Egypt’s defence of rights record at UN fails to impress local advocates

Egyptian officials said they would reply to 372 recommendations from the UN Human Rights Council before next March.
Sunday 24/11/2019
Prioritising security. Police watch as people cross the street in Ramses Square in Cairo.(Reuters)
Prioritising security. Police watch as people cross the street in Ramses Square in Cairo.(Reuters)

CAIRO - Egyptian officials said they would reply to 372 recommendations from the UN Human Rights Council before next March.

The council approved the recommendations November 14 after the periodic review of Egypt’s rights’ report, during which Cairo defended its human rights record.

Local advocates called on Egyptian authorities to improve human rights conditions, especially by giving civil society organisations more freedom, removing restrictions to free speech and granting activists more political rights.

“Egypt fights terrorism and this is having its toll on political rights,” said Essam Shiha, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, Egypt’s largest rights group. “This is why the authorities need to mind all legitimate recommendations, which can contribute to improving human rights conditions.”

The review was an opportunity for the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi administration to convince the international community that it was hard to improve human rights conditions in the country.

Some members of the council raised concerns about the treatment of prisoners, the crackdown on internet sites, enforced medical tests of homosexuals, Egypt’s emergency law, violence against women and children, capital punishment and extortion of confessions.

Egypt is under international focus regarding its human rights for several reasons, including political developments it has experienced in the past five years.

A cultural and political powerhouse in the region, Cairo is also a trendsetter, which means what happens in Egypt does not remain confined to the country.

The “Arab spring” started in Tunisia but the fact that it moved to Egypt made it reverberate in other parts of the Arab world. This is true of other political, cultural and social trends.

In its report to the council, the Egyptian government referred to progress on economic, cultural, civil, political and social sectors.

“Egypt made tremendous achievements in these domains in the past five years,” said Omar Marwan, the minister of Parliamentary Affairs who headed Egypt’s delegation to the council. “We made these achievements despite all the challenges we face.”

Egypt has struggled to put its economy on track following years of unrest. It has been fighting a branch of the Islamic State in Sinai and militias affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in other provinces.

“Egypt tries to make a balance between its war on terrorism and its desire to protect freedoms,” said Mohamed Fayek, chairman of the National Council for Human Rights, the state-run rights watchdog. “We believe that human rights cannot be sacrificed for the sake of security.”

However, Cairo has appeared incapable of striking a balance on some occasions. Many political activists are in jail. NGO leaders suffer harassment. Some political activists face travel bans.

Amnesty International documented such cases in a statement November 12, a day before the review of Egypt’s report. It called on Egyptian authorities to investigate allegations of torture and maltreatment by security forces, as well as detention conditions.

Amnesty International said the periodic review was a chance for the international community to hold Egypt to account for its human rights record.

Egypt conceded that mistakes happen but said those are neither systematic nor a reflection of a state policy. It accused organisations such as Amnesty International of caring only about political rights, neglecting all others.

Sisi has said on numerous occasions that he has 100 million people in the country to feed. In January, he fulminated at a French journalist for asking about political freedoms.

“A million people graduate from schools every year here. You ask about the freedoms bloggers should have. I ask you: How will I find jobs for these people? Around 2.5 million babies are born [in my country] every year. They need food, schools and medicine,” Sisi said.

Local rights advocates said this does not mean that economic rights should trump everything else. Economic rights are important, they add, but this does not mean the repression of activists should continue, the treatment of civil society activists as enemies should not stop and free speech should be repressed.

“You cannot claim that some rights are more important than others,” said human rights advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim. “All rights are important, which means that you have to care about them all.”