Rights defenders’ arrests signal no change of course in Egypt despite US factor

According to Egyptian academic Jihad Odeh, Cairo’s dilemma on the rights issue is not going to be with Biden, but rather with his Vice-President, Kamala Harris.
Saturday 21/11/2020
Egyptian policmen stand guard in front of the Tora prison clinic in Cairo.  (AFP)
Egyptian policmen stand guard in front of the Tora prison clinic in Cairo. (AFP)

CAIRO--Recent arrests of rights defenders in Egypt seem to indicate that authorities are not inclined to alter their human rights policy after Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential elections.

The Egyptian government has in recent days arrested three human rights activists and officials, hence signalling it refuses to give in to pressure from international human rights organisations to change their human rights practices.

On Thursday, Egyptian security arrested the executive director of the non-governmental non-profit organisation Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Gasser Abdel-Razek, who is the third official to be arrested within a few days, after Karim Ennarah, director of EIPR’s criminal justice unit, and Mohammed Basheer, EIPR’s office manager.

Analysts linked the arrests to a visit by 13 ambassadors accredited in Egypt to the Initiative’s headquarters in Cairo on November 3, during which there was discussion of the means of supporting the human rights advocacy movement in Egypt.

Cairo did not make the arrests immediately following the ambassadors’ visit, but waited about two weeks before doing it, long enough to know who the next US president would be, in order to suggest its determination not to change its perceptions and procedures regarding what it considers illegal or unauthorised actions by human rights activists.

The Supreme State Security Prosecution Bureau decided to imprison the three officials for 15 days pending further investigations into Court Case No. 855 on charges of “joining a terrorist group, broadcasting false statements that disturb security, harming the public interest, and using an online account to spread false news.”

Political observers had expected that the Egyptian government would show greater flexibility on the freedoms and human rights front after the victory of the Democratic candidate in the US elections, as a gesture towards turning the previous page of the showdown over this issue between Washington and Cairo during the term of former American President Barack Obama and his Vice-President Joe Biden.

In his campaign, Joe Biden hinted that there would be “no blank check” regarding human rights violations in Egypt and criticised at the time what he described as the truce with the Egyptian regime during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Following the arrests in Cairo, the US State Department expressed its deep concern about the Egyptian move. The US State Department’s Human Rights Office wrote on its Twitter account that Washington believes that everyone should be able to express their beliefs freely.

Cars move along the “6th October Bridge” in Cairo, Egypt October 2, 2019. REUTERS
Cars move along the “6th October Bridge” in Cairo, Egypt October 2, 2019. (REUTERS)

Observers expect Cairo to continue its previous policies and may clash with the new Democratic administration at the white House. But it could still take steps indicating changes in its approach to the issue of freedoms in general. At one time, the second option seemed more likely when the Egyptian authorities released hundreds of detainees in political cases.

Jihad Odeh, professor of international relations and political science at Helwan University in Cairo, confirmed that Cairo will not change its approach to human rights, but will adjust it according to the changes that Biden’s arrival in the White House may bring about.

He added to The Arab Weekly that the Egyptian state has certain constants in the human rights file that it is not willing to abandon, regardless of the extent of outside pressure. It, for example, refuses to apply human rights standards that it believes are non-compatible with the local environment, in light of the continuing threat of terrorism in Egypt and the existence of efforts by “illegal organisations” working on behalf of ideological currents it classifies as hostile.

He pointed out that Cairo’s dilemma is not going to be with Biden, but rather with his Vice-President, Kamala Harris, known for being a stickler on human rights issues and freedoms.

The Egyptian government is aware of the extent to which the human rights file has turned into a tool of political pressure in some countries to achieve specific goals, and it is convinced that any country that uses it must be seeking to impose specific policies, because human rights in general, Egyptian policy makers believe,  are not a decisive issue in international relations, unlike the economy, security and strategic matters.

Therefore, the case of EIPR and the arrest of its officials come to reinforce the view that there is no change in Egypt’s official approach to human rights issues, and that the government is proceeding with its assessments of this file, oblivious to any external pressure.

Recently, International human rights organisations have voiced severe criticism of Cairo’s approach to this issue. Western institutions issued statements rejecting the Egyptian authorities’ current way of dealing with this file. The Egyptian government played down these accusations, claiming that they contained deliberate exaggerations of the facts stemming from a desire to blow them out of proportion in the service of the agendas of the Islamist opposition.

Political analysts suggested that there were less expectations in Cairo that the new Biden administration would use the human rights file as a powerful tool to exert pressure on Cairo, after the emergence of major transformations in Egypt, and the low level of effectiveness of this card globally.

The Egyptian regime believes it has succeeded in rearranging the domestic political situation, by clipping the wings of the opposition, and became more able to resist pressures on this issue. But the final outcome in the case of the arrests of EIPR’s leaders might be an indicator of the positions of external forces in this respect.

Alaa Shalabi, President of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights, said that Egypt has taken important steps to advance the issue of human rights in Egypt by strengthening measures of criminal accountability in crimes of torture and ill-treatment of detainees and prisoners, and disciplinary accountability for abuse of power. It has also drawn up a law to regulate civil society work after extensive consultations with 1,300 NGOs and associations.

He told The Arab Weekly that now, the government has to complete all of these steps by issuing the executive regulations for the law regulating civil society work and closing the cases of prosecution of a number of human rights activists.

He pointed out that opening a new page with the implementation of this law constitutes the best way to end the crisis and limits the possibility of outside actors using the human rights file to politically pressure the Egyptian regime.