Five Years On: Rights and Freedoms

Over the past five years, local and international rights organizations have criticized an increasingly restrictive climate in Egypt that has severely limited street protests, called into question media freedom, and seen a tightening grip on civil society organizations. Successive governments have done little to address grievances, many of which were key demands of the January 25 uprising.

Journalistic Freedom

Immediately following the 2011 revolution, Egyptian media witnessed a brief period of flourishing. According to UNESCO, there were 567 registered newspapers in Egypt as of March 2012, compared to 142 in 2010. Many of these were private newspapers and university publications. In addition, the television industry expanded, with 15 new licensed channels emerging, including a number of channels associated with political parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, Egypt’s successive governments have clamped down on media freedom.

SCAF rule witnessed military trials for bloggers, assaults on and detentions of journalists, the suspension of new satellite television licenses, and the use of Mubarak era laws to silence free expression.

Under Morsi, the press became sharply politicized. The government expanded its grip on state media by dismissing heads of outlets and instead appointing political allies. Morsi supporters accused private satellite channels of inciting violence, spreading misinformation, and trying to topple Morsi. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Brotherhood supporters carried out 72 of at least 78 assaults on journalists during Morsi’s rule. Morsi, however, did ban pretrial detention for journalists on press-related offenses. The decision came amid multiple cases filed against journalists on charges of insulting the president.

Following Morsi’s ouster, media freedom constricted. Journalists and media outlets faced charges such as of incitement, spreading false information, harming national security, communicating with terrorist organizations, and filming military property. Pro-Morsi and Islamists channels were shut down, amid accusations of incitement, while the offices of international channels perceived as sympathetic to the Brotherhood, such as Al Jazeera, were raided and their journalists arrested or deported. Prior to Sisi’s election in 2014, CPJ reported that ten reporters had been killed on the job since 2011.

Following Morsi’s ouster, in December 2013, three Al Jazeera English journalists, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste, and Egyptian Baher Mohamed were arrested on charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false news. In June 2014, Greste and Fahmy were sentenced to seven years in prison and Mohamed to ten. Following an appeal, they were granted a retrial. Greste was deported to Australia in February 2015. Fahmy relinquished his Egyptian citizenship that same month but was not deported. In August, in a retrial, all three were sentenced to three years in prison – Greste in absentia. However in September 2015, Fahmy and Mohamed were among 100 prisoners who were pardoned and released.

Meanwhile, photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, also known as Shawkan, was arrested while covering the dispersal of the pro-Morsi Raba’a al-Adaweya sit-in and has remained in prison in pretrial detention without charge since. Journalists and activists from around the world have repeatedly called for his release.

In September 2015, Sisi told CNN that Egypt enjoys “unprecedented freedom of expression.” He said that “not one in Egypt can bar anyone working in media or journalism or on TV from expressing their views.” However, Egypt’s counterterror law includes steep fines for journalists that contradict official accounts of militant attacks. Gag orders are often instituted on controversial cases, such as the accidental killing Mexican tourists in the Western Desert, despite government promises of “transparent” investigations. CPJ also reported that the number of journalists in prison in Egypt doubled in 2015, making Egypt second only to China as the world’s worst jailer of journalist. A number of prominent journalists and online activists were arrested amid a government clampdown ahead of the fifth January 25 anniversary.

Protests, Deaths, and Detentions

A number of major protests have occurred in Egypt since 2011. According to a government fact finding committee, at least 846 people were killed during the eighteen days of protests that toppled Mubarak. The committee also accused security forces of using excessive force against protesters. The Arab Network for Human Rights Information said that 673 of those who died were shot.

In November 2011, Egypt’s Central Security Forces attacked a sit-in in Tahrir Square, where protesters were demanding an end to SCAF rule. The clashes, which dragged on for days on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, left 47 dead and hundreds injured. Protesters said the security forces used excessive force, such as tear gas and snipers, to exact revenge on protesters in the wake of the revolution nine months earlier. Security forces said force was used to protect the Interior Ministry. The clashes led to a number of marches and protests against SCAF rule, which ultimately relinquished political power.

The deadliest protests in Egypt over the last five years took place on August 14, 2013, when the military forcibly dispersed supporters of ousted President Morsi in sit-ins in the Raba’a al-Adaweya and al-Nahda squares. According to HRW, Egyptian security forces killed 1,150 demonstrators in July and August 2013; at least 817 deaths occurred during the dispersal of Raba’a alone. HRW has said the killings likely constitute a crime against humanity. Egypt’s Forensic Medical Authority put the death toll at Raba’a at 627, while the semi-governmental National Council for Human Rights put it at 624. According to HRW, only eight police officers were killed. There have been no prosecutions for the killings.

Detentions also rose significantly following Morsi’s ouster. Rights groups estimate that 40,000 were detained or prosecuted between July 2013 and mid-May 2014. Official figures, according to AP, put that number at 16,000. With public facilities, including universities, placed under military jurisdiction, nearly 4,000 civilians have been charged or sentenced in military courts according to HRW. Amnesty International has said that dozens have been tortured at military prisons after being forcibly disappeared, and that at least 700 individuals have been held in pretrial detention for over two years, exceeding the legal limit. Conditions in highly overcrowded prisons are harsh and basic medical services are lacking. Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights said last May that holding cells at police stations were filled to 400 percent capacity and prisons to 160 percent capacity. A statement issued by a number of rights groups in November said that tens of thousands have been prosecuted or detained since protest law was passed in 2013.

NGOs and Rights Groups

The freedom for NGOs to operate has steadily declined since the revolution. In 2011 under the SCAF government, 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, were charged with operating illegally in Egypt. All the American defendants, with the exception of Robert Becker, left Egypt before the verdict was issued. Under Morsi’s rule in June 2013, 27 defendants were sentenced to five years in absentia. Eleven defendants who attended the trial received one-year suspended sentences, and five received two years in prison, including Becker. Hours after the verdict, Becker left the country.

The Brotherhood’s FJP introduced a new draft NGO law during Morsi’s presidency, which the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) said was an attempt to  “nationalize civil society and turn it into a governmental body.” Morsi launched a crackdown on opposition youth activists, leading to the imprisonment of prominent activist Ahmed Douma on charges of insulting the president.

Following Sisi’s election, increased restrictions were placed on NGOs’ activities and financing. NGOs were also ordered to register with the Ministry of Social Solidarity under a Mubarak-era NGO law. “Operating under [that law] is impossible,” CIHRS Program Manager Mohamed Zaree said, adding that the government had become increasingly suspicious of civil society since 2011.

A number of foreign and domestic NGOs have since pulled their activities out of Egypt, including the Carter Center, CIHRS, and most recently the German Friedrich Naumann Foundation. In December 2014, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) criticized government “smear campaigns” against independent rights organizations. The organization noted that a number of NGOs had been subject to police raids and their staff harassed, detained, and imprisoned on false charges.

In June 2015, ten international organizations including HRW and Amnesty International jointly accused Egyptian authorities of “increasing their pressure on independent organizations… that receive foreign funding or have criticized government policies.” Recently, more NGOs have been raided and placed under investigation, while rights workers have been interrogated, arrested, and detained.

Elissa Miller is a Program Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @ElissaFMiller.

Image: Photo: Zeinab Mohamed