22 March 2009
The US State Department’s human rights report, released a few weeks ago, stressed that the Egyptian government’s respect for freedom of the press, and religious freedom declined last year. Security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals and kept them in prolonged pre-trial detention. Female gentile mutilation remained a serious and widespread problem, despite government and NGO attempts to combat it. The report criticised human rights conditions in a host of other Middle Eastern countries including Syria, Libya, Iran and Sudan.
Top of the list
The report placed Egypt at the forefront in human rights abuse. It said the government had arrested, detained, and abused several Internet bloggers, and police had detained several active bloggers during the year. It showed that in most cases, arrests appeared to be linked primarily to participation in street protests or other forms of activism.
The report stressed the deteriorating conditions in prisons, particularly overcrowded cells, lack of medical care and proper hygiene, food, clean water, and proper ventilation. It went further to criticise the corruptive attitudes among security personnel, many of whom remained immune to accountability.
In typical fashion, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokesman denounced the report on the grounds that no foreign country whatsoever had the right to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs. The Egyptian government, the spokesman continued, “is solely accountable before the Egyptian public”.
In light of the uproar triggered by the report Watani contacted Nabil Abdel-Fattah, an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS). Dr Abdel-Fattah said it had become a tradition for the US State department to criticise Egypt’s performance in the human rights domain. This fact, he added posed a question about the worthiness of the report to bring about genuine changes concerning human rights conditions. “I think that the report should register positive and negative aspects alike,” he said. “As for torture, the Egyptian government should end this phenomenon because it really is a barbaric practice. Security apparatuses should be rehabilitated and trained to respect human rights.”
The Baha’i case
The second relevant aspect is religious freedom. There have been bright moments in Egyptian history, such as where the State recognised the Baha’i faith. Court rulings providing official recognition to Baha’is should be respected. If the Egyptian State is to polish its image, it must do away with its malpractices.”
The secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, Hafez Abu-Seada, said most of the information mentioned in the US Department report was based upon reports issued by local human rights organisations. The Egyptian government, he said was not answerable to the US State Department. But he added: “We call upon the Egyptian government to ameliorate its human rights record.” He conceded that the report mentioned some positive signs, particularly when it came to women and children’s rights.
Another ACPSS expert, Amr al-Shobky, argued that if the words ‘US State Department’ were omitted from the report, one might assume it was issued by an Egyptian human rights organisation. “The sensitive aspect of the report is that it came from the US State department. The US credibility in the regions could be restored if the new administration treated the human rights issue in a principled way…the Bush administration used to link its stance vis-à-vis human rights violations in a certain country to the latter’s attitude regarding a regional file, most importantly the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Thus the human rights file in Egypt must focus solely on issues of democracy and freedom rather than the Egyptian stance à propos of this or that question”, Dr Shobky concluded.