One Year Later: Human Rights in Egypt

Human rights in Egypt over the past year mirrored a history of violations that have long come under criticism by the international community. Under Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians experienced torture and police violence; they were subject to a perpetual state of emergency; and basic freedoms such as freedom of speech were widely violated. Egyptians welcomed Mubarak’s overthrow, hoping for a new era in which human rights would be respected. However, such a shift did not materialize.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Services (SCAF) proved more than willing to use force against protestors following Mubarak’s overthrow. Military forces violently attacked peaceful protestors, journalists were censored, thousands of citizens faced military trials, and torture was employed in detention centers and military prisons. 

Former president Mohamed Morsi’s brief presidency witnessed many of the same human rights abuses. Journalists were prosecuted, security forces and Morsi supporters attacked peaceful demonstrators, freedom of expression and protections of women’s rights were violated, and military trials of civilians and cases of police abuse continued. Moreover, Morsi enacted new laws that permitted the detention of individuals for up to thirty days without judicial review and issued a decree that exempted his own decisions from judicial review.

In the year following Morsi’s ouster, Egypt’s human rights environment has continued to deteriorate. The violent dispersal of sit-ins at Raba’a al-Adaweya marked the beginning of a wide scale crackdown on Morsi supporters and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, as thousands of demonstrators were killed, injured, or arrested by security forces. Additionally, the death toll under interim president Adly Mansour dwarfed that under Morsi. From July 2013 to December 2013, according to Daily News Egypt, 62 individuals died as a result of violence at detention centers and 2,273 individuals died in political clashes. This contrasts with the 24 individuals that died due to violence at detention facilities and the 153 individuals that died as a result of political clashes from January 2013 to June 2013. The widespread human rights violations and deaths following Morsi’s removal from power prompted lawyer Gamal Eid, director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), to call 2013 a “black year” for human rights.

The performance of Egypt’s interim government after July 2013 appears to have foreshadowed abuses to come under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government. The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that began in July 2013 has not abated; Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters continue to be arrested and sentenced to anywhere from a few years in prison, to life in prison, or to death in mass trials. On June 19, an Egyptian court sentenced the Brotherhood’s Supreme Leader Mohamed Badie, Mohamed al-Beltagy, and Safwat Hegazy, to death. Badie had already been sentenced to death on separate charges. While death sentences in Egypt can be appealed, on June 21, an Egyptian court upheld the death sentence for 182 defendants, despite widespread international outcry in response to the verdict. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called the crackdown on the Brotherhood “repression on a scale unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history.”

The Sisi presidency has already been marked by a continued clampdown on journalists. On June 23, Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed were sentenced to seven to ten years in jail for spreading false information and supporting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The Al Jazeera case is one of many in which journalists have been arrested and convicted on charges such as aiding the Brotherhood or inciting sectarian tension. Meanwhile, on June 15, police forces confiscated the new issue of “Wasla,” a publication issued by ANHRI, on charges including printing a publication calling for the overthrow of the regime, inciting violence against the regime, and affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Before his election, Sisi declared his support for a repressive protest law passed by the interim government. The law, which stipulates that protests must have prior police permission, has been used to detain and jail Brotherhood supporters, activists who played a prominent role in the January 25 uprising, including Alaa Abdel Fattah, Ahmed Douma and April 6 co-founder Ahmed Maher, and even minors, as high school students were recently charged with violating the law during a demonstration against an “unfair” education system. 

Testimonies of torture and abuse in prisons have also, once again, begun to emerge. Based on interviews with former inmates, lawyers, rights activists, and families of missing persons, The Guardian reported that hundreds of “disappeared” Egyptians are being tortured and held outside of judicial oversight in a secret military prison. The news source reported that detainees have been taken to the prison and forcibly disappeared since at least July 2013, and that up to 400 prisoners remain there. Al Monitor reported that human rights organizations have uncovered dozens of cases of physical abuse against women in Egyptian prisons awaiting trial for political charges. In a joint complaint, the Nadim Human Rights Center, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, and the Center for Women’s Issues said female prisoners have been subjected to physical and sexual abuse and that the government has failed to investigate human rights violations or protect female detainees. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch described such cases of abuse and torture as “unprecedented” and harkening “back to the darkest days of former President Hosni Mubarak’s rule.”

Human rights in Sisi’s Egypt remain neglected. It is unlikely that he will reverse his security-centric stance towards the state’s treatment of its citizens. Rather, the human rights violations that occurred after Morsi’s ouster and continue to occur under the new presidency are likely to be sustained as Sisi continues to consolidate power through repressive and familiar methods.

Elissa Miller is an intern with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: Photo: Police violently disperse a demonstration staged by high school students protesting against an "unfair" education system