Terrorism versus human rights?

05-04-2014 11:26 AM

Magdy Malak

On a recent Friday in Cairo, Muslim Brotherhood (MB) protestors opened fire on civilians in the eastern district of Ain Shams, killing a young woman journalist and two young men.

  All three were shot in the head. Mary Sameh George, a 22-year-old Copt, was also shot to death according to the official after-death report. Eyewitnesses report that George had been driving her car in front of the neighbourhood church when she encountered the MB demonstration. The demonstrators could see she was obviously Christian since she was unveiled and hung a cross inside her car. They stopped her, dragged her out to the street, abused her then shot her and torched the car.
Words of wisdom
With such violence in our midst, where do human rights figure today in Egypt? Some say the term is used by politicians at home and abroad who bend and twist it to serve their own ends. 
The United States, whose record in human rights is far from honourable, recently condemned torture and the excessive use of force by the police in Egypt. The US ought not to be hurling stones from its own glass house: Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are still fresh in mind.  US human rights breaches target not only ‘terrorists’ but also extend to an invasion of privacy. In 2013, Edward Snowden, a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and former contractor of the National Security Agency (NSA), leaked documents exposing an American surveillance programme which tapped telephone and internet calls in other countries under the pretext of searching for terrorists. 
When the New York Police Department used violence to break up the Occupy Wall Street sit-in, few countries dared voice a protest against how the US dealt with the demonstrators. And when in February 2012 bailiffs evicted the Occupy London protestors encamped at St Paul’s Cathedral, Prime Minister David Cameron defended the action by arguing that: “When it comes to our national security, I will always listen to the police and security services, and take their advice with the utmost seriousness… When I ask myself why they haven’t done some of the things they should have, I keep coming back to one thing, the Human Rights Act.” Mr Cameron’s ‘words of wisdom’ were widely acclaimed and quoted worldwide.
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When it comes to Egypt
So why is it different when it comes to Egypt? Following the downfall of the MB regime last July, the Islamists staged protest sit-ins at Rabaa and Nahda Squares in Cairo. These sit-ins were large camps which housed armed, violent protestors who tortured and killed civilians whose loyalty they doubted, and who turned the lives of the local residents into living hell. The Egyptian government attempted all peaceful means possible to disband the sit-ins, to the point of asking for the mediation of Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the European Union. In August 2013, five weeks into the sit-ins, all attempts to diffuse them had failed and the Egyptian authorities were obliged to defend State sovereignty, rule of law and national security by breaking up the camps.
The US lost no time in condemning Egypt for breaching human rights. It even suspended the return to Egypt of Apache helicopters used mainly to fight terrorism in the Sinai that had been sent to America for maintenance. Egyptians saw the US stance as confirmation that the concept of human rights is manipulated to suit American interests, not to defend the rights of the people. The American administration had never issued a statement condemning the daily killing of army and police officers or civilians at the hands of the MB in Egypt and, because in the world of diplomacy silence usually means consent, this implied the approval of the international community of terrorist acts in Egypt. As Egyptians saw it, the US stance betrayed its efforts to create another ‘Syrian’ civil war in Egypt; when this did not work the human rights issue came in very handy to twist the facts and depict Egypt in a negative light.
The fine line
In the final analysis, however, what or where is the fine line between enforcing law and order and breaching human rights? Are human rights incompatible with the rule of law? 
In times of peace, upholding law and order will sometimes result in breaches of human rights, which is usually not acceptable. In Egypt, armed terrorists have explicitly declared and are waging a vicious war which not only targets the army and police but also innocent civilians, schools, universities and churches. Can human rights breaches be disregarded because of the critical situation in our country? And if such breaches are tolerated, could they turn into systematic violations that would eventually take us back to the pre-Arab Spring police State? Watani decided to put the question to the experts.
Notorious acts
A glance at the most notorious acts of violence that followed the overthrow of the MB regime in July 2013 is enough to raise hackles. A few of these acts are listed below.
The first target for the MB were the Copts and their homes, property, businesses and churches. On 14 August 2013, the same day the Islamist sit-ins were disbanded, more than 70 churches in Upper Egypt were looted, destroyed and set ablaze. Church facilities such as schools and orphanages met the same fate. Some 100 homes, shops and livelihoods were ruined. Four Copts were brutally killed.
There was an attempted assassination of Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim on 5 September 2013. Mr Ibrahim was unharmed, but the attack left 22 policemen and civilians injured, among them a Somali national, a British citizen whose leg had to be amputated and a young boy whose left foot was also amputated. The Islamist militant group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis which has very close ties to the MB, claimed responsibility for the attack.
In November 2013, Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Mabruk of the National Security Agency was shot dead. Lt. Col. Mabruk was a key witness in the case of the escape of prisoners from Wadi al-Natrun prison in which former president Muhammad Mursi is implicated. Ansar Bait al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for the assassination.
On 16 December 2013, a taxi driver in the Delta town of Mansoura, Muhammad Gamal, found his vehicle stuck in a MB march. A fight broke out and the protestors pulled him out of his car, stabbed him to death and set his taxi ablaze.
A week later the Daqahliya Security Headquarters in Mansoura was bombed, leaving 13 dead and 134 injured. On 24 January 2014, the Cairo Security Headquarters was bombed. The building was severely damaged, as was the nearby Museum of Islamic Art and Dar al-Kutub—the National Archives and Library. Four died and dozens were injured. The cultural loss in the museum and library was devastating, in part beyond repair. 
The Islamists—the MB and supporting groups—waged countless attacks against the Egyptian army. Prominent among them was the killing of 26 soldiers on 5 August 2012 near the Rafah crossing, and the killing of another 25 soldiers on 19 August 2013 after an Islamist named Adel Habara forced them to get off the bus in which they were travelling and shot them dead. The attacks also included the downing of a military helicopter in Sinai by an anti-aircraft missile that caused the death of members of its crew, and the attack on a military police checkpoint in Mostorod, north of Cairo, which left six soldiers dead.
Fact-finding commission
Abdel-Ghaffar Shukr, head of the Socialist People’s Alliance Party (SPAP) and member of the human rights commission which investigated the breakup of the Rabaa sit-in, told Watani that the State had every right to enforce control. He praised the decision by President Adly Mansour to assign the Justice Minister with commissioning an independent judicial fact-finding commission to investigate the matter. The State, he says, is obviously serious about human rights.
However human rights activist Hafez Abu-Seada who was among the fact finders who wrote the report, disassociated himself from the commission, saying the report did not spell out the party responsible for the large number of casualties during the breakup, and merely made a general statement. The same criticism was echoed by Watani editor-in-chief Youssef Sidhom, who on 16 March wrote a detailed analysis of the report in which he claimed that the National Council for Human Rights stopped short of condemning the Islamist protestors. This might have been to project to the international community an image of an Egypt not opposed to the MB, Mr Sidhom wrote, but in so doing the report disregarded the truth about the Islamist violence which far surpassed that of the police.
Water cannon
Dr Shukr defends the report which, he says, reveals the facts. It says the police were professional in informing all human rights organisations of the timing of the breakup so they would be witnesses to it. The police abided by the law and used water cannon as the first step to disperse the protestors, but allowed them insufficient time for a safe exit.
Yet many among the Egyptian public and the media wondered how the State could maintain its dignity while it was placed in a corner where it could do nothing right. If it broke up the sit-ins it would be accused of breaching human rights, and if it did not it would be accused of being unable to secure the safety and security of its citizens. 
Several parties have reservations concerning the report, arguing that it could be used as evidence against the Egyptian State, especially since it has been presented to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. Dr Shukr denies that the report can be used against the Egyptian State either by the West or by international organisations. On the contrary, presenting the report to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights denies allegations that the events were not subject to investigation by Egyptian human rights organisations. He believes rather that the report defends the State against threats to take the matter to the International Criminal Court or any other body that might involve foreign countries in Egypt’s internal affairs.
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How does the West see this?
Watani contacted Jim Karygiannis, a Canadian liberal politician and former MP, to ask him if there was a certain agreement among Western politicians on what is happening in Egypt. Mr Karygiannis said that after 30 June there was a preconceived opinion that something unusual was happening in Egypt and that it was undemocratic. As time went by, however, many politicians came to realise that Egypt was facing large-scale terrorism and that it was unacceptable for the State and citizens to endure killings at the hands of militant groups because the MB had been overthrown.
When asked about how the West saw the breakup of the Islamist sit-in and how Canada managed to walk the thin line between maintaining security and respecting human rights, Mr Karygiannis said that violations were committed everywhere in the world. If the Rabaa sit-in had taken place in Canada, the State would have attempted to break it up by all possible means. However, he believes the real problem is that the absence of the truth or its distortion by the media leads to many misunderstandings. This is the result of the failure of the State to reveal the truth to the world. “In order to be able to follow the events that occur in Egypt, I personally have no other option but to tune in to CNN or Al-Jazeera English,” Mr Karygiannis said. “By not working hard on conveying the truth to the world, the Egyptian State allows anyone to say anything. As a follower of international news, how can I get to see both sides of the story if one of them is completely non-existent?”
Return to the old days?
Many people have spoken out about the violations committed by the security apparatus not being restricted to the break-up of the Islamist sit-in but extending beyond it, and some now fear the police are returning to their old brutal practices. 
Abul-Ezz al-Hariri, a member of SPAP, says that revolutions do not usually bear fruit in the short term; the required change will be tangible in the long term. Therefore, even though it is possible for violations to occur, the Interior Ministry can never go back to its old practices. 
Mr Hariri points out, however, that the State is currently at war against armed terrorism. Far from being too heavy handed, he says, “Many Egyptians believe that the police are too lenient with the MB who are carrying out daily, violent, destructive demonstrations where many victims fall.” 
Up to now, he says, there have been no official reports proving that the police breached the rights of civilians. He believes that anyone making such claims only aims to shift public opinion from MB terrorism and turn it against the security authorities.
Renowned writer Salah Eissa says that respecting human rights can only be achieved by respecting the law. Ever since the MB took the reins of power following the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt in 2011 they have refused to respect the law. Deposed president Mursi even issued a constitutional declaration that violated the law, the Constitution and all known judicial norms. The police today are confronting demonstrations in accordance with the law and can never allow a group to drag the country into lawlessness and guerilla war.
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Bringing errant officers to justice
Mr Eissa points out that a court of law recently sentenced the officer in charge of the Abu-Zaabal incident to 10 years in prison after 37 alleged MB supporters died inside a police vehicle that was moving them to Abu-Zaabal prison. The ruling is proof that Egypt is changing and that whoever commits a crime will be punished. Other police officers who violated the law and human rights were also brought to justice.
“The dangers Egypt is facing today are found nowhere else,” Mr Eissa says. “Egypt not only has to confront terrorism, but it also has to deal with the depletion of State resources. Every day, police vehicles and public institutions are set ablaze and then the police are accused of being violent with those who commit these actions. I believe this is simply absurd. Police action now comes only as a reaction to MB violence.”
Mr Eissa believes that the State and the people are going through a critical phase. “Even if violations occur, it is a price we have to pay because our country is currently at a major crossroads. Either we manage to maintain the dignity of our country or we let it collapse. This is exactly what the MB and some foreign nations want. If the West criticises our practices,” he says, “just let us remind them of the words of the British prime minister and tell them not to talk about human rights when Egyptian national security is threatened.”
Watani International
6 April 2014
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