Egypt | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


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Freedom Rating
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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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The Egyptian government continued to extensively suppress internal dissent in 2002, drawing broad support from an international community increasingly tolerant of extrajudicial measures to combat terrorism and to silence opposition to the peace process with Israel and the looming war with Iraq. The imprisonment of prominent sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim in July evoked unprecedented international criticism, though an appeals court overturned his conviction in December.

Egypt formally gained independence from Great Britain in 1922 and acquired full sovereignty following the end of World War II. After leading a coup that overthrew the monarchy in 1954, Col. Gamel Abdel Nasser established a repressive police state, which he ruled until his death in 1970. The constitution adopted in 1971 under his successor, Anwar al-Sadat, established a strong presidential political system with nominal guarantees for most political and civil rights that were not fully protected in practice. Following the assassination of Sadat in 1981, Hosni Mubarak became president and declared a state of emergency, which he has since renewed every three years (most recently in June 2000). The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) dominates the tightly controlled political system.

In the early 1990s, Islamic fundamentalist groups launched a violent campaign against police, Coptic Christians, and tourists, prompting the government to jail thousands of suspected dissidents and crack down on political dissent. Although the armed infrastructure of Egyptian Islamist groups was largely eradicated by 1998, the government continued to steadily retract political and civil liberties, while seeking to bolster its religious legitimacy by imposing Sharia (Islamic law) in some areas of Egyptian public life, banning books and films considered to be irreverent toward Islam, and declining to adequately investigate attacks by Islamist extremists against Coptic Christians. Mubarak has also distanced himself from Israel, permitted rabidly anti-Jewish and anti-American sentiments to be expressed in educational curricula and the state-run media, and has increasingly adopted inflammatory rhetoric himself.

The government has been unable to address the underlying socioeconomic problems that appear to fuel Islamist militancy, particularly high unemployment among college graduates, which has created a class of "educated poor," and endemic corruption. Since the September 11 attacks on the United State, Egypt's four principal sources of foreign exchange earnings--tourism revenue, oil sales, Suez Canal receipts, and expatriate remittances--have all declined and foreign direct investment has fallen. It has consequently been difficult for the government to achieve its proclaimed goal of generating 800,000 jobs annually.

Economic reforms needed to attract foreign investment have progressed slowly because of fears that austerity measures will increase demands for more representative and accountable government institutions. During his visit to the United States in March 2002, Mubarak sought to persuade the Bush administration to begin free trade negotiations with Egypt. He was told that this would be difficult because of his government's failure to undertake reforms in areas such as intellectual property protection, customs regulations, money laundering, taxation, and privatization.

High-profile efforts by the government to root out corruption resulted in arrests or convictions of several prominent figures in 2002, including former ministers of finance and tourism, the former governor of Giza, a television news director, and the sitting deputy agriculture minister, but critics allege that the anticorruption campaign has been politically motivated.

Critics argue that the government's assault on political and civil rights in recent years has encouraged support for radical extremist groups by eliminating peaceful channels of political expression. Efforts in recent years to neutralize the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood movement have coincided with the growth of small or previously unknown radical Islamist groups, most notably Al-Waad (The Promise), whose members have been arrested for allegedly soliciting donations on behalf of the Palestinian Hamas organization and sending operatives to Chechnya to fight against Russian forces. In April, the authorities arrested dozens of members of Hizb al-Tahrir (The Liberation Party), a fundamentalist group that was crushed in the 1970s but is now enjoying a resurgence.

Since the September 11 attacks, Western governments have been tolerant of the government's crackdown on Islamists. Although European courts had long been unwilling to approve the extradition of expatriate Egyptians on the basis of evidence gathered by Cairo's intelligence services, two key Islamic Jihad figures were deported by Sweden in December 2001. However, the regime's continued efforts to silence the liberal opposition have drawn criticism.

In July 2002, the Supreme State Security Court sentenced the founder and director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, to seven years in prison on charges that included spreading false information that damages Egypt's reputation abroad and receiving foreign funds without authorization (a $250,000 grant from the European Union to raise voter awareness and monitor the 2000 parliamentary elections). The authorities closed the Ibn Khaldun Center and the Hoda Association, an affiliated organization promoting voting rights for women, and arrested Ibrahim and most of his staff in June 2000. Although the initial conviction of Ibrahim and 27 of his colleagues in May 2001 was overturned on procedural grounds, the second trial was also heavily flawed.

On August 15, the White House announced that it was not granting Egypt any additional foreign aid beyond the $2 billion per year stipulated by the Camp David Accords, a decision that media leaks by Bush administration officials indicated was linked to the verdict in Ibrahim's trial. Ibrahim was freed after the judiciary overturned his conviction in December 2002, but at year's end he was still barred from leaving the country for medical treatment.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Egyptians cannot change their government democratically. As a result of government restrictions on the licensing of political parties, state control over the audiovisual media, and systemic irregularities in the electoral process, the 454-seat People's Assembly, or lower house of parliament, is dominated by the ruling NDP, as is the upper house, the Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura), which is two-thirds elected and functions only in an advisory capacity.

There is no competitive process for the election of the Egyptian president; the public is entitled only to confirm in a national referendum the candidate nominated by the People's Assembly for a six-year term. The assembly has limited influence on government policy, and almost all legislation is initiated by the executive. The president directly appoints the prime minister, the cabinet, and the governors of Egypt's 26 provinces.

Political opposition in Egypt remains weak and ineffective. The NDP-controlled Political Parties Committee (PPC) has allowed the legal establishment of only two new political parties in the last 21 years. A ban on religious parties prevents the Muslim Brotherhood and other mainstream Islamists from organizing politically, though they may compete in elections as independents or members of secular parties.

Although a ruling by the Constitutional Court brought parliamentary elections under the supervision of the judiciary for the first time in 2000, the authorities compensated for the lack of vote rigging by arresting hundreds of Brotherhood members in the weeks prior to the election and deploying security forces outside the polls to obstruct voting in pro-opposition districts, sparking clashes that left 10 people dead and dozens injured (including an observer from Amnesty International). Nevertheless, the movement captured 17 seats, becoming the largest parliamentary opposition bloc.

In April 2002, the NDP won around 97 percent of contested seats in municipal elections. During a two-seat parliamentary by-election in the Ramla district of Alexandria in June, which witnessed a fierce electoral campaign between NDP and Brotherhood candidates, security forces blocked voters in pro-Islamist neighborhoods from entering the polls. Many who attempted to push their way past the barricades were later tried on charges of disturbing the peace and attacking government employees.

The Emergency Law restricts many basic rights. Its provisions allow for the arrest without charge and prolonged pretrial detention of suspects, as well as their families and acquaintances. Torture and inadequate food and medical care are pervasive in custody. In November 2002, Amnesty International published a report stating that "everyone taken into detention in Egypt is at risk of torture." The authorities rarely investigate the abuse of detainees (unless they die in custody) or provide compensation to victims or their families.

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) estimates that there are approximately 13,000 to 16,000 people detained without charge on suspicion of security or political offenses, as well as several thousand who have been convicted and are serving sentences on such charges. An Amnesty International fact-finding delegation that visited the country in the fall of 2002 was denied access to prisoners.

The civilian judiciary is considered to be relatively competent, impartial and independent of the executive branch. However, political and security cases are usually placed under the jurisdiction of either the military courts or the State Security Emergency Courts, both of which answer directly to the president and deny defendants many constitutional protections.

The State Security Emergency Courts are empowered to try defendants charged with violating decrees promulgated under the Emergency Law, as well as ordinary criminal cases that the president places under their jurisdiction. Although judges are usually selected from the civilian judiciary, they are appointed directly by the president. Sentences issued by the state security courts cannot be appealed, except on procedural grounds, and are subject to ratification by the president, who can annul both convictions and acquittals.

In September 2002, in a case that appeared to mark an expansion in the government's anti-Islamist campaign from prosecution of hard-core militants to actions against ordinary sympathizers, 101 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were brought to trial before a state security court on charges stemming from the June by-election. However, the presiding judge was outraged that the case was brought before the court, and all of the defendants were either acquitted or convicted of minor offenses and released. Afterwards, the judge called on parliament to lift the Emergency Law--an unprecedented rebuke of the government.

Since 1992, civilians charged with terrorism and other security-related offenses have been referred by the president to military courts. Since military judges are appointed by the Ministry of Defense to short, renewable two-year terms, these tribunals are squarely subordinate to the executive branch. Verdicts by military courts are subject to review only by a body of military judges, rather than a court, and to ratification by the president. Moreover, evidence produced by the prosecution in cases before the military courts often consists of little more than the testimony of security officers and informers. Allegations of forced confessions by defendants are routine.

On July 30, 2002, the Supreme Military Court sentenced 16 alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood to prison terms ranging from three to five years. On September 9, the court handed down sentences ranging from 2 to 15 years in prison for 51 alleged members of Al-Waad. Evidence presented at the trial was thin even by Egyptian standards (prosecutors produced only a baseball bat and an air rifle), and dozens of the accused claimed that they were subjected to electric shock and other forms of torture.

Freedom of the press is limited. The government owns and operates all broadcast media, though it does not block foreign satellite channels, which have few individual subscribers but can be viewed in many public places. Three major daily newspapers are owned in part by the state, and their editors are appointed by the president. Although a number of private papers are published, the government exercises indirect control over them through its monopoly on printing and distribution. Press freedom is heavily restricted by vaguely worded statutes in the Press Law, the Publications Law, the penal code, and libel laws. Direct criticism of the president, his family, or the military can result in the imprisonment of journalists and the closure of publications. Discussion of tensions between Muslims and Christian in Egypt and views regarded as anti-Islamic are also heavily proscribed. However, the government does not significantly restrict or monitor Internet use.

Freedom of assembly and association is heavily restricted. Organizers of public demonstrations, rallies, and protests must receive advance approval from the Interior Ministry. In April 2002, an Egyptian student was killed by security forces during an anti-Israel demonstration. Nongovernmental organizations, particularly human rights groups, are often refused legal registration and, as the continued closure of the Ibn Khaldun center illustrates, those that are allowed to operate have little protection against arbitrary government closures.

On June 3, the People's Assembly approved a new law governing civic associations to replace Law 32 of 1964. The new law, an amended version of legislation rejected by the Constitutional Court in 2000, includes a vaguely worded ban on political activity, prohibits the receipt of foreign funding without explicit government approval, allows the Ministry of Social Affairs to sidestep the judicial process and dissolve NGOs by administrative decree, and closes legal loopholes that allowed human rights groups to avoid NGO restrictions by registering as law firms or civil companies.

The law heavily restricts the formation and activities of labor unions and prohibits strikes. The government-backed Egyptian Trade Union Federation is the only legal labor federation.

Although the law provides for equality of the sexes in most respects, there are exceptions. Unmarried women under the age of 21 are not permitted to obtain passports without permission from their fathers. Women who marry noncitizens may not confer Egyptian citizenship on their children. Marital rape is legal. Job discrimination is evident even in the civil service (for example, there are no female judges in Egypt). The law provides for equal access to education, but the adult literacy rate of women lags behind that of men (34 and 63 percent, respectively).

Islam is the state religion and the government directly controls most mosques, appoints their preachers and other staff, and closely monitors the content of sermons. It is presently implementing a plan to establish control over thousands of small, unauthorized mosques (known as zawaya) located in residential buildings. Most Egyptians are Sunni Muslim, but Coptic Christians constitute less than 6 percent of the population and there are small numbers of Jews, Shiite Muslims and Bahais. Although non-Muslims are generally able to worship freely, the government has seized church-owned property and frequently denies permission to build or repair churches. In recent years, Muslim extremists have murdered, kidnapped, raped, and forcibly converted scores of Copts, and burned or vandalized Coptic homes, businesses, and churches; the few perpetrators who have been brought to trial have been acquitted or received light sentences.