A case study from the 2014 Human Rights and Democracy Report. Published 12 March 2015
In 2014, the Egyptian government completed two of the three steps in its road map for political transition. These were a referendum to adopt a new constitution in January, and presidential elections in May. But the human rights situation in Egypt remained poor and deteriorated in some areas, particularly with regards to freedom of expression and association. This had an impact on the political context in which the elections were held. The 2014 constitution enshrines a wide range of human rights, but these protections were not implemented in full. Although the number of deaths of non-violent citizens resulting from security force action reduced in 2014 from the very large numbers in 2013, deaths during the policing of demonstrations and in custody remain a serious concern.
Egypt continued to confront a growing terrorist insurgency. The number of terrorist attacks rose, with members of the security forces the primary target. The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, and other ministers consistently condemned the terrorist violence in Egypt and the extremism which supported it.
There were increased restrictions on freedom of expression. Reporters without Borders ranked Egypt 159th for press freedoms out of 180 countries. Ministers continued to raise concerns, including the Al Jazeera case. In June, six journalists were sentenced to between seven and ten years’ imprisonment. Two of the three journalists tried in absentia were British. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 12 other journalists were also held in prison on politically motivated charges.
Freedom of assembly remained an area of concern, and the UK government continued to press for a revision of the Protest Law. This law requires police authorisation for demonstrations, and provides for significant prison sentences against opposition activists participating in peaceful protests, including the former leader of the April 6 Movement, Ahmed Maher.
The UK remained concerned at restrictions on freedom of association and at the cumulative pressure against political opposition and dissent. In the run-up to the referendum on the constitution, opposition political activists were arrested while campaigning for a “No” vote. Amnesty International estimated that up to 40,000 people have been arrested since July 2013, in the context of demonstrations or opposition political activities. In September 2014, Prime Minister David Cameron raised with President Al-Sisi concerns about the number of people in pre-trial detention.
Civil society groups complained of harassment and intimidation from state authorities. They were concerned at the implications of a deadline for all NGOs to register with the Ministry of Social Solidarity in November. After consultation with civil society, the government decided to postpone introducing a new NGO law until the new parliament was formed. We called on the Egyptian government to ensure the law reflects the constitution’s guarantee of civil society freedom. FCO ministers discussed the situation for civil society with the Egyptian Minister for Social Solidarity during her visit to London in November.
Since the election of President Al-Sisi, there has been new government impetus, promoted by the President himself, to tackle the endemic problem of sexual violence in Egypt. Several convictions followed the new sexual harassment law, passed by Interim President, Adly Mansur. In spite of this, the protection of women’s rights in Egypt continues to be a concern.
The new Egyptian government has been clear about its intent to protect religious freedoms. The Coptic Christian community has reported improvements in the protection of religious minorities. The National Council for Human Rights reported that violence and torture was used in detention. An Egyptian rights group, Wikithawra, estimated that approximately 80 people had died in detention between late 2013 and early 2014. After a de facto moratorium since 2010, 11 prisoners were executed in Egypt in June 2014. Over 1,200 people were sentenced to death in 2014, many in absentia, but most of these sentences were later commuted to life sentences.
On 5 November, Egypt underwent its second review under the UN Human Rights Council’s (HRC) Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UK recommended full implementation of the Egyptian government’s provisions for the free operation of civil society and completion of the National Strategy on Violence Against Women. We also used the UPR to invite the Egyptian government to address human trafficking, the opening of an OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) regional office in Cairo, and reports of mistreatment in detention.
A country case study update on Egypt which forms part of the 2013 Human Rights and Democracy Report. Published 16 October 2014.
In May this year, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi was elected President. This marked the completion of the second phase in the roadmap announced following the removal of former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. The last six months in Egypt have also seen the continuation of terrorist attacks and growing instability in the region.
We continue to have serious concerns about the human rights situation in Egypt, particularly in the areas of freedom of expression and assembly. The large numbers of confirmed death sentences issued by courts in the last six months, and the prison sentences given to Egyptian and international journalists in June, were worrying developments.
On 24 March 2014, a criminal court in Minya sentenced 529 people to death, the majority in absentia. The verdict was issued following a session that lasted just under an hour and which did not allow the defence sufficient opportunity to present its case. In a separate case, the same court delivered death sentences to a further 683 people in similar circumstances. 220 of these sentences have now been confirmed, with others commuted to life imprisonment. All the sentences remain subject to appeal. These two cases are the most prominent, but death penalties have been issued in a number of other cases over the last six months. On 21 June, the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, expressed his concern over the confirmed sentences in Minya, and urged the Egyptian authorities to ensure that human and legal rights were upheld. Also in June, the death penalty was carried out in Egypt for the first time since 2010; ten people were executed for crimes including murder and kidnapping.
On April 7, a court of appeal in Cairo upheld the sentencing of three activists to three years in prison with hard labour and a fine of 50,000 Egyptian pounds (approximately £4,400) each. The activists, Ahmed Maher, and Mohammed Adel (founders of the April 6 Movement), and Ahmed Douma, had been detained since November 2013. Their case was the first time that protestors had been prosecuted under the new protest law passed in November 2013. On 28 April, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters issued a decision banning the April 6 Movement. The UK government welcomes the recent release of a small number of human rights activists, including those detained under the protest law, but we remain concerned at the large number of people that remain in detention.
In September 2014, Prime Minister David Cameron raised with President al-Sisi his concerns about the large numbers of people in custody, and the widespread use of death penalty.
Presidential elections took place on 26-28 May with a turnout of 47%. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi won with 96% of the vote. Staff from the British Embassy in Cairo took part in the EU’s electoral observation mission. The EU mission found that the election was conducted in line with the law. However, in some respects, it fell short of compliance with the principles set out in Egypt’s constitution and applicable international standards for democratic elections. It noted that the rights to vote and to stand for all citizens were not fully protected by the current legal framework. The EU mission also reflected concern about the Egyptian public’s ability to express political dissent and exercise freedom of speech or association. On 4 June, outgoing interim President Adly Mansur passed a decree which criminalised sexual harassment for the first time. The decree has since been implemented and used successfully to prosecute offenders, but violence against women continues to be a concern in Egypt. Incidents of sexual assaults took place in Tahrir Square during President Al-Sisi’s inauguration, with one particularly shocking case attracting substantial media attention after being filmed. President al-Sisi visited the victim in hospital and has declared the issue a matter of national honour. On Monday 8 July, the National Council for Women (a state body mandated to oversee laws related to women) launched a National Strategy to combat gender-based violence. The UK supports women’s political and economic participation through the Arab Partnership, and organised a number of events in Egypt around our Global Summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict.
On 23 June, a court in Cairo sentenced a group of Egyptian and international journalists to between seven and ten years’ imprisonment on charges that included spreading false news. Two British journalists, Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, were tried in absentia, and given ten-year sentences. British Embassy staff attended most sessions of the trial, with the Ambassador attending the verdict. Mr Hague made a statement in which he said he was appalled by the verdicts, and urged the Egyptian government to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression by reviewing this case as a matter of urgency. On the same day, the Egyptian Ambassador was summoned to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO). FCO Political Director, Sir Simon Gass, told the Egyptian Ambassador that the UK government was deeply concerned by the verdicts, along with the procedural shortcomings seen during the trials. The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, raised this issue with President al-Sisi during his visit to Cairo in July 2014, pressing for clemency and assurances that due legal process will be respected in the appeal process.
In June, Amnesty International released a report alleging that up to 400 civilians are being held without charge at the Azouli prison in Ismailia, with no access to their lawyers or families. The report claims that torture and other forms of ill-treatment are being used as a means of extracting confessions. Representatives of the British Embassy in Cairo raised the issue of Azouli prison with the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 24 June. The European Union made a statement at the 26th UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in June regarding the treatment of prisoners in Egypt. The statement expressed concern at the continued detention of thousands of Egyptian citizens, many of whom were detained on unclear grounds, and the conditions under which they are detained. The UK also called for the release of detained journalists and activists in our UNHRC statement.
A draft of a new NGO law remains under discussion between the Ministry for Social Solidarity and NGOs operating in Egypt. This is a crucial document in supporting the development of a free and vibrant civil society. The UK continues to lobby for an NGO law that conforms to international standards, and we have previously raised our concerns at the UNHRC. On 18 July, the Egyptian government set a deadline of 45 days for NGOs to register with the Ministry of Social Solidarity under the old NGO law or face dissolution. Many NGOs have expressed concern that this could affect their ability to operate freely. The deadline for registration has now been extended by a further 45 days.
14 August saw the one-year anniversary of the dispersal of protests in Rabaa-al Addawya and Al-Nahda Squares in Cairo. Accounts of the numbers killed during these operations vary. The Interior Ministry has stated that 493 civilians and 13 policemen were killed. Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights reported in March that 622 civilians and eight policemen were killed, while Human Rights Watch estimated in August that the total number of civilians killed was over a thousand. UK ministers have continued to call for an independent investigation into the operations to disperse the sit-ins, and an investigation into the death of a British journalist who was shot by a sniper on 14 August. The Egyptian government’s Fact-Finding Commission is expected to present its findings to the President in November.