Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi should prioritize reforms to end serious human rights violations during his second term, Human Rights Watch said.
Al-Sisi won the April 2, 2018 election with 97 percent of the votes cast following months of intimidation and arrests of other potential candidates. His only challenger, Mousa Mostafa Mousa, had supported al-Sisi’s campaign until the day before registering as a candidate. Human Rights Watch and 13 other rights organizations concluded before the election that it lacked the minimum requirements for free and fair elections.
“Al-Sisi’s disdain for his citizens’ most basic rights marked his re-election campaign,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “In his final term in office, as mandated by the constitution, al-Sisi should change course and leave a positive legacy instead of being remembered as an autocrat who oversaw a human rights crisis.”
Al-Sisi effectively took power in July 2013 and became president in June 2014. His flagrant disregard for human rights has led the country into its worst rights and political crisis in decades. Rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have documented a host of serious abuses by the police and National Security Agency (NSA), the leading internal security force under the Interior Ministry, including routine and widespread torture of detainees.
Prosecutions, travel bans, and asset freezes against human rights defenders, in addition to repressive new legislation, threaten to effectively eradicate the country’s once-robust independent organizations. The government has targeted sexual and gender minorities for heavy-handed repression, with more than 230 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people prosecuted on “debauchery” charges.
The security and human rights situation in North Sinai has deteriorated under the Egyptian military’s abusive counterterrorism campaign, most likely including extrajudicial killings.
Egypt’s allies such as the United States, United Kingdom, France, and the European Union, should urge al-Sisi to carry out the following reforms:
End the Crackdown on Independent Groups; Repeal the 2017 NGO Law
Egypt has carried out a crackdown almost unparalleled in Egypt’s history on nongovernmental organizations and activists during al-Sisi’s tenure. A May 2017 NGO law will effectively eradicate independent groups, and most leading rights organizations and activists have been under continuous threat of imprisonment in protracted prosecutions in the so-called “foreign funding case.”
Al-Sisi and the Egyptian parliament should immediately repeal the nongovernmental organisation law, and draft a new one through a free and transparent dialogue with independent groups. The Social Solidarity Ministry should lead these efforts, rather than security agencies that secretly drafted the 2017 law.
The government should end the foreign funding prosecutions and lift arbitrary travel bans and asset freezes to comply with its international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.
While Egypt faces security threats, a vibrant and powerful civil society is an essential partner in curbing violent extremism. In addition, international partners providing funding cannot carry out certain development plans without civil society partners. A-Sisi should focus on curbing violent groups and not peaceful activists.
The government should also end repression of workers, at least 180 of whom were arrested or prosecuted during 2016 and 2017. Al-Sisi frequently justifies closing political space by claiming he needs to prioritize economic reform. But solid economic reform cannot succeed without freedom for workers to mobilize.
End Enforced Disappearances, Torture, Police Impunity
Since al-Sisi took power in 2013, the authorities have reconstituted and expanded the repressive instruments that defined the pre-2011 uprising era. Enforced disappearances, mistreatment in prisons, widespread torture, and probable extrajudicial killings notably increased after March 2015, when al-Sisi appointed Interior Minister Magdy Abd al-Ghaffar.
Human Rights Watch has documented the systematic use of torture by the Egyptian police and National Security officers to force detainees to confess or divulge information, or as punishment. Only a handful of the hundreds of torture cases since 2013 have resulted in prosecutions, and few of those ended with convictions.
No single official or member of the security forces was investigated or prosecuted nearly five years after the mass killings of the largely peaceful protesters in the Rab’a Square in Cairo, where supporters of former President Mohamed Morsy gathered for weeks. At least 817 protesters were killed in one day, most likely a crime against humanity.
Ending police impunity, investigating abuses, and stopping enforced disappearances and torture should be at the forefront of al-Sisi’s priorities in his second term. As a start, he should immediately order the Interior Ministry to forbid detaining anyone in National Security offices or anywhere other than officially registered police stations and prisons.
Three months after Human Rights Watch released a report on torture in Egypt in September 2017, Diaa Rashwan, the State Information Service director, announced that the prosecutor general had appointed a judge to investigate the report’s findings. Rashwan also said that the prosecutor general established a new unit in his office to handle complaints about human rights violations.
But no information has been provided about how victims, lawyers, and activists can submit complaints or how the unit will handle them. The prosecutor general and the Justice Ministry should immediately begin serious and transparent investigations into these abuses.
Al-Sisi should also end the state of emergency that he imposed in April 2017 and has extended since then. Egyptians have enjoyed only brief respites without a state of emergency in the past 37 years, and it is a major reason for the pervasive abuses by security forces. Western allies should halt all security assistance and weapons transfers that could be used in internal repression until the government carries out serious reforms.
Release Political Prisoners and Journalists; Expand Freedom of Expression
Under al-Sisi’s government, the number of detained peaceful dissidents has grown to the tens of thousands. At least 20 journalists are in detention. Al-Sisi’s government should review the status of all those detained and release thousands of detainees who were prosecuted for peaceful activism. The government should revise the restrictive 2013 protest law to bar locking up peaceful protesters practicing their constitutional rights.
Releasing unjustly detained people could be one important step toward reconciliation to end the country’s political and rights crisis.
The abusive atmosphere during al-Sisi’s first term has been coupled with special concerns for the rights of minorities. Coptic Christians, an estimated 10 percent of the Egyptian population and historically a target of widespread legal and social discrimination, have been the victims of increasing sectarian attacks since al-Sisi rose to power. In a number of cases, Human Rights Watch has documented that Interior Ministry officials and prosecutors did not properly investigate or bring charges for these attacks.
Egyptian authorities have also relentlessly persecuted LGBT people, with the Interior Ministry tracking them down and entrapping them through dating apps and social media. Since al-Sisi took power, about 230 people have been prosecuted and more than 50 sentenced to prison for “debauchery.” Some were subjected to forced anal exams, a form of torture.
Al-Sisi should fulfill his responsibilities as president of all Egyptians with urgent steps to protect religious, gender, and sexual minorities. He should support the development of a comprehensive legal framework to protect minorities and criminalize all discrimination and persecution against them.
“Egypt’s international allies should pressure the Egyptian government to end its abusive policies instead of accepting al-Sisi’s autocracy as ‘the new normal,’” Whitson said.