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Two Years after Mubarak’s Fall, Torture and Denial Continue Unabated in Morsi’s Egypt
Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English video
The Egyptian public and the international community were shocked last week by televised images of civilian Hamada Saber being dragged, stripped, and brutally beaten by police officers amid ongoing clashes between police and protesters in Cairo. They were further bewildered by Saber’s initial public assertions that the police had been helping him after he was attacked by protesters. He later disavowed that account, given the clear evidence of police abuse in the video. Although the initial statement was apparently coerced by police, many commentators accused Saber of cowardice for succumbing to such pressure. Two days later, the public was equally enraged by the story of opposition activist Mohamed el-Guindy, who was allegedly tortured to death by police. The real tragedy is not that these incidents occurred, but rather that the public seems unaware that many other Egyptians are subject to similar abuses every day. Rights groups report that at least 1,000 people have been detained over the past two weeks of protests, including more than 140 minors, and at least six cases of torture in police stations have been documented in recent months.
News coverage and analysis of the recent unrest has focused on political tensions, but police brutality and impunity remains a driving force behind the protests. When President Hosni Mubarak stepped down two years ago, Egyptians hoped that the event would mark the end of a shameful era of police abuses. However, torture, arbitrary detention, and targeted violence against activists continued under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and later under President Mohamed Morsi.
The Interior Ministry and the police remain completely unreformed and largely unaccountable, and there is still no systematic transitional justice program in place to punish excesses before and during the revolution. Despite the relentless efforts of rights groups to support the victims of police abuse and document their cases, only a few garner public attention. The media are still to a large extent controlled by the state; civil society organizations, particularly those advocating human rights and democracy, work in an extremely restrictive environment with very limited resources; and government officials either justify or deny police brutality. At a meeting with activists and scholars last week, Justice Minister Ahmed Mekky denied that systematic torture still takes place in Egypt and accused the media and rights groups of living off the fabrication of lies. When confronted with six documented cases of torture under Morsi, he remarked that the figure actually represented progress compared with the past, a response that led participants to walk out of the meeting.
It is no coincidence that in the same week, the Ministry of Justice submitted a new draft law on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The bill is far worse than the already restrictive law it would replace. Among other problematic provisions, it would eliminate the legal basis for many human rights organizations, as well as other groups that are registered as civil companies or law firms; curtail the operations of foreign organizations in Egypt; outlaw many core activities of civil society groups, such as polls, surveys, and focus groups; and put all activities and funding of NGOs under heavy government regulations and restrictions. In effect, the draft law would criminalize the promotion of human rights and democracy and gut the important watchdog function of civil society.
If this law is passed, already beleaguered human rights organizations will not be able to continue their much-needed work at this critical juncture in Egypt’s transition. The rights of those subjected to torture and police abuses will be neglected, and many more will suffer such mistreatment in the absence of civil society watchdogs.
Although Mubarak was toppled, the institutional structure of his regime is still very much in place, with the same mentality, organizational culture, and approach to silencing dissent, including through crackdowns on civil society. Indeed, it is alarming how eagerly the first democratically elected government in Egypt’s history has adopted the repressive tactics of its predecessor.
In January 2012, after many human rights organizations were raided by the SCAF government, there was a period in which the authorities were preparing to register the organizations in question. As part of this process, NGOs including Freedom House conducted meetings with the Ministry of Social Solidarity and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The discussions were dominated by government officials’ concerns about any proposed programs that addressed human rights abuses and the lack of transitional justice. Ironically, the Ministry of Social Solidarity’s view was that “advocacy leads to instability” and should not be the role performed by civil society.
Even today, the year-old legal cases against the raided NGOs are still in court, the organizations involved have still not been registered, and many other rights groups are awaiting their fate. This tactic of suppressing criticism rather than addressing the underlying problem is not confined to the NGO sector. It is a feature of the government’s approach to all of the challenges Egypt faces. Morsi’s administration, just like Mubarak’s, seems determined to sweep troublesome realities under the rug and silence any messenger who could disclose the ugly truth. It will be difficult to hide such problems for long, especially given the accessibility of social media and the ubiquity of citizen journalists. But in the absence of professional civil society organizations dedicated to upholding human rights and democracy, it will also be exceedingly difficult to hold authorities accountable and prevent further abuses.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.
This week marks the release of Freedom in the World 2013, the latest edition of an annual report on global political rights and civil liberties that Freedom House launched nearly 40 years ago. Of the 195 sovereign countries assessed in this year’s report, none was as important to the future direction of global freedom as Egypt, and none was as complex. Egypt, in fact, showed sufficient gains for the year to register an improvement from Not Free to Partly Free on the Freedom House scale. But as the overview narrative for the report notes, “Developments in Egypt encapsulated a pattern in which gains for freedom in the Middle East and North Africa were threatened by opposition from governments, security forces, ruling families, or religiously based political factions.”
Human rights groups are routinely tarred in today’s Egyptian media—including social media—as either “traitors supporting terrorism” or “mercenaries selling their services to the highest bidder.” They are being denounced for treachery despite their utter dedication and consistency in standing by the principles of human rights and democracy through all the regime changes of the past three years. The general phenomenon is sadly familiar, but the current assault is especially severe, taking new forms and gaining wider public support.
This past week marks the first anniversary of an unprecedented assault on civil society in the history of Egypt. The Egyptian authorities raided 11 offices of human rights and democracy NGOs, including Freedom House’s Office in Cairo. The raid came after several months of an aggressive smear campaign in the Egyptian media against foreign funded NGOs. The campaign particularly targeted local and international human rights defenders, defaming their activities, casting doubts on their intentions and accusing them of being a threat to national security.