A dark season for human rights in Egypt

Every year, 3 May is the date that commemorates World Press Freedom Day. The anniversary was promoted by the UN General Assembly in December 1993 as an opportunity to celebrate “the fundamental principles of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession”.[i] This year’s theme (‘Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law’) is meant to advocate for the transparency of political processes and the independency of judicial systems to ensure legal guarantees for press freedom. This celebration is an opportunity to spotlight the state of press freedom in Egypt. According to the national report issued by Reporters Without Borders, the country has become “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists”, scoring 161 out of 180 in 2018 world ranking. The current report reveals the growing deterioration of press freedom and human rights in the country, documenting the case of 32 journalists currently in custody in Egypt, a figure that is probably higher given the cases of imprisoned journalists that are not been officially confirmed.

Across the last years, hundreds of independent media have seen their website shut down, including Mada Masr (now reopen). According to the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, the total number of blocked websites in February 2018 was 496, of which 98 were news sites. This is the result of a series of legislation changes that have been tailored against dissent voices under the pretext of fighting terrorism and that have resulted in an unprecedented expansion of the same notion of ‘terrorism’. In August 2015, the president Al-Sisi enacted a new controversial counter-terrorism law (n° 95/2015), according to which a terrorist act is defined as “any use of force or violence or threat or terrorizing that aims, among other things to disrupt general order or endanger the safety, interests or security of society; harm individual liberties or rights; harm national unity, peace, security, the environment or buildings or property; prevent or hinder public authorities, judicial bodies, government facilities, and others from carrying out all or part of their work and activity”.[ii] This all-encompassing definition is set to render any act of dissent a potential crime of terrorism, one that can lead to imprisonment and heavy sentences, including death penalty. In addition, the act considers publishing or diffusing any news about ‘terrorism’ coming from sources alternatives to the Ministry of Defence an offense that can be fined until 500,000 Egyptian pounds.

In point of fact, the adoption of the “Terrorist Entities Act”, passed earlier in February 2018, had paved the way to the formalization of this loose definition of terrorism. In a joint statement issued on 28 February 2015, a number of human rights organizations, such as the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, the Human Rights Centre for the Assistance of Prisoners and many others had emphasized the ease with which human rights groups, political parties and NGOs, can be ascribed to the overarching category of “terrorist entity”. According to their joint statement, “the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom to form civic associations and political parties, and freedom of the press, opinion, and expression are undermined”.

The enactment of the counter-terrorism law had immediate effects, producing a dramatic increase of death penalty sentences.[iii] International and local media and human rights groups have reported that at least 354 death sentences have been issued since the beginning of 2015.[iv] Recently, prosecutors have requested a death sentence for the freelance photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zaid, alias Shawkan, during a mass trial in which more than 700 defendants were accused. Abu Zaid was arrested in August 2013 while he was covering, under the assignment of the British agency Demotix, the clashes of Rabaa al-Adawiya Square between Egyptian security forces and the supporters of President Mohamed Morsi.[v] A few days ago, the jailed photojournalist has been awarded the 2018 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize, for “his courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression”. This decision provoked strong reactions from the Egyptian authorities, which accused UNESCO of taking a political stance and “urged them to keep it focus on culture and science”.[vi]

Mahmoud Abou Zaid, alias Shawkan. Reporters sans frontières, April 9, 2018.

Along with detention, torture, forced disappearances and condemnations, the government adopts various measures, among which travel bans and asset freezes, to stifle dissent voices and to prevent human rights defenders and journalists from doing their work. The report published by the independent platform Daftar Ahwal documents 554 cases of travel ban and banned entry between 11 February 2011 and 20 February 2016, a period marked by a succession of figures in presidency: SCAF between 11 February 2011 and 30 June 2012; Mohamed Morsi between 30 June 2012 and 3 July 2013; Adly Mansour between 3 July 2013 and 8 June 2014; Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi: between 8 June 2013 and 20 February 2016. It is worth mentioning that while travel bans issued by Adly Mansour’s government (279 cases) are mostly directed against foreigners, Al-Sisi issued 178 travel bans against Egyptians out of 218 cases.[vii] Although comprehensive data are available only until February 2016, new cases of journalists, activists and human rights defenders banned from travelling are continuously reported (see Hossam Bahgat, and Gamal Eid, lawyer and director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information in February 2016; Mozn Hassan, executive director of the Nazra for Feminist Studies, in June 2016; Ismail Alexandrani, journalist and researcher, in November 2016).

Human rights defenders, along with their organisations, are also targeted by repressive measures like freezing assets. In 2017, prominent rights activists and consequently their respective organizations, such as Mozn Hassan and her women’s group Nazra, Mohammed Zaraa and Atef Hafez, of the Arab Organisation for Criminal Reform, just to mention a few, saw their assets frozen with allegations of having illegally obtained foreign funds in order to destabilise the country.[viii] Asset freezes affect heavily such organizations by undermining their very possibility to exist, making it impossible leasing an office or paying workers’ wages. As a result, several of them have decided to close their offices and move abroad in order to be able to continue to work, as occurred for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. The interviews with young Egyptian activists we are carrying out in the framework of the project “Globally Sensitive” are confirming how dangerous can be human rights advocacy in Egypt today. If possible, the ratification of the new “Nongovernmental Organizations Law” on May 2017 made the situation even worse. A new “National Authority for the Regulation of Nongovernmental Foreign Organizations” was created, in order to preside over NGOs that receive foreign funding, control their activities and influence procedures and decisions, such as internal elections, programmes and agendas. Their license to operate in Egypt can be easily cancelled whenever activities are deemed to be harmful to national security or public order. A few days after the ratification of the NGOs law, eight local and international nongovernmental organizations issued a statement expressing their concern about the repression introduced by the new dispositions and declaring that “restricting civil society to this degree eliminates a path for Egyptian citizens to peacefully express dissent, hold the government accountable for human rights violations, and access human development initiatives at a time of economic hardship”[ix].

The King is dead, long live the King!

The results of last presidential elections don’t make hoping for a substantial political change and subsequently an improvement of human rights situation. On April 2, 2018, the results of the Egyptian presidential elections are finally announced. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi wins by obtaining 97.06% of the share (21.835.387) against 2.92% (656.534) of votes for the Ghad Party candidate, Mousa Mostafa Mousa. So doing, the overwhelming majority of Egyptians give Al-Sisi the legitimation to continue ruling the country in the same way he has been doing since 2014. This result does not seem to astonish neither Egyptian nor foreign observers, who follow attentively the state of current political affairs in Egypt. Indeed, since the outset of 2018 presidential campaign early this year, it was clear that the race had nothing making it look equal and fair. The confirmation came early, when the candidates who had stepped forward to oppose Al-Sisi were either arrested or forced to withdraw from the campaign. It was the case of Sami Anan, a former army General, who was arrested in January after declaring his intention to run in 2018 presidential elections.[x] Concurrently, Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer, announced his withdrawn from the presidential elections due to violations and unfair competition.[xi] A few days earlier, Mohamed Anwar Sadat, the nephew of the former president, had made a similar statement condemning “the absence of a clear guarantee for the integrity and impartiality of the competition”.[xii] By eliminating systematically any potential successful candidate, Al-Sisi guaranteed himself an easy result, while the institutional make-up was preserved by the candidacy of Mousa Mostafa Mousa, head of the Ghad Party, who stepped in 15 minutes before the deadline. Many are those who consider his candidacy an attempt to provide a veneer of credibility to the vote. In point of fact, he publicly featured himself as a fervent supporter of Al-Sisi to the extent that his Facebook’s cover photo carries Al-Sisi’s campaign picture.[xiii]

Screenshot of the cover photo from Moussa Mostafa Moussa’s Facebook page (Twitter, January 23, 2018)

In this stifled electoral political environment, restrictions on press freedom have been intensified. Journalists and independent media have paid the highest price, being the target of a wide variety of hurdles to muzzle their voices. On April 6, the Washington-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) denounced the detention of three Egyptian journalists: Adel Eissa, a freelance photojournalist; Ahmed Abdel Gawad, a photographer working with El-Shorouk daily newspaper; and the blogger Mohamed Ibrahim. According to Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa coordinator, “censoring journalists shows the fragility of the Egyptian authorities, rather than strength”.[xiv] Two days earlier, on April 4, the Committee had condemned the retaliatory measures against the Egyptian independent news website Masr al-Arabia and the detention of his editor-in-chief, Adel Sabri. Sabri, who had been arrested on April 1st, was accused of violating election regulations. Moreover, Masr al-Arabia was charged of diffusing “fake news” and fined for LE 150.000 for republishing a New York Times article in which the illegal electoral means of the regime were unveiled: among others, the distribution of food boxes, a payment ranging from $3 to $9 for each vote, free journeys to Mecca etc.[xv]

It is true that Egypt is currently facing challenges in combating terrorism and violent extremism (see the suicide bombings at Christian churches in Tanta and Alexandria during Palm Sunday in 2017; the terrorist attack against the Sufi al-Rawda mosque in November 2017; the bomb attack to police forces in North Sinai in January 2018, etc.),[xvi] a fact that provides a good argument to the government to keep the country under the state of emergency (renewed once again in April 2018). However, muzzling civil society and independent media in the name of combating terrorism is not the solution. Civil society and media are hardly working for guaranteeing the respect of human rights and contributing to the social change which is on-going in the country. As one of our interlocutors argued, “the authoritarian and repressive methods implemented by the Egyptian government are archaic, out of time, and muzzling dissent can only lead to further instability”.


[i] https://en.unesco.org/commemorations/worldpressfreedomday

[ii] Human Rights Watch, “Egypt: Counterterrorism Law Erodes Basic Rights. Broad ‘Terrorist Acts’ List May Criminalize Civil Disobedience”, August 19, 2015: https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/08/19/egypt-counterterrorism-law-erodes-basic-rights.

[iii] Egypt Today staff, “List: crimes punishable by death penalty”, Egypt Today, January 24, 2018: https://www.egypttoday.com/Article/2/40968/List-Crimes-punishable-by-death-penalty

[iv] Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, “Death Penalty Database: Egypt”. https://www.deathpenaltyworldwide.org/country-search-post.cfm?country=Egypt#f9-2

[v] Reporters without borders. 2018. “Egyptian prosecutors seek death sentence for photographer”, March 7, 2018: https://rsf.org/en/news/egyptian-prosecutors-seek-death-sentence-photographer

[vi] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/jailed-egyptian-photographer-wins-unesco-press-freedom-prize/2018/04/23/f12144e0-46dd-11e8-8082-105a446d19b8_story.html?utm_term=.c387c6086481

[vii] Pesha Magid. 2016. “Understanding 554 travel bans since 2011”. June 28. https://www.madamasr.com/en/2016/06/28/feature/politics/understanding-554-travel-bans-since-2011/

[viii] “Egypt court ruling upholds decision to freeze assets of women’s rights activists”, The Guardian, 12 January 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/jan/12/egypt-court-ruling-upholds-decision-freeze-assets-womens-rights-activists; Civic Freedom Monitor : Egypt. http://www.icnl.org/research/monitor/egypt.html

[ix] Human Rights Watch. 2017. “Egypt: new law will crush civil society. Many groups likely to close despite growing need for service”. 2 June. https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/06/02/egypt-new-law-will-crush-civil-society; Mamdouh R. 2017. “Sisi approves NGO law over 6 months after it receives parliament approval”. Mada Masr. 29 May. https://www.madamasr.com/en/2017/05/29/feature/politics/sisi-approves-ngo-law-over-6-months-after-it-receives-parliaments-approval/

[x] Michaelson R. 2018. “Egypt arrests ex-general who stood for election against Sisi”. The Guardian, 23 January. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/23/former-egyptian-general-arrested-by-military-after-announcing-presidential-bid-sami-anan

[xi] “Khaled Ali withdraws from presidential race, citing government violations”. Madamasr, 24 Januray. https://www.madamasr.com/en/2018/01/24/news/u/khaled-ali-withdraws-from-2018-presidential-race-citing-government-violations-and-unfair-competition/

[xii] “Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat will not run for presidency slams Egypt’s presidential elections”. Egyptian Streets, 15 January. https://egyptianstreets.com/2018/01/15/mohamed-anwar-al-sadat-will-not-run-for-presidency-slams-egypts-presidential-elections/

[xiii] Ibrahim A. 2018. “Egypt ‘election’: is Mousa Mostafa Mousa a ‘puppet’ of Sisi?”. El-Jazeera, 23 March. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/03/egypt-election-mousa-mostafa-mousa-puppet-sisi-180322114130986.html

[xiv] Committee to Protect Journalists. 2018a “Egypt arrests three local journalists in 24 hours”, 6 April. https://cpj.org/2018/04/egypt-arrests-3-local-journalists-in-24-hours.php

[xv] Walsh D., Youssef Nour. 2018. “For as little as $3 a vote, Egyptians trudge to elections stations”. New York Times, 27 March. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/27/world/middleeast/egypt-election-sisi.html; Mada Masr. 2018. “Media regulator penalizes news outlets over election coverage”. 2 April. https://www.madamasr.com/en/2018/04/02/news/u/media-regulator-penalizes-news-outlets-over-election-coverage/ ; Committee to Protect Journalists. 2018b. “Egypt raids independent website, arrests editor over election coverage”. 4 April. https://cpj.org/2018/04/egypt-raids-independent-website-arrests-editor-ove.php

[xvi] Michaelson R. 2017. “Egypt: Isis claims responsibility for Coptic church bombings”, The Guardian, 9 April. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/09/egypt-coptic-church-bombing-death-toll-rises-tanta-cairo; “Police officer killed, 4 conscripts injured, in N. Sinai bomb attacks, 17 January 2018 http://www.egyptindependent.com/police-officer-killed-4-conscripts-injured-in-n-sinai-bomb-attack/

How to cite this blog post:
Diana, C. (2018) “A Dark Season for Human Rights in Egypt”. Available at: https://globallysens.hypotheses.org/ (Accessed [date]).

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