Egypt is neck deep in an Orwellian swamp where names obscure rather than explain the institutions behind them.
Egypt’s great writer Yusuf Idris summed up early symptoms of this syndrome in his amazing novella, “The Disgrace” or Al’eeb in 1962. Idris removes the façade of a regulatory government office to show how its real job is to organize the violation of these very regulations through corruption and bribes divided up amongst the officers whose ostensible job it is to enforce the law.
These were the ideas that come to mind while reading the last report of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights, then watching the new Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zend stating the council “defends and sympathizes with killers.”
Cairo seems to no longer have corridors of power but separate islands which rarely communicate, each primarily busy, not with discharging its nominal functions, but rather with protecting itself and grandstanding the others.
State institutions including the NCHR, whose members are appointed by the president, are becoming islands of varying sizes of power all of which fend for themselves, lacking unity of purpose and devoid of accountability mechanisms in the absence of a parliament or critical mass media.
The NCHR, which was established in 2003, has attracted several dedicated human rights defenders and practitioners but the higher echelons of the government treat it as a fig leaf to cover their worsening rights record and ignore it when it has some pragmatic reform proposals.
When the NCHR or any of its members dared challenge certain government practices, as it should do and as it did in its last annual report, it is trashed and its members vilified.
The government has ignored the substance of the 274–page report, in which NCHR said Egypt’s prisons were overcrowded at 160 percent of their capacity while police stations were holding three times more detainees than their design capacity.
The report, relying on Interior Ministry statements, said 7,000 people were in preventive detention pending the end of investigations or trials. Most of the detained are members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in addition to 300 secular political activists. Reports by independent human rights organizations often state between 29,000 and 41,000 political detainees have been incarcerated since June 30, 2013.
The NCHR reports torture and abuse in police stations but claims that the cases followed instances of “disobedience” and “mutiny” by detainees and/or organized attacks on the stations. NCHR quotes the Interior Minister saying 36 people died in detention, including two in police stations, and that all the deaths them were related to the prisoners health and took place in hospitals (over the 18-month reporting period.)
The NCHR report, which does not follow clear rules of attribution and sourcing, also indicated that, “tens of police officers and personnel have been investigated by the state prosecutors in charges of abusing citizens and detainees and negligence but not in cases that led to deaths.”
The NCHR claims that 2,600 people died during the reporting period, including 700 policemen and military. The remaining victims include 1,250 Brotherhood members or supporters of whom 750 were massacred during the dispersal of Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahdha sit-ins in 2013.
The report claims that another 550 civilians died during violent confrontations allegedly instigated by armed Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The report does not seriously address the bloodshed at Rabea, arguably the worst single day of killing civilians in Egypt’s modern history, at the hands of its own security forces.
To get a more realistic and less politicized measure of a grim reality, one should compare this botched and shaky presentation with several reports issued by Egypt’s independent human rights organizations during the same period like the joint NGO submission to the UN Human Rights Council in November, 2014.
Still, the NCHR fine-tuned report apparently irritated diehard government supporters.
Do people in Egypt really care about the NCHR?
The organization received 3,740 complaints about rights abuses in 20 months or about six submissions a day in a country where tens of thousands of people are political prisoners (at least 7,000 of whom are in preventive detention if we accept the Interior Ministry figures.)
Thousands are facing death sentences or prolonged prison stays while hundreds are tortured or killed in detention centers every month. Nevertheless, 70 percent of all complaints received by the NCHR were requests for financial or material support, about labor disputes, housing issues, or other social and economic needs.
People may care but the government more often than not undermines the council by ignoring its mediation and the complaints it refers to various government authorities.
Out of the 3,586 cases the NCHR referred to 90 government offices, the council received only 1,077 replies. Quite often, the case letters had to be sent several times and it took an average of three months to receive a reply, which sometimes made redress impossible.
Most replies were negative or denied responsibility for issue. For example, the prosecutor general’s office, which is responsible for thousands of cases of prolonged preventive detention, replied to 89 out of 500 letters the NCHR referred to it – about an 18 percent response rate.
The value and legitimacy of institutions like the NCHR erode over time unless the state or the public take them seriously. To survive, these institutions must also have an impact.
This does not seem to be the case here. Like several other institutions in Egypt, the NCHR faces becoming superfluous at least when it comes to the functions its name suggests. This will be indeed a disgrace, not very different from the one that Idris exposed as a malaise in Egyptian institutions several decades ago. It is a disgrace we should not embrace nor ignore.