Reverse Positions of State and Civil Society Defining Human Rights in Egypt By Ahmed Ehsan
What does civil society mean? A combination of some learned and intellectual people in a particular society where they mainly, in coordination, work as a bridge between state and nationals? The primary purpose of civil society is to safeguard human rights and make the government effective through constructive criticism. Though there is no widely accepted definition of civil society, these are the features which are not, unfortunately, functional in Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s autocratic kingdom, Egypt. Instead of protecting human rights, civil society itself is in life support. Egyptian authority perceives some civil society organizations have been operated by activists of Muslim Brotherhood in the guise of human rights defenders and have links with terrorism. Civil society’s promotion of “Human Rights and Freedom” is often characterized as paving the way to crime and terrorism by Egyptian officials. So, government justifies its repression of dissent against El Sisi and his regime by labeling it as fighting against terrorism and extremism.
Egyptians have surpassed a transitional period from autocratic rule to democratic by uprooting Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and electing Mohamed Morsi in 2012. They dreamed under the democratic rule, they can enjoy fundamental political and civil rights which are denied by the prior autocrats. The unfortunate turn of events disappointed them when they realized the autocratic rule has again been returned and they are deprived once again of those rights.
What is the condition of Human Rights in Egypt in the era of
One of the difficult questions to be answered in Egyptian context is why government is repressing the civil society and individuals in the name of protecting national security. The upholder of human rights is itself in need of basic rights to operate its functions. Now the question is why does the regime restrict the civil society to guard human rights? El-Sisi regime can be, without any doubt, characterized by an undemocratic rule where the government does not have to be accountable to the subjects for what it does. It is legally prohibited for more than 10 people to gather without government approval. It means government is silencing different voices other than pro-regime. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi was being alleged for his disregard of human rights which is leading political crisis and unrest. Arbitrary arrest, detention, prosecutions, travel bans and asset freeze etc. are the routine activity to silence the opposition. The government of El-Sisi prefers national security and integrity to human rights, whatever it takes.
It is a precondition to obtain and sustain political legitimacy by respecting and recognizing universal human rights. In this globalized world, it is simply impossible to live on its own. It is highly applicable to those which economy and defense depend on foreign aids. Egypt is the second highest recipient of the US foreign aid after Israel, around $1.3 billion a year, spent on different development sectors . The US is one of the leading promoters of Human Rights. So, for getting annual aid, Egypt must respect the rights of people to live a sound life. The government of Egypt believes it is upholding human rights in cooperation with international society through relevant mechanisms. The government respects international human rights conventions. Egypt is committed to these rights and its constitution respects these laws. The foreign Ministry office has stated that President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is also respectful to his Government’s vision and commitment in this regard.
In the eye of civil society, Human right in Egypt is not universally standard. They inform there are waves of arrests, arbitrary detention, black-listing, travel bans, asset freezes, intimidation and other reprisals against human rights defenders, journalists, political dissidents and those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, all in the name of “counterterrorism” by using security forces, state of emergency laws and courts. According to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights ZeidRa’ad al-Hussein, the state of emergency declared by the government last year has been being used for “systemic silencing of civil society. Human rights watch also criticized the government by saying that there is systemic torture in jails.
Government already rejected the allegations that it violates human rights. Amr Ramadan, ambassador at OHCHR also accused Hussein’s report is “paid for political and economic agendas” to portray that there is systemic violence in Egypt. One can conclude by agreeing with the official’s counter remarks as saying every government has internal and external critics about violating human rights. But these definite allegations against El-Sisigovernment are not new. Since he has ascended to the power, there are so many accusations coming from internal and external civil society organizations. Having news about human rights conditions of Egypt is as difficult as that of North Korea. We have to depend of global civil society and human rights organizations like OHCHR and Human rights Watch etc. The reason behind this complexity is, in one word, undemocratic handling of internal civil society organizations. To keep their human rights violations covered, the authority is unable to permit the associations to work freely. According the government officials, to uphold national security and political integrity, the authority has to regulate the activities of its subjects and non-governmental associations.
The situation under El-Sisi is deteriorated more than his predecessors’ times. The Al Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture has been helping torture survivors since the Mubarak era to the military junta to Mohamed Morsi era. This center provides treatments to those who suffer in jails and abuse. Now it is shut down. The center has been sealed and the founders, Aida Seif al-Dawla and Suzanne Fayyad, were banned from travelling abroad. What is the reason? Ministry of Health claimed they had violated their mandate by issuing reports. Seif al-Dawla rejected their allegation and asserted the center has information about government lies . Prior regimes at least admitted there were tortures to the political opponents but El-Sisi systematically rejects all the accusations of violating human rights and when he is challenged, his government is challenged, they just reiterate that they have to do so for security of Egypt.
This is one example of the condition of human rights in Egypt and civil society’s inability to restrain the government several types of political, medical, humanitarian, feminist groups etc. are facing more or less same fate as Al Nadeem Center. Disrespect to human rights is not new in Egypt. This is not surprising for a country enjoyed only one year of definite democracy. But the situation under El-Sisi is unprecedented. Egypt is returning to where it was before Arab Spring. The difference is, because of ongoing crackdown on human rights defenders, there may be no one who can think of organizing a rally against government General Sisi has successfully reinstalled fear in Egyptians, who used to say “we lost our fear” during 2011 revolution. According to HebaMorayef, veteran Tunisian human right activist, during his 30-year rule, Mubarak allowed some space — however limited — for his political rivals. But the current president is not taking any chances. There are absence of human development, charity initiatives and media opacity which will facilitate the lack of government’s accountability for its human rights abuses. Government regularly restricts the functions of NGO’s which are essential for current security and socioeconomic crises
The positions of government is disappointing
The government justifies heinous crackdown on its critics in the name of fighting terrorism. The government accuses civil society and human rights organizations are the reasons behind perpetrators can harm country’s security. Because when the government fights with these extremists, those organizations criticize them by spreading “False” news. Its tactics is to cripple the ability of organizations and individuals to work rather than be accountable to the press and citizens. Government supporters also tune up with their government demand continuity of security crackdown for state stability as there is fear of ISIS from northern Sinai province. Though there is allegation that security and human rights situation in North Sinai has deteriorated because of abusive counterterrorism campaign, most likely including extrajudicial killings.
This suffocating situation for human rights and civil society, democracy’s two fundamental components, directly clarifies that Egypt is now under another autocratic rule. This raises concerns of international human rights experts. The UN experts on human rights defenders, freedom of expression, and freedoms of assembly and association said that Egypt is failed to provide a safe and enabling environment for civil society in the country. They demanded the government must immediately put an end to all forms of persecution against citizens it doubts offensive and take effective measures to protect civil society. In its country report in 2018, Human Rights Watch has characterized Egypt as a country of Security Forces Abuses, mass Death Penalty which are mostly politically motivated, violation of Freedom of Association, Freedom of Expression and Assembly and Freedom of Religion etc.
President Sisi is ignoring the messages from interior and exterior civil society organizations. According to him, “differences in domestic and regional conditions” in the North African nation made it difficult to apply the same rules regarding civil liberties. So, he suggested Human rights and freedoms in Egypt should not be viewed from a “Western perspective”.
After reading several reports on the condition of HR and C.S in Egypt, what an outsider can learn, both these basic institutions of democracy are seriously undermined and controlled by the regime. Egypt is returning to pre 2011 era. What freedom-loving Egyptians achieved by that revolution, are losing because of authoritative rules. El-Sisi and his government are defending their positions through different types of ambiguous excuses in the name of protecting national security and maintaining stability. Here in Egypt, national security is being protected at the expense of human rights violations, repression, detentions, arrests and civil society restrictions. Why does civil society in Egypt fail to work as the guardian of human rights? The reason is it is regulated under the so called democratic reign of Abdel Fattah El Sisi. A new NGO law which was legislated in May last year, seriously handicapped civil society’s ability to uphold human rights in Egypt. Various local and international human rights organizations condemned this law. They feared new law is considered to repress civil society and criminalize its works, it is impossible to function independently to protect human rights in Egypt, where human and civil rights are continuously being endangered by the authority. Under this new law, government can regulate the civil society activities, mainly involved in human rights work. This will definitely conceal the real scenario of country’s deteriorating human rights situation. It seems government is working relentlessly not the present repressive conditions to be uncovered to the outer world. This law gives the government the authority to monitor civil society’s daily activities. It was enacted to prevent any kinds of activities done by civil society which can harm national security, public order, public morals or public health. In this response, civil society organizations will be subject to security intervention. Organizations have to follow government policy to operate.
Why is government so much skeptical about the freedom of its individuals and organizations? According to state owned Liberal Democracy Institute (LDI), Egypt is still trying to recover from the impacts of the Muslim Brotherhood’s one-year in rule. The government perceives these groups always work as sanctuary for Muslim Brotherhood’s violent militias. So, their activities should be monitored under the rule of law in a way that allows the state to supervise civil society and charity work. Therefore, Minister of Solidarity GhadaWali defended new law has been adopted because the old one had too many loopholes that allowed illegal activities to be practiced by illegal groups, which seek receiving funds and execute destruction and disorder.
Why is the US apathetic of Egypt’s violation of human rights? Both Obama and Trump administrations withholds military aid from Egypt, because of human rights deterioration. Condition was substantial improvement of the situation. But in July, they have restarted the aid supply without any change of human rights situation. Isn’t it surprising? Steven Cook, a senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, said “the US more about security and mutual interests than human rights” in the case of Egypt. The US is behind Egypt’s adamancy not to pay heed to civil society and HR organizations. In this situation, civil society organizations cannot do much to uphold human rights in Egypt. To protect rights of its citizens, the government has more responsibility than civil society and that is it has to provide freedom of non-government organizations to function effectively. Human Rights Watch suggests a vibrant and powerful civil society is an essential partner in curbing violent extremism, as Egypt is facing security threats. A-Sisi should focus on curbing violent groups and not peaceful activists.
Will the government be agreed to work according to suggestions? Egypt is what Egypt is, a bed of roses for dictators. Autocracy does not nod at suggestions. So, the future of human rights looks bleak.
The writer is an undergraduate student of International Relations at the University of Dhaka.