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Concern Grows About Human Rights in Egypt

  • Mohamed Elshinnawi

Egyptian riot police fire tear gas towards protesters during clashes in Cairo, April 6, 2013.

Egyptian riot police fire tear gas towards protesters during clashes in Cairo, April 6, 2013.

Among the many reasons why Egyptians rose up against their government more than two years ago were widespread allegations of police brutality and human rights violations.

Now, with a new popularly elected government in place in Cairo, the allegations continue almost on a daily basis, ranging from ill treatment of citizens on the street to the killing of anti-government protesters. And when those allegations finally reach a courtroom, government critics say the result is often an acquittal or light jail sentence for the perpetrators.

Recently, 22 human rights organizations operating in Egypt issued a joint statement condemning what they say is a lack of respect for international human rights standards, especially when it comes to freedom of association.

The statement also accused the government of suppressing the ability of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to function freely by placing "arbitrary restrictions on financial resources" from foreign sources.

Freedom House, a U.S.-based independent advocacy organization, also raised the issue, citing a proposed law under consideration by Shura Council, the upper house of the Egyptian parliament. Freedom House said the law would require any NGO operating in Egypt to get advance government permission for foreign donations, whatever the source.

If approved, the law has the potential to drive most, if not all, foreign NGOs out of the country, Freedom House said.

The U.S. State Department also has expressed concerns about how the Egyptian government investigates and deals with alleged human rights violations.

"People should be able to exercise their universal rights peacefully," State Department spokesperson Patrick Ventrell said recently, "and the government of Egypt should respond in a way that respects human rights and should conduct any investigation or response in a thorough, credible, and independent way."

Human rights under siege

Human rights organizations in Egypt are also warning that the government of President Mohamed Morsi has begun a campaign to restrict freedom of the press by prosecuting journalists on dubious charges. Morsi’s office denies the accusation, noting that Egyptian prosecutors act independently of the president’s office.

"The presidency underlines its complete respect for freedom of the expression and the press," says statement issued by Morsi’s office.

Heba Morayef, the Egypt director for Human Rights Watch, begs to differ.

"Morsi refused to release a fact-finding committee’s report that would be the first official acknowledgment of police responsibility for violence against protesters," Morayef said during a recent panel discussion at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based research organization.

Morayef added that it has been clear for several months now that Morsi’s government lacks the political will to begin needed reforms or improve government accountability.

Appearing with Morayef at the Atlantic Council discussion was Tarek Radwan, an associate director of the organization. He also said needed reforms were unlikely because Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood party believes serious structural reforms would undercut its political strength.

Coptic Christians run inside the main cathedral in Cairo as police fire tear gas during clashes with Muslims standing outside the cathedral April 7, 2013.

Coptic Christians run inside the main cathedral in Cairo as police fire tear gas during clashes with Muslims standing outside the cathedral April 7, 2013.

External pressure

In recent days, the troubles in Egypt took a new turn when Muslims and Coptic Christians clashed in central Cairo after a funeral service for four Copts killed in an earlier confrontation with Muslims. The latest clashes on Sunday resulted in another person killed and 80 injured.

Morsi's government had promised to protect the rights of Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 84 million people. Following the latest violence, Morsi telephoned Coptic Pope Tawadros II and told him he considered any attack on Cairo's Coptic cathedral "an attack on me."

Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, happened to be visiting Cairo at the time of the latest unrest and called on Morsi's office to urge the security forces to control the violence.

Despite the ongoing troubles, Egypt experts such as Morayef believe there is a window of opportunity to improve the human rights and rule of law situation in the country.

"The opportunity for leverage is now, while the Morsi government is still outward looking," Morayef said at the Atlantic Council discussion.

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