Long hounded by international criticism of its deteriorating human rights record, the government of Egypt is preparing to respond by launching a new national human rights strategy. The strategy appears to be aimed not so much at improving the regime’s record and practices; instead, it is designed to shield the regime from both domestic and foreign criticism while imposing new limits on the freedoms Egyptians can hope to enjoy.
At the same time, several independent Egyptian rights organizations have launched a campaign that shows what real improvements would require. They have urged both domestic and international parties to use their ideas as a starting point for any serious discussion with the government of Egypt. The United States, among others, should take the opportunity to use these vital benchmarks to launch a genuine dialogue with the regime about what must be done to improve human rights conditions in the country.
Human Rights in Egypt: Bad, and Getting Worse
Egypt’s human rights situation has been on a sharp downward trajectory since the 2013 coup that overthrew the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, by then-Defense Minister, now President, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi.
Tens of thousands of political prisoners have since been imprisoned, enduring systematic torture and denial of medical treatment. Many are held on vague charges and in extended pretrial detention, often without recourse to legal representation or due process. Civil society and human rights activists face an escalating crackdown on their activities and associations under the law and in the courts, where many have been banned from travel and subject to asset freezes under the long-standing Case 173 (the notorious “foreign funding” case), while others are accused of “publishing false information” or “insulting the judiciary,” euphemisms for criticizing the state. The use of excessive force by security elements engaged in counterterrorism operations remains a serious concern; extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances have become the norm. Severe restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression have sharply limited civic life, including the media.
The use of excessive force by security elements engaged in alleged counterterrorism operations remains a serious concern; extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances have become the norm.
International critics of Egypt’s deteriorating situation have been met with a mixture of scorn, obfuscation, and counter-accusations. When 31 countries (mainly democratic European nations as well as the United States, Australia, and Canada) took the unusual step in March of submitting a letter to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) leveling sharp criticism at Egypt’s human rights record, Cairo’s reaction was swift. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry decried the move while the Egyptian House of Representatives denounced the letter as “highly politicised, unbalanced, biased, and destructive,” adding that it “is based on lies, unfounded claims, and misleading accusations.” International human rights organizations are routinely accused of political bias, slander, and reliance on inaccurate sources in their critical reports.
It may seem surprising, then, that the Egyptian government is in the process of developing a national human rights strategy ostensibly intended to improve rights and freedoms of all Egyptians, as part of a comprehensive approach to complement Egypt’s overall development strategy. The Egyptian parliament recently reviewed a first draft of the plan, which is expected to roll out soon and cover a five-year period (mid-2021 to mid-2026).
But things are not entirely as they appear. The strategy that is emerging is designed not so much to expand and protect human rights but to narrow and define them in such a way that the state remains their unquestioned arbiter, in control of what these rights are, who enjoys them, and who does not.
The Concept, the Process, and the Flaws
In 2018, the government announced the formation of a Supreme Standing Committee on Human Rights (SSCHR), comprising representatives of 25 government agencies, councils, and other organizations and headed by Foreign Minister Shoukry. Its main task was to prepare the new human rights strategy for the country which, according to Maya Morsi, president of Egypt’s state-affiliated National Council of Women, is to “promote, respect, and activate all the basic human rights and freedoms, including civic, economic, social, political, and cultural rights, encompassing everyone without discrimination.”
The strategy is tightly linked to Egypt’s “Vision 2030,” a set of development principles apparently inspired by Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030.” Launched in 2016, Egypt’s vision aims to achieve “comprehensive sustainable development” in part through “justice, social inclusion and the participation of all citizens in political and social life.” Publicly, the idea is to harness the national human rights agenda to a broader development strategy to maximize the potential of Egypt’s human capital, contributing to a sustainable economic strategy going forward. “The power of this strategy lies in linking it to Egypt’s 2030 vision for sustainable development,” Heba Hagras, a member of parliament who is also a member of the SSCHR, told Egypt Today. “The more you create strategies that are linked together, the more they reinforce each other; and [this] adds strength and facilitates their execution on the ground.”
This approach is sound in principle from both a human rights and economic standpoint. Addressing the defects in freedom and citizenship detailed in the Arab Human Development Reports is an essential component of establishing and implementing sustainable development goals. Nevertheless, a closer look at what is known or can be inferred of the substance of the draft human rights plan—as few details have been released publicly—suggests that there is less here than meets the eye.
Although civil and political freedoms are frequently mentioned as integral components of the strategy, they remain ill-defined in a plan that emphasizes economic development over other goals. For example, the strategy’s four lines of effort, or “axes,” largely focus on social, economic, and cultural rights, including the rights of women, youth, children, and the elderly. As Essam Shiha, head of the government-friendly Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, told Al-Ahram, “Western organisations focus solely on the political dimensions, which is wrong. Advancing the economic lives of citizens is high on the agenda of local human rights organisations.” President Sisi himself has taken a similar tack; he has typically been keen to emphasize his “comprehensive” perspective on human rights, which minimizes political freedoms in favor of economic, social, health, and educational concerns.
The deliberative process has not appeared to produce much substance. Various meetings have been held at the national level as the strategy nears rollout, but results have been inconclusive.
In addition, the deliberative process has not appeared to produce much substance. Various meetings have been held at the national level as the strategy nears rollout, but results have been inconclusive. A parliamentary meeting in May to review the first draft of the SSCHR’s strategy yielded few specific proposals. Instead, participants focused on process, with recommendations for further study of international norms, intra-governmental discussions, and colloquies with the public on citizens’ priorities. In a similar meeting between the SSCHR and civil society groups, participants traded congratulations on the strategy’s development and promises of further consultation, but not much else.
One thing is clear: none of the draft strategy’s proposed areas of focus come close to what the Egyptian government needs to do if it is serious about halting, let alone reversing, the human rights erosion of the past several years.
One bright spot that has apparently emerged from all this is a general sense among participants in the process that lengthy pretrial detention periods should be reduced—which under Egyptian law should be no more than 18 months for most offenses but in practice are often extended far beyond that via various stratagems. However, no specific reform, or timetable for reforms, has materialized.
The International Dimension: Performative Diplomacy
It is notable that the SSCHR is headed by the foreign minister, while other senior diplomats fill top committee roles. (The committee’s Secretary General is an assistant foreign minister, while the acting head of its technical secretariat is the deputy foreign minister.) The international purpose of the committee is apparent: to provide a shield for Egyptian diplomacy as the government fights back against charges of human rights abuses. As long as the government lacked a comprehensive human rights strategy that it could tout as a sign of progress, its responses to critics were defensive, hostile, and without credibility. Now, the very existence of a strategic human rights process will help Egyptian representatives deflect accusations and defer action. In particular, this is likely to come in handy during the UNHRC’s next Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Egypt’s human rights picture, scheduled to take place in 2024. During the last UPR cycle in 2019, Egypt was strongly criticized for ignoring or rejecting many of the report’s recommendations; having a national human rights strategy in hand will enable Cairo to beat back naysayers a bit more deftly.
What Would a Real Human Rights Strategy Look Like?
One thing is clear: none of the draft strategy’s proposed areas of focus come close to what the Egyptian government needs to do if it is serious about halting, let alone reversing, the human rights erosion of the past several years. If it were serious, there is no shortage of ideas for where to start.
In May, five respected, independent Egyptian human rights groups issued a list of seven “necessary, specific and urgent measures” to address the human rights crisis. These included:
- Freeing political prisoners;
- Halting indefinite pretrial detentions;
- Lifting the state of emergency, in force since 2017, that authorities exploit to curtail legal rights, including due process;
- Staying all executions in political and criminal cases until reviewed by a presidential board for possible pardons;
- Ending criminal prosecutions of human rights activists and closing the seemingly endless Case 173 of 2011 (the so-called “foreign-funding” case) targeting civil society organizations;
- Withdrawing the draft Personal Status Law, which would reverse years of women’s rights progress, and beginning a national discussion on a new family law that guarantees equal rights for women; and,
- Reversing blockage of websites, imposed without court orders, to censor media criticism and unfavorable content.
These steps would be a persuasive starting point, and the signatories recommend that all parties in Egypt and abroad that are concerned with human rights insist on the measures in any human rights discussion with the Egyptian government.
For long-lasting, comprehensive change to take place, these would need to be accompanied by many other legal measures, such as protections for the freedoms of assembly, expression, and association; prohibition of torture and abuse in detention; an end to forced disappearances and collective punishment of family members; new protections for civil society; guarantees of due process; and an end to the use of military tribunals to try civilians, to name just a few.
Egypt’s Real Human Rights Agenda
None of the seven steps nor any more sweeping changes appears to be countenanced by the draft human rights strategy. This is not surprising, given that the SSCHR is comprised of government representatives and government-sponsored civil society organizations that lack any independent or critical voices.
Beyond that lies a more significant obstacle to a credible national human rights strategy in Egypt: there is no evident political will or desire to make dramatic improvements in civic and political rights or other essential freedoms. No major effort has come from the leadership to push the strategy forward. President Sisi has said little to nothing in public about it.
Why? A closer look at the regime’s tightening grip since late 2018, when the SSCHR was set up and began work on the human rights strategy strongly, suggests where the government’s real priorities lie. That year, President Sisi was reelected in a non-competitive contest in which several potential challengers were forced out of the running. The following year, 2019, the parliament passed a package of constitutional amendments that were approved in a hasty referendum. Among other things, the amendments extended term limits to allow Sisi to remain in power almost indefinitely, further entrenched the military’s role in civic life and its power over civilians, and compromised the independence of the judiciary. According to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, the amendments served to “formalize the trends observed across Egypt today: a constricted public sphere, the deterioration of the rule of law, and the erasure of the separation of powers.”
After the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, the government amended the emergency law to grant sweeping new powers to the president and security agencies, amidst a crackdown on journalists, doctors, and others who criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic. Throughout this period, regime repression and abuses continued to worsen. This is the opposite of what should be expected of a country and government seeking to improve the overall human rights picture. However, it is very much to be expected of a regime trying hard to eliminate any real or potential challenges to its authority.
Beyond the government’s efforts to strengthen and consolidate its power, and the resulting deterioration of the human rights situation documented by numerous Egyptian and international watchdog groups, the very nature of the Egyptian system itself makes genuine reform nearly impossible.
Beyond the government’s efforts to strengthen and consolidate its power, and the resulting deterioration of the human rights situation documented by numerous Egyptian and international watchdog groups, the very nature of the Egyptian system itself makes genuine reform nearly impossible, even if the will were there. Human rights cannot flourish in a managed system in which the military is the final arbiter of political life, as is the case in Egypt, and in which the military remains unaccountable to the law even as its powers are steadily expanding. Unless the scope of military authority is limited and reduced, including the military’s outsized role in the national economy, no genuine, comprehensive human rights strategy—particularly one intended to encourage sustainable development—could possibly succeed.
Hello, Washington Calling: Is Anybody There?
The United States recently let it be known that it plans to initiate yet another “constructive dialogue” with the Egyptian government that will focus on the human rights concerns that led President Joe Biden to pledge there would be “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator’” once he became president. The reality has been somewhat different. Biden has taken a softer line on Egypt’s human rights violations and has appeared to warm up a bit to the Egyptian president, most recently expressing “sincere gratitude” to Sisi for playing “such a critical role in this diplomacy” that helped end the recent war in Gaza.
If the latest “constructive dialogue” is to be effective on human rights—unlike previous iterations of the same concept—Washington will have to try a new approach.
First of all, it should not allow the regime to use the human rights strategy to shield itself from criticism. The credibility and actual implementation of that strategy are far more important than its mere existence. The administration may be inclined to play along with the Egyptian government, praising it just for having a plan in the works and opting to defer criticism as it plays out, satisfied that Cairo is at least pretending to take US concerns seriously. But the United States should resist that temptation. Washington should insist on measurable benchmarks and results. The seven basic steps recommended by independent Egyptian human rights groups offer a good framework.
Second, Washington should be willing to impose costs if the human rights picture continues to deteriorate. In the coming weeks, the State Department must decide whether to release $300 million in military aid currently subject to human rights conditions. This is a good moment to hold Egypt to account and would provide an important test of whether Biden will treat human rights as a key part of the bilateral relationship.
In short, the Biden Administration should take advantage of the opening presented by Egypt’s human rights strategy to assert America’s interest in real change. It must use this opportunity to let both the regime and Egypt’s people know that Washington takes the strategy at least as seriously as the Egyptian government claims to do.
* Photo credit: Flickr/Hossam el-Hamalawy