Egyptians were, and still are, heavily disappointed at the reaction of western countries to events in Egypt since the 30 June 2013 Revolution and consequent overthrow of the post-Arab Spring Islamist regime. The overwhelming sentiment is that the West and its powerful media machine have intentionally turned a blind eye to the on-the-ground facts in Egypt, twisting realities and giving false accounts of what goes on. The predictable outcome is the propagation of a false image of Egypt as a State set on committing the most atrocious crimes against its citizens.
Last September, the Permanent Delegation of the European Union to the UN Office issued a statement criticising human rights practices in several countries, Egypt included. “The EU continues to be worried about the deteriorating human rights situation in Egypt marked by indiscriminate detentions and disproportionate sentencing,” the statement reads. “The EU is further alarmed by the situation of Human Rights Defenders and NGOs. Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, as enshrined in the Egyptian Constitution, must be effectively safeguarded.”
Last week, Egypt was among 14 countries reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. This was Egypt’s second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN; the first took place in February 2010 and its outcome included 165 recommendations. The UPR is a mechanism adopted since 2006 by the UN to periodically examine member States’ human rights performance. The State under review prepares a 20-page national report that includes information about its framework to promote human rights practices. A 10-page report is compiled by UN bodies, including Special Procedures reports and human rights treaty body reports; and another 10-page report is presented by national human rights groups, NGOs and civil society organisations.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry prepared the 20-page national report presented by the Egyptian delegation at the 20th session of the UN UPR held in Geneva earlier this month. The report was based on the 2014 Constitution which ensures Egypt’s full commitment to international codes of human rights and basic freedoms. The document highlighted the achievements made by the Egyptian government to abide by the recommendations of the 2010 UPR and explained that Egypt’s commitment to the respect of human rights is now stronger than ever in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 and the 2013 Revolution.
The national report also displayed the priorities and initiatives Egypt intends to undertake during the upcoming period including legislative and institutional reforms and new laws to improve human rights practices. In addition, it explained the Roadmap for Egypt’s future, set by the 30 June Revolution in 2013, and the major steps so far accomplished; namely, drafting a new Constitution, electing a new president, and preparing for the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Egypt’s permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador Amr Ramadan, met with the Troika committee which consisted of representatives of Saudi Arabia, Côte d’Ivoire and Montenegro, who act as the review rapporteurs, handle the questions of member States, and issue the outcome review. The meetings discussed the political predicament in Egypt since pre-Arab Spring and until the current preparations for parliamentary elections; and also issues that had caused a stir such as the numerous initial rulings of death sentences against MB members, the NGO law and freedom of the press.
Egypt had also prepared a photo gallery of the acts of violence and terrorism carried out by the MB. Minister of Transitional Justice Ibrahim al-Heneidi headed the Egyptian delegation to the UN UPR and delivered Egypt’s address on 5 November 2014.
Ambassador Mohamed al-Shazly, former Assistant Foreign Minister, insists that Egyptian diplomacy must refute all the exaggerations propagated on the issue of human rights in Egypt. But this does not mean, he says, that we should bury our heads in the sand and overlook the fact that the situation of human rights in Egypt leaves a lot to be desired. “We must reassess the flaws that riddle human rights practices in Egypt,” Mr Shazly says. “True, some bodies exaggerate these flaws; nevertheless, they have to be rooted out.”
Mr Shazly regretfully reminds of Egypt’s long history of human rights violations; these even featured in Egyptian literary works and films since back in the 1960s till today, he says. “Because negative practices have existed for so many decades, they cannot be eliminated overnight. We must rather work on creating a new generation of security officials whose culture bases on sound human rights practices. All State institutions must work hand in hand to root a culture that respects human rights.”
Human rights vs terrorism
“The Foreign Ministry did its best to highlight the accomplishments on the human rights front in Egypt, but the West insisted on not acknowledging them,” says Ambassador Rakha Ahmed Hassan, member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs. “Human rights practices have improved greatly under the new Constitution, but ongoing terrorist operations mean that the government should resort to exceptional measures, a practice adopted everywhere in the world.”
Mr Hassan says the Egyptian delegation explained in Geneva the difficult security situation in Egypt and the daily targeting of civilians, police, army, and security forces in Sinai as well as in other places all over Egypt. “All of which underline the necessity of adopting tight security measures,” he says.
Ambassador Hussein Haridi, former Assistant Foreign Minister, says that “the Egyptian permanent delegation to the UN played its role perfectly and proved through numerous documents that Egypt abides by the international conventions of human rights and has not declared a state of emergency despite the unprecedented number and scope of terrorist attacks.” He insists that Egypt does not use terrorism as a pretext to suppress freedoms.
The Egyptian delegation denied claims that there were 16,000 political prisoners in Egypt and ensured that public freedoms are well respected. The delegation refuted allegations of human rights violations committed by the Egyptian authorities, and demanded that the issue of human rights should not be politicised.
Dominant religious culture
George Ishaq, member of the National Council for Human Rights praises Egypt for accepting to host a branch of the Office of the High Commissioners for Human Rights on its land. Yet Mr Ishaq insists that, had the protest law and NGO law been amended, Egypt could have averted a lot of criticism in Geneva.
“Issuing the outcome report of the UPR means that Egypt was handed the recommendations drawn by the UNHRC member states during the review sessions,” explains human rights activist Dalia Ziada, Executive Director of Ibn Khaldun Center for Democratic Studies. Egypt must respond to the 300 recommendations by March 2015. The recommendations involve issues of women’s rights, abolishing the death penalty, investigating the dispersal of the Nahda and Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-ins, death sentences against MB leaders and members, the protest and NGO laws, freedom of opinion and expression, the relation between the judiciary and the State, and claims of torture.
It is expected, though, that the Egyptian government will reject a number of the recommendations, says Hafez Abu Seada, Head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights. This especially applies to the demand to abolish the death penalty and recognise homosexual rights, because these contradict the dominant religious culture in Egypt.
The protest law
The protest law that came under fire was issued in November 2013 with the aim of regulating—and to a large extent restricting—the protests that had greatly deranged Egyptians’ daily life since the Arab Spring uprising in 2011. Predictably, the government rushed to justify the law, saying it was necessary to ensure that demonstrations should be peaceful and non-disruptive. Rights activists criticised the law for requiring that the Interior Ministry should be notified three days ahead of any protest, and for granting it authorisation to issue “a reasoned decision to prohibit or change the time, location or route” of a public meeting if there is evidence it would jeopardise security. But the organisers have the right to seek urgent court decisions on the matter, so the protest may not be delayed or cancelled. The law also stipulates that various adequate public spaces should be designated for protest without prior notification.
The heavy penalties for breaking the law, and the authorised use of rubber bullet or metal pellets by the police came under activist fire. Yet the law stipulates that protestors should be warned several times before water canons, batons, and tear gas are used. Only if these measures don’t work and the protestors violently assault the police may warning shots be fired or rubber bullets then metal pellets used.
But activists say the goal of the law is to ban street protests “a right which Egyptians have earned by their effort and blood,” according to lawyer and activist Gamal Eid. Talaat Marzouq of the Islamist Salafi Nour party insists that “the law gives legal cover for suppression.”
The government and supporters of the law insist it is respectful of freedom of opinion and expression, and ensures that freedom does not turn into anarchy. The law was only passed after meticulous studies and wide deliberation, and compares favourably to international codes and other protest laws in democratic countries such as the US, the UK, Spain and France.
The days that followed the promulgation of the law saw the activists’ criticism taken to a new level of waging protest to challenge the government. The police, however, insisted on implementing the law. Scores of protestors were detained and prosecuted for disrupting public order, assaulting public servants on duty, and several were charged with carrying white weapons.
As for the disputed NGO law that the UPR recommends should be amended, it is yet a draft and awaits the election of a new parliament to be passed. But many human rights activists fear it could be adopted any time by presidential decree.
On 18 July 2014, Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali warned that all NGOs must register with the ministry within 45 days or else face possible asset confiscation or closure; the deadline was later extended to 10 November. Many NGOs objected to the minister’s ultimatum and considered it “an order to surrender their independence.” According to Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, “There’s no way that an organisation can register under [the current] Law 84 and still be considered ‘independent’ from the government.”
In an interview with Reuters, Ms Wali asked that no one should “prejudge” the NGO draft law which she promised would be “flexible”. “What we are committed to is that this NGO draft will be in line with the Egyptian Constitution and with all international treaties of which Egypt is signatory,” she said. “Harsh criticism of the proposed law is premature given that the latest version has not yet been made public.”
The Carter Center
According to Reuters, the NGO law was one of the main reasons that prompted the Carter Center to close its Cairo Office last month. This came as a total surprise to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, since the Center’s regional manager had sent the ministry an official memo on 31 August 2014 thanking it for three years of full cooperation in facilitating the observation of elections. The Center said it would close its Egypt office because of logistics issues and the need to redirect the centre’s funds to other countries.
The press release issued by the Carter Center on 15 October 2014, however, cited other reasons for the closure. It questioned whether observation organisations “would now be required to register as NGOs in order to conduct operations.” The Center’s unwillingness to acknowledge the daily acts of violence and Islamist terrorism and the consequent need for tight security, and the assumption that it will no longer be able to operate freely, left many Egyptians wondering at the centre’s true motives and mission.
The registration date expired last Monday and, till Watani went to press there was no government action against the groups which declined to register. It is not clear how many organisations operate outside the law, but most groups working in the human rights field had previously found alternate ways to register to avoid government interference. Ms Wali says that, all in all, there are some 40,000 NGOs operating in Egypt.
12 November 2014