Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Three Years Later: Egypt’s Rulers Compete to Violate Rights and Freedoms

This post was published originally on Horyetna Website

While today marks the third anniversary of the successful ouster of Mubarak, it also serves as a painful reminder of the failure to stop the violations of rights and freedoms in Egypt. After three years and two waves of uprisings, journalists are still jailed, media outlets shut, detainees tortured, vulnerable groups trafficked; peaceful protestors arrested arbitrarily, civil society organizations persecuted, civilians tried before  military courts… and  the list goes on and on. It is especially worrying to see that each Administration is so keen to break the record of its predecessor by committing more serious violations under nearly the same pretext; restoring security and maintaining stability.  

On 11th Feb 2011, Former Vice President and Former Spy Chief, Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had stepped down. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), backed by the people who chanted “the people and the army are one hand”, was all set to rule the country for a brief six month which miraculously extended to almost a year and half. Egyptians celebrated in the streets and squares then went home hopeful of a better future where their rights and freedoms are protected, respected and safeguarded by Egypt’s interim rulers. On March 9th, 2011, the same Egyptians who cheered for the military woke up to the bitter reality when the Military Police cracked down on a peaceful sit-in in Tahrir Square. Not only protestors were beaten, but also several were arrested. Detainees were tortured and women were subjected to the notorious dignity-stripping “virginity tests”.

A year later, when it was time to commemorate the first anniversary of Mubarak’s ouster, Egyptians were in no mood to celebrate. Too many people had been killed either by the Military or on its watch. The situation of freedoms and rights, particularly freedom of expression and assembly was worsening. 50 assaults on and detentions of journalists were reported by the Committee to Protest Journalists in November and December 2011 alone in a bid to stop them from reporting on the protests in Egypt. ” Reporters Without Borders ranked Egypt 166th in its press freedom index in 2011, a steep decline from 127th in 2010, because “the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ... dashed the hopes of democrats by continuing the Mubarak dictatorship’s practices.”[1] Moreover, sectarianism was on the rise and sexualized and gender based violence had become a tool used to intimidate women from taking part in the public sphere.


On 11th Feb 2013, the growing frustration and oppression of Egyptians under the deposed President, Muhammed Morsi gave them no reason to celebrate. They realized that the only noticeable change from 2011 to 2013 is the replacement of one dictator with an Islamist elected one.   The violations of rights and freedom took a new and more dangerous turn. By the end of 2012, Morsi’s government launched a fierce attack against independent media outlets that dared to criticize Morsi and his group, shutting down the privately-owned Dream TV. Muslim Brotherhood supporters filed legal actions against media personnel including the Egyptian Satirist Bassem Yousef and famous writer and editor Ibrahim Eissa, on allegations of “spreading wrong information”, “disrupting peace”, “insulting the President” and “insulting religion”. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights reported at least 600 defamation lawsuits were initiated under Morsi’s rule.[2]   The Committee to Protect Journalist documented at least 78 assaults against journalist from August 2012 until June 30th.

In order to tighten his grip on power, Morsi seemed unbothered by recurrent human rights abuses committed by his allies and supporters, the frequent impunity due to absence of a proper transitional justice mechanism or the indictment of 43 innocent NGO workers.  While the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly worked on a new constitution, the Constitutional Court was besieged and assaulted by Muslim Brotherhood supporters to prevent it from ruling on the legality of the Constituent Assembly. Furthermore, the President’s constitutional declaration on November 21st, 2012 not only immunized himself against the judiciary but also undermined the very notion of the rule of law and accountability.  When people marched to protest Morsi’s power grab, his supporters attacked them and reportedly tortured them inside the Presidential palace.

To maintain the support he receives from his extremist Islamists, Morsi turned a blind eye to hate speech against Jews, Christians and Shiia. As a result, Copts were attacked in Khosous and Borj Al Arab  and were forced to leave their homes. Later in 2013, Four Shiia Muslims were lynched in Giza by an angry Islamist mob.

An entire year of fear, violence, military trials for civilians and restrictions of freedom of association and union led to Rebellion. One would expect a different trajectory towards rights and freedoms under the post-June 30th interim government, yet all the signs indicate the otherwise.

On Feb 11th, 2014, Egypt’s rulers have proved to be anything but different from their predecessors in dealing with rights and freedom. Since June 30th, the Egyptian authorities adopted a more security-oriented approach to systemically silence any opposition or critique.

A shameful record of violations committed by the interim authorities includes the shutting down of media outlets, prosecution of journalists, arbitrary arrest of peaceful protestors, excessive use of force to disperse protests, defamation campaign against NGOs and prominent activists, exclusion of representative groups from the political process, incitement and above all government-triggered polarization.

On one hand, Egyptians have realized that regardless of the form of regime, they all performed poorly on the rights and freedoms front. Driven by their sense of insecurity, many are willing not only to accept constrained freedoms but also to tolerate and sometimes justify flagrant infringement on fundamental rights. In this charged political  climate, the majority of Egyptians care less about human rights and more for stability and security, even if temporary.

The newly-adopted constitution provides a solid framework for rights and freedoms. Nonetheless, the Egyptian transitional authorities seem reluctant to put its provisions into effect. In December 2013, four Aljazeera journalists were arrested and charged with “attempting to weaken the state's status, harming the national interest of the country, disrupting national security, instilling fear among the people, damaging the public interest, and possession of communication, filming, broadcast, video transmission equipment without permit from the concerned authorities”. If the constitutional provisions were applied, they would’ve been acquitted on the same day. Now they together with another sixteen allegedly Aljazeera journalists are standing trial before the Criminal Court. One would expect the Egyptian public and media to condemn the jailing of journalists even if they disagree with their opinion since this is what freedoms of expression, media and opinion are all about. With few exceptions, many seemed unsympathetic with their ordeal.   

When people took to the streets on Jan 25th, “freedom” was their main demand. Forced to go back to the street again on June 30th, Egyptians reiterated their need for freedom. Watching the events unfold in Egypt, I become more concerned about the future of rights and freedoms amidst anger and vengeance.  It is evident that many Egyptians are growing more satisfied with the trigger-happy security apparatus so long the bullets hit the “other camp”. They are calling for and massively supporting a General, now Field Marshal, for President even though he represents the very institution that has blood on its hands. As I am giving up on the interim government to do the right thing, I am looking forward for the next one to  be less about national security and more about freedom, bread and social justice.

[1] Human Rights Watch - Egypt: A Year of Attacks on Freedom of Expression http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/02/11/egypt-year-attacks-free-expression
[2] CPJ: On the Divide: Press Freedom at Risk in Egypt, see https://cpj.org/reports/2013/08/on-divide-egypt-press-freedom-morsi.php

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