freedom. Their detention shows the Egyptian authorities’ disregard for freedom of expression, the group said.
Kamel has been held since 2019 for allegedly funding terrorism, among other charges. He is the founder of Maspero Youth Union, a human rights network that documents violations of religious freedom. Ragheb is a lawyer arrested this year and accused of terrorism and spreading fake news.
After Sisi unveiled his human rights strategy, the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on him to release 28 journalists “currently detained arbitrarily in Egypt if he wants to show that his government is sincere in its desire to improve the situation.”
RSF said Egypt became one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists under Sisi.
“We hope that this national programme for human rights will be something other than a joke in bad taste, and we invite the Egyptian authorities to lose no time in giving concrete evidence of their commitment by immediately releasing all imprisoned journalists,” said Christophe Deloire, RSF secretary-general.
On September 15, the Freedom Initiative, a Washington, D.C., human rights organization specializing in defending prisoners in the Arab world, said in a statement that protecting human rights in Egypt requires political will, not just a national strategy.
“Over the past six years, all state institutions, and specifically the legislature and judiciary, have been undermined and weakened in favor of the executive, represented by the president,” the group said.
“This has utterly upset the balance of powers, giving the president and his security establishment a free hand to act without oversight by the parliament, courts, media, political parties, or professional syndicates and labor unions.”
With the new strategy, Sisi said his government will integrate human rights into the work of state’s institutions, invite civil society and political entities to participate, develop a system to deal with complaints and grievances, and intensify national efforts to strengthen human rights.