Egypt | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Egypt's civil liberties rating declined from 5 to 6 because of increasing crackdowns on free expression and independent organizations, and mass trials of defendants before military courts.


International fear of terrorism following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States gave the government of Hosni Mubarak reason to increase its suppression of domestic opposition in 2001. Following the attacks, hundreds of civilians were rounded up and brought before military courts for alleged ties to militant Islamists. The crackdown signaled a departure from the relatively lenient official attitude toward groups such as the Gamaat Islamiya (Islamic Group), which has observed a ceasefire for the past three years.

Egypt gained formal independence from Great Britain in 1922, though the latter continued to exercise gradually dwindling control until its surrender of the Suez Canal Zone in 1956. Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser became head of state in 1954, after leading a coup that overthrew the monarchy, and ruled until his death in 1970. A constitution adopted in 1971 under Nasser's successor, Anwar al-Sadat, grants full executive powers to the president, who is nominated by the 454-member People's Assembly and elected to a six-year term in a national referendum. Sadat was assassinated by Islamic militants in 1981 for making peace with Israel. Under Mubarak, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) continues to dominate a tightly controlled political system.

In the early 1990s, the radical Gamaat Islamiya tapped into popular discontent with official corruption, high unemployment, and widespread poverty. In a campaign to establish an Islamic republic by force, it escalated attacks on police, Coptic Christians, and tourists. The government's response has been the brutal repression of all forms of political dissent. Thousands of suspected militants have been tried and jailed without due process, and more than 70 political prisoners have been executed under special military courts set up to handle terrorist offenses. The nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist movement dating from the 1920s that is officially outlawed but generally tolerated, has been a particular target because of its popularity.

Years of repression and a relentless military campaign have largely eradicated the threat of Islamist violence. In addition, ideological rifts and policy disputes within the major extremist groups, Gamaat Islamiya and Islamic Jihad, have left both groups divided and ineffective. Still, the government uses the threat of extremism to justify its intolerance of all opposition. Mubarak has kept emergency law in place since he came to power, and authorities use it frequently to crack down on democratic opposition as well as suspected Muslim extremists.

Still, Mubarak makes certain concessions to Islamists. He has distanced himself from, and even apologized for, Sadat's peace with Israel, effectively maintaining a "cold peace." He allows Muslim clerics to ban books deemed heretical or insulting to Islam, and he encourages rabidly anti-Jewish and anti-American sentiment in educational curricula and media. Articles denying the Holocaust and defending Hitler appear in even the most "moderate" newspapers. Mubarak has also sanctioned severe repression against Egyptian Christians, who are occasionally massacred by Islamists while security forces look the other way. Such appeasement of Islamists, whose anger is directed mainly at the United States and Israel, serves to bolster Mubarak's religious legitimacy and to deflect criticism of Egypt's economic and social ills away from the government.

While anti-American and anti-Jewish incitement flourish under Egypt's version of free speech, the voices of democratic opposition face increasing repression. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent sociologist and the founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, was sentenced to seven years' hard labor in 2001 for "defaming Egypt" and accepting unauthorized foreign funding. Ibrahim, a one-time friend and adviser to Mubarak, has criticized the government's failure to establish democracy, investigated and denounced discrimination against Egyptian Christians, advocated normalization with Israel, and monitored elections. Twenty-seven of his colleagues at the Ibn Khaldun Center received sentences ranging from one to five years, some suspended. In response to the international outcry from human rights groups over Ibrahim's arrest and sentencing, Mubarak asked, "Why is everyone so concerned about this stupid man?"

The economy continues to suffer from corruption and mismanagement. Unemployment is estimated at up to 20 percent and expected to rise as the job market fails to absorb hundreds of thousands of university graduates each year. Reforms aimed at liberalization, attracting foreign investment, and privatization have progressed slowly because of fears that restructuring might lead to layoffs. The British company Sainsbury invested $140 million to set up a supermarket chain in Egypt, but pulled out because of protests and boycotts by Egyptians after a rumor began in late 2000 that the head of the company was Jewish. Tourism and foreign investment have both suffered because of regional violence and an increasingly tense domestic political climate.

Many worry that the Egyptian government's antidemocratic behavior, concessions to Islam, and failure to address poverty work to promote Islamic fundamentalism. Mean while, public hostility over perceived U.S. support for Israel against Palestinians and a U.N. sanctions policy that is believed to have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children intensified as fighting between Palestinians and Israelis escalated during 2001. This hostility came into sharp focus after the September 11 attacks on America by terrorists apparently taking orders from Saudi-born terrorist-in-exile Osama bin Laden, and caused Mubarak to downplay his relationship with the United States. While the general consensus among Egyptians was that the United States should learn from the September 11 attacks and revise its policies in the Middle East, Mubarak denounced the attacks and pledged support for America's war on terrorism. However, he said that he would not commit troops to the effort, and he pushed for a stronger U.S. role in obtaining a just settlement for Palestinians.

Egypt continued to play the role of mediator in regional disputes. A Libyan-Egyptian initiative to end the civil war in Sudan continued, as did an Egyptian-Jordanian effort to bring Palestinians and Israelis to peace talks as the Palestinian uprising entered its second year.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Egyptians cannot change their government democratically. The constitution does not provide for a presidential election; instead, the elected People's Assembly nominates one candidate to be confirmed in a national referendum. The assembly, or lower house of parliament, has limited influence in economic, security, and foreign policy; almost all legislation is initiated by the executive. In July 2000, the constitutional court effectively invalidated the parliament elected in 1995 by ruling that the traditional system of interior ministry supervision of elections was unconstitutional, and that elections should be supervised by the judiciary. Consequently, general elections were held in three rounds during October and November 2000 so that a relatively small number of judges could supervise all polling stations. Despite this measure, the elections were regarded as neither free nor fair. One observer sent by Amnesty International was assaulted at a Cairo polling station, and there were credible reports that police used intimidation and roadblocks to keep people from voting. Eleven people died in election-related unrest.

The 264-member Shura Council, or upper house of parliament, has no legislative authority. Its role is restricted to issuing opinions on topics of its choosing. Two-thirds of its members are elected (one-third every three years) to terms of six years, and the president appoints one-third. Shura council elections in May and June 2001 were monitored by judges, which decreased vote rigging, but police harassed voters and blocked entry to polling stations. Riot police clashed with voters and used tear gas to disperse them.

The NDP dominates the People's Assembly, the Shura Council, and local government. Political opposition remains weak and ineffective. Requests to form political parties are routinely denied by the NDP-controlled Political Parties Committee (PPC), usually because their platforms are deemed unoriginal. The PPC has allowed the legal establishment of two political parties in the last 21 years, bringing the total to 16. In 2000, it froze the activities of the Islamist Labor Party in an apparent attempt to silence opposition prior to parliamentary elections. The popular Muslim Brotherhood may not compete in elections because of a ban on religion-based parties, but its members may run as independents. Muslim Brothers are frequently rounded up and arrested prior to elections. Still, they took 17 seats in the 2000 People's Assembly elections to become the largest opposition party in the assembly.

Emergency law has been renewed every three years since Mubarak took office. Its provisions allow for the arrest without charge of suspected opponents of the regime, as well as their families and acquaintances. The Anti-Terror Law criminalizes even suspected association with the Muslim Brotherhood. Torture, poor prison conditions, and lack of adequate food and medical care are pervasive in custody. In February 2001, Amnesty International issued a report describing torture and ill-treatment in Egyptian police stations and detention centers, including beatings, electric shocks, and threats of rape against detainees or their female relatives, as "widespread and indiscriminate." The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) issued a similar report in June, entitled "Detention in Egypt Is a Crime against Freedom and Personal Safety." In a January 2001 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture cited 32 cases of death in custody due to torture between 1997 and 1999. Victims may receive financial compensation through civil courts, but authorities are rarely held responsible for abuse of detainees.

The judiciary operates with limited independence. The president appoints both the general prosecutor and the head of the court of cassation, Egypt's highest court. Under a 1996 law, the president may refer civilian cases to military courts. Since 1992, suspected Gamaat Islamiya and Muslim Brotherhood activists have been tried in military courts, where due process rights are severely curtailed. On November 18, 94 civilians appeared before a military court, charged with having connections to armed Islamist groups. Several of the defendants claimed to have been tortured while held in incommunicado detention. Another 170 defendants, some of whom had reportedly been held for years without trial, were also due in court, and 22 men, including doctors, professors, and engineers, were referred by presidential decree to a military court on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. Amnesty International condemned the trials of civilians in military courts as a violation of international standards for a fair trial. There is no appellate process for verdicts by military courts; instead, verdicts are subject to review by other military judges and confirmed by the president. While Gamaat convicts have been executed frequently, no Muslim Brothers have been sentenced to death.

In May 2001, authorities arrested 52 allegedly gay men for immoral behavior and contempt of religion. One defendant, a 15-year-old, was tried separately because of his age and sentenced in September to three years' imprisonment. Fifty-one of the defendants were tried in state security courts, where verdicts may not be appealed. Twenty-three were convicted in November and sentenced to between one and five years' imprisonment. The remaining defendants were acquitted. Four more men were arrested on similar charges on November 10.

The Press Law, the Publications Law, the penal code, and libel laws restrict press freedom. Criticism of the president, the government, and foreign heads of state may result in fines or imprisonment. The government owns stock in the three major daily newspapers, and the president appoints their editors in chief. Opposition parties publish newspapers with government subsidies. The Labor Party newspaper al-Shaab, which was closed in 2000 along with Labor's activities, remained closed in 2001 despite a court ruling authorizing its distribution. The government's Supreme Press Council decided that as long as Labor activities are frozen, the paper may not print. The government monopolizes newspaper printing and distribution. Debate on a draft law that would ban "any document whose distribution is likely to harm the nation's national security or its military, political, diplomatic, social, or economic standing" was postponed indefinitely in March.

Egypt has seen a recent increase in the censorship of books considered insulting or blasphemous to Islam. In January, the ministry of culture banned three books and fired the officials deemed responsible for their publication. The EOHR reported that numerous books and publications were banned from the Cairo International Book Fair in January and February 2001for alleged indecency, and the writer Salah Abdel Mohsen, a novelist, was sentenced in January to three years' imprisonment-with-labor for "defaming Islam" and "disseminating extremist beliefs with the intention of causing religious upheaval." Feminist writer Nawal al-Saadawi was sued in April for apostasy by a conservative lawyer, who also called on the court to find her legally unfit to remain married to a Muslim. The case was thrown out in July.

Emergency law prohibits public meetings and election rallies. The sentencing of Saad Eddin Ibrahim and his colleagues from the Ibn Khaldun Center--which remains closed--is part of an ongoing campaign of harassment of nongovernmental organizations critical of the government. In 2000, the EOHR was refused legal registration and its secretary-general was charged with receiving unauthorized foreign funding. The Egyptian Bar Association, which was suspended in 1995 and then taken over by the government to limit Muslim Brotherhood influence, was allowed to elect its board in February 2001. The Muslim Brotherhood again won effective control of the union.

Women face discrimination in legal and social matters. Foreign-born husbands and children of Egyptian women are denied Egyptian citizenship and therefore lack the same rights to education and employment as Egyptians. A woman must have the permission of a male relative to travel abroad. A ban on female genital mutilation took effect in 1997, though it is reportedly not widely enforced. In 1999, the government repealed a law allowing a rapist to avoid punishment by marrying his victim. In a society that links a family's honor to the chastity of its women, a rape victim might consent to marry her attacker to avoid disgracing, or perhaps being murdered by, her family. "Honor killings" occur in both Muslim and Christian communities. A personal status law adopted in 2000 makes it easier for a woman to obtain a divorce and allows her to call upon the state to garnishee her husband's wages to help support her. In 2001, Muslim clerics banned surrogate motherhood

Islam is the state religion. The imams (spiritual leaders) of licensed mosques are chosen and paid by the government, which also monitors sermons for extremist or other unauthorized content. Most Egyptians are Sunni Muslim. Orthodox and other Coptic Christians constitute about ten percent of the population. The Jewish community reportedly numbers about 200, and there are small numbers of Shiite Muslims and Bahais.

Muslims have murdered, kidnapped, raped, and forcibly converted scores of Copts in recent years, and burned or vandalized Copt homes, businesses, and churches. The government has seized church-owned land, has closed churches, and frequently uses an Ottoman-era law to deny permission to build or repair churches. In February 2001, a court in southern Egypt acquitted all but four of nearly 100 people charged in connection with several days of riots that killed at least 21 Copts and one Muslim in December 1999 and January 2000. The harshest sentence handed down was ten years' imprisonment for one man, who was charged with accidental homicide rather than murder. The supreme court ordered a retrial, which began in November.

The 1976 law on labor unions sets numerous restrictions on the formation and operation of unions, and the conduct of union elections. The government-backed Egyptian Trade Union Federation is the only legal labor federation. Emergency law and the penal code prohibit strikes. However, journalists staged a sit-in at the Cairo Journalists Union in March to protest their suspension from an economic daily for demanding employee rights. A bill currently under consideration would maintain the prohibition on strikes and the lack of trade union pluralism.

Child labor is a serious problem. By law, children under 14 are not permitted to work, except in agriculture, where they may take seasonal jobs at 12 as long as they do not miss school. The law is routinely ignored, however. Human Rights Watch issued a report in January 2001 criticizing child labor practices. According to the report, more than one million children under age 12 work in Egypt's cotton fields, where they work 11-hour days, are exposed to dangerous pesticides, and may be beaten by employers. With poverty and unemployment pervasive in Egypt, many children are encouraged to forego school and earn money for their families.