One Year On: Civil Society and Human Rights under Sisi

In the four years since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, human rights have continued to suffer. The past year under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has witnessed a serious regression in what few rights were gained in the wake of the 2011 uprising. The protests that led to the downfall of Mubarak and his successor, Mohamed Morsi, have been outlawed, basic freedoms – speech, association, belief – have been violated and Egyptian human rights defenders have said that the rights situation in Egypt is the worst it has been in the past thirty years. 

Below is a summary of human rights violations that have taken place in Egypt over the past year.

There are no official figures on the numbers of arrests made since Morsi’s ouster, or since Sisi’s election. An unofficial tally by WikiThawra placed the number of arrests prior to Sisi’s election, from July 2013 to May 2014, at over 40,000. According to AP, in the eight months preceding March 2014, during which Sisi was in power, at least 16,000 have been arrested, among them 3,000 top or mid-level Brotherhood members. The Arab Network for Human Rights Information said that by the end of 2014, 42,000 people had been arrested.

Prison Conditions
Human Rights Watch said in its 2015 world report that ninety people had died in detention in 2014 in Cairo and Giza alone. Egypt’s own semi-governmental National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) in its annual report released in May 2015, estimated that eighty to ninety-eight detainees had died in detention in the period since Morsi’s ouster up until the end of 2014. The ministry of interior has only admitted to thirty-eight of these deaths. The report blamed the deaths on overcrowding, and poor living and health conditions. According to the NCHR, holding cells at police stations are at 400 percent capacity, and prisons are at 160 percent, prompting them to recommend building new prisons. Several Brotherhood members have died in prison, including leading member Farid Ismail, due to medical conditions. The Brotherhood has repeatedly held authorities responsible for these deaths, alleging they were denied necessary medical treatment. Egyptian authorities have denied the allegations.

Last July, Amnesty International released a report saying that it had gathered evidence proving that torture had once again become a widespread and routine practice in police stations. Local rights groups, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and others, issued a report this March in which they said they had documented instances of torture in several Egyptian prisons including Abu Zaabal, Borg al-Arab, and Tora. While the NCHR recently said it had no evidence that documented deaths in detention were caused by torture, it said there was no evidence to prove otherwise. The group had also earlier confirmed allegations of torture at Abu Za’abal Prison in March.

Enforced Disappearances
In recent weeks, local rights groups have expressed alarm over a surge in enforced disappearances among young activists. In May alone, activists documented sixteen instances. The ministry of interior has denied the allegations. Ain Shams engineering student Islam Atitu was called out of an exam by plainclothes policemen and was later found shot dead in the desert. Police accused him of belonging to the Brotherhood, saying he was a suspect in the assassination of a high ranking Matariya police officer. Atittu, they say was killed in a shootout. His fellow students dispute the story, saying he was kidnapped by the police. According to grassroots activist group, Freedom for the Brave, which campaigns for the release of political detainees, there were 163 enforced disappearances in Egypt from April to early June. According to the group, at least sixty-six remaining missing, while the whereabouts of sixty-four have become known. In at least two cases, the individuals were found dead.

Freedom of Assembly
The protest law issued before Sisi’s election continues to be vigorously applied. Hundreds have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms under Sisi, including prominent activists Alaa Abdel Fattah and April 6 co-founder Ahmed Maher. Thousands have been arrested on charges of violating the law, and hundreds sentenced. Egypt’s opposition parties are currently mobilizing for a petition against the protest law.

On January 24, as police dispersed a small march organized by the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, activist and party member Shaimaa al-Sabbagh was shot dead. Sabbagh’s killer was referred to trial on charges of “beating leading to death,” but forensic reports showed that she died as the result of birdshot. Eyewitnesses to her killing who provided testimony where then also referred to trial on charges of violating the protest law. In a surprise move, all defendants were acquitted in May.

Freedom of Association
Egypt’s NGOs, particularly human rights and democracy groups, are facing intense pressure. In December, the Cairo Institution for Human Rights Studies relocated its headquarters from Cairo to Tunisia. The organization said it made its decision “in light of the ongoing threats to human rights organizations and the declaration of war on civil society.”

CIHRS, and other NGOs, are particularly concerned about a draft NGO law that the government is considering. A month into Sisi’s presidency, the Ministry of Social Solidarity announced a deadline for NGOs to register with the ministry. The move was described as a “declaration of war by the government on freedom of association and the work of civil society organizations in Egypt.” The ministry, however, said that the decision was an attempt to “overcome the obstacles facing NGOs,” and for NGOs working without authorization to “get approval from the government.”   The NGO law, which appears to have been tabled for the time being, was criticized for introducing strict restrictions on NGO activities and funding. The law, for example, would prohibit activities that threaten national unity and violate “public order or morals.”

Political activities have also been banned on university campuses. The Association for Freedom and Thought Expression (AFTE) estimates that sixteen students were killed during the 2013/2014 academic year, and another four were killed in the following year. Security forces have been granted permission to enter university campuses, private security firms have been hired to clamp down on student protests, and the AFTE estimates that around 900 students were detained in the previous academic year.  Hundreds have been suspended or expelled, bolstered by a law granting university presidents expansive powers to suspend or dismiss students, faculty or staff.  

Women’s Rights & Sexual Harassment
On paper, women’s rights saw an improvement before and after Sisi’s election. A law against sexual harassment was passed right before Sisi’s election, and the president indicated his prioritization of the issue by visiting a sexual harassment victim who was attacked in Tahrir Square during his inaugural celebrations. The visit, a first of its kind, was hailed as a significant step for the fight against sexual harassment, and was followed by several statements from the presidency. Sisi said he was would form a committee tasked with devising a strategy to combat sexual harassment. No measures appear to have been issued by the committee.

Since the law was issued, there have been several cases of men sentenced to as much as life in prison on charges of sexual assault, including policemen. A sense of impunity with sexual harassment, however, is very much still present in Egypt, and at times has come with tragic consequences. In December, a 19-year-old drowned when attempting to escape sexual harassment, while a 17-year-old Ahmed Fayed was stabbed to death when attempting to intervene to stop women from being sexually harassed.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) issued a report in May arguing that Egyptian security forces are systematically using sexual violence as a tool of repression. The tactic, FIDH says, has long been “characteristic of state violence” in Egypt, but in the two years since Morsi’s ouster, there has been a surge in sexual violence. FIDH documented “sexual harassment, rape and sexual assault, rape with objects, anal and vaginal “virginity tests,” electrocution of genitalia, sex-based defamation and blackmail perpetrated by police, state security and military personnel.” While women are the primary victims, FIDH added that men have been targeted too.

In March, Sisi also awarded Sisi Abu Daooh, for being an exemplary mother. Abu Daooh’s story made headlines when it emerged that she had spent most of her adult life dressed as a man, working as a brick maker and a field hand to feed her family. She was awarded 50,000 Egyptian pounds.

Religious Minorities
Egypt’s Christians are protected by Egypt’s constitution, which recognizes only the three Abrahamic faiths. Despite this, they continue to face discrimination and sectarian violence. In a major reshuffle, with seventeen new governors appointed, there were no Christians among the new governors. Out of thirty-six ministers, only two are Christian.

Christian communities still face difficulties in building churches. The constitution stipulates that parliament will issue a law regulating the building and renovation of churches during its first legislative term. In the meantime, in the absence of a parliament, disputes continue to arise from attempts to build new churches or to renovate existing structures. In May, villagers in al-Aour, in Upper Egypt, protested the building of a new church. The church was ordered built by presidential decree in February after twenty Copts, many of whom hailed from al-Aour, were beheaded by the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in Libya. After a customary reconciliation session, it was agreed that the church would not be built prominently at the entrance of the village, as was originally planned.

In Beni Suef, ten Coptic homes were torched and five families displaced, after a member of one of the families, Ayman Tawfiq, living in Jordan was accused of sharing a blasphemous post on Facebook. Following a reconciliation session, the families were able to return to their homes. The public prosecutor, however, also issued a warrant for Tawfiq’s arrest. In Minya, a similar incident ended with the eviction of a Christian family, a move also approved after a reconciliation session.

Egypt has also witnessed a continuation of ‘blasphemy’ trials targeting mainly Christians, but in which Muslims have also been sentenced. Some of those sentenced are facing up to five years in prison. A group of Christian teenagers are currently facing charges of insulting Islam for mocking ISIS. Writers and journalists are also among those who have been sentenced for blasphemy.

Egypt’s small minority Baha’i community remains banned by the Egyptian government. In December, the Ministry of Endowments held a workshop raising awareness of the “dangers of the spread of Baha’ism.” Similar workshops and events have been held to raise awareness against the so-called dangers of atheism.

Atheists in Egypt continue to face harassment and in some instances have even been sentenced to prison for up to three years for insulting Islam.

While discrimination against the Shia minority was at a peak under Morsi, their persecution continues. A prominent Shia leader is facing charges of ‘spreading Shi’ism,’ while Egyptian media continues to portray Shia Egyptians as spies working at the behest of Iran.  

LGBT Rights
The LGBT community continues to face judicial and societal pressure. Following a court ruling, the ministry of interior now has the right to deport gay foreigners from Egypt. Egyptian members of the community face arrest and prosecution. While homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, at least forty men have been tried on charges of “debauchery,” in the past year. Three men were sentenced to eight years in prison last April. Eight were sentenced to three years in prison last November, but later had their sentences reduced to a year each. A rare acquittal was seen when twenty-six men arrested in a public bathhouse, as a journalist filmed the incident, were cleared of debauchery charges. One of the twenty-six men later tried to burn himself to death. In December, two transgender women were arrested on charges of prostitution, as the community faces increasing scrutiny.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab formed the National Coordinating Committee on Preventing and Combating Illegal Migration (NCCPIM) in 2014. The NCCPIM’s duties include drafting legislation to protect refugee rights in Egypt and to compensate victims of illegal immigration. The group drafted a bill against illegal immigration but it has yet to pass. The bill also, however, lacks mention of the prosecution of smugglers.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are at least 140,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt. The dire circumstances they face in Egypt has pushed some to attempt the treacherous trip across the Mediterranean to Europe. In September 2014, a boat with 500 Syrian and Palestinian refugees sailing from Egypt capsized, following a dispute between the smugglers and refugees. Most of the refugees drowned.

According to Human Rights Watch, Egypt also requires visas and security clearance for Syrians to enter the country, and as a result, at least 276 Syrian refugees were denied entry, and returned to Syria. Seventy-two men and nine boys were detained at security checkpoints in Cairo, while from August 2013 to early 2014, more than 1,500 Syrian refugees were arrested, including 250 children.

Image: Photo: Central Security Forces in 2011 (Mariam Soliman)