Egypt is “fully prepared” to face all the accusations it expects will be brought against it at the Universal Periodic Review session scheduled to be held at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday, according to a government official in Cairo.
The official says he expects an “attack” on Egypt’s record regarding overall freedoms and conditions for civil society, as well as its criminal justice climate: alleged violations committed by security forces against people under arrest, detainees under investigation or in remand detention, and especially issues regarding the death penalty.
In preparation for its third such review since the 2006 inception of the Universal Periodic Review process, Egypt intensively lobbied other countries to comment positively on its human rights record, according to two government sources. However, the Egyptian delegation nevertheless expects a number of states to criticize Egypt’s rights record and to issue recommendations for improvement.
The Universal Periodic Review is a mechanism of the United Nations Human Rights Council aimed at “improving the human rights situation on the ground” in each of the 193 UN member states. Under this mechanism, the human rights situation of UN member states is reviewed every five years. Egypt’s last review was in 2014.
As part of the process, the government of the country under review submits an official report on its rights record. The UN High Commission on Human Rights also submits a report, based on input from local, regional, and international rights organizations. During the review, any member state may direct questions, comments, and recommendations to the country under review.
Egypt’s official government report was prepared by a joint committee of the ministries of foreign affairs, justice, interior, and social solidarity, as well as representatives from the Public Prosecution, General Intelligence Service, National Security Agency, the National Council for Women, the National Council on Human Rights, and the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood. The committee is chaired by the minister for parliamentary affairs.
Egypt’s review this year comes in the wake of the largest arrest sweep in the country since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi formally took power in 2014 with over 4,000 people detained, hundreds of whom were subsequently released. Prominent activists, lawyers, university professors, and opposition party figures are among those imprisoned, including Mohamed al-Baqer, the director of the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, who contributed to the preparation of a report compiled by Egyptian rights organizations which is taken into consideration for the UN’s upcoming review. Meanwhile, over 30 of Egypt’s most prominent human rights workers have been banned from traveling outside the country for several years. The travel bans were issued by a judge investigating a long-running case against civil society organizations in Egypt in which they face charges of illegal foreign funding.
According to a government official in Geneva, the Egyptian delegation is intensively lobbying a number of countries to soften their criticism of Egypt’s rights record in exchange for “political and other” incentives, and is asking states to take into consideration their existing bilateral relationships with Egypt.
Meanwhile, Egyptian diplomatic missions over the last few weeks have strongly advocated for Egypt’s position on human rights, particularly in countries expected to be harshly critical of its rights record, according to the Geneva source. Egypt has received assurances from a number of countries in this regard, the source adds, though not from countries like the United Kingdom, for example, which will be one of the rapporteurs attending Wednesday’s session. Germany — whose foreign minister, Heiko Maas, recently met with Sisi in Cairo and expressed hope that Egypt’s human rights situation would improve — did not provide any reassurances to Egyptian diplomats, either.
The government source in Cairo says that a large number of countries put in official requests to comment on Egypt’s report. “Naturally, we expect that there will be a lot of criticism from Western countries, particularly some European countries, where officials take what human rights organizations say at face value without looking to verify the accusations,” the official said.
“There is a significant campaign being carried out by human rights figures and organizations in Egypt and abroad to exaggerate human rights violations,” the official said. “We do not deny that some violations do occur, and we will tell the council this, but it’s not to the extent that some are making it out to be.”
The source also expects that there will be countries that “support Egypt” and its “war on terror”, and that those states will stress the importance of “Egypt’s stability and the potential consequences of disrupting this stability on the entire region.”
A human rights worker at an international organization told Mada Masr that he expects a number of countries to put forward critical recommendations for Egypt during the review, or at least to ask tough questions. Some of those countries have traditionally been critical of Egypt’s human rights record — such as Sweden, Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom — and are expected to be especially critical given the harsh crackdown on civil and political liberties across the country in recent weeks. Additionally, countries not normally known for openly criticizing Egypt are expected to do so this time, such as the Czech Republic, the human rights source said.
Meanwhile, Jeremie Smith, the head of the Geneva office of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, expects a mixed bag of comments from states both praising and criticizing Egypt’s human rights record. Smith says that while Egyptian authorities claim rights workers have been pushing to highlight human rights violations in Egypt, the 2019 review is taking place as over 30 rights advocates are banned from travel and local rights groups have come under pressure from authorities.
Smith says that Egypt is gearing up for the review by engaging in classic diplomacy to mobilize states with similar human rights records — particularly in the Arab world and Sub-Saharan Africa — to comment positively on Egypt’s counter-terrorism efforts in return for a similar stance by Cairo when those states come under review themselves. At the same time, Egypt is also preventing independent rights groups from highlighting rights violations to these very countries.
According to the human rights worker at the international organization, the travel bans and the pressure put on local organizations and human rights advocates significantly hindered their work ahead of the UN review.
The key issues expected to generate comments and questions during the review include the death penalty, forced disappearences, abitrary detention, torture, unfair trails, and the misuse of the anti-terror law, the human rights worker said.
Describing the human rights situation in Egypt, Hafez Abu Saada, a member of the National Council on Human Rights, says, “In some aspects, there has been positive progress. Other aspects require some reconsideration, whether it’s a legal change, training, or qualification.”
Abu Saada enumerated the areas where he sees progress. “The amendment of the civic association law constitutes positive progress because the 2017 law was very bad,” he said. “Women’s political participation has increased, reaching 90 seats in Parliament with the guarantee that they account for 25 percent of the House. There is progress on economic and social rights, like the hepatitis C campaign, other health campaigns, and more.”
However, Abu Saada went on to admit that torture, the increased use of pretrial detention, and the delay in forming a commission to combat religious, gender, and racial discrimination are still outstanding issues.
The report submitted by the National Human Rights Council to the UN body is not as harsh as that of the independent rights groups, but it does include some criticism and recommendations. It recommends that the crime of torture in the Penal Code be amended to be consistent with the definition in the UN convention against torture, to which Egypt is a signatory. It also recommends that individuals be given the right to file civil suits in cases of torture rather than limiting that right to the Public Prosecution.
The national council’s report also recommends abolishing the practice of referring civilians to military trials and it says laws regulating the press as well as the executive bylaws of the Supreme Media Regulatory Council continue “to restrict freedom of expression.” The report describes pretrial detention as “a widespread practice that has become the rule rather than the exception,” and it advocates amending the Criminal Procedure Code in this respect.
Meanwhile, the government source said that the Egyptian delegation in Geneva will have a clear response to expected comments on “so-called extrajudicial killings” — a reference to numerous cases of killings carried out by Egyptian authorities that are announced by the Interior Ministry and in other official statements, although the names of the victims are rarely provided. The source added that Egypt’s position is clear regarding its fight against terrorism and that the country is not in a position to tolerate terrorist groups.
Mohamed Zaree, the director of the Egypt office of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said that the government is taking refuge in generalities in its response to the recommendations it received in 2014.
As an example, he cites the government’s response to the recommendation that Egypt take measures to combat torture in places of detention: “[A]rticles 51 and 52 of the Constitution unequivocally state that torture of any kind is a crime that is not subject to a statute of limitations. This is reaffirmed in the Criminal Code, which envisages multiple descriptions and penalties for such offenses, commensurate with the gravity of the acts concerned.”
Zaree is critical of this response because it does not look at the text of the penal statutes themselves, the description of the crime of torture, or the actual practices on the ground. “It’s more than torture being endemic. It’s become state policy,” Zaree said. “It is sanctioned and immunized against any accountability, especially in political cases.”
Zaree cites the recent torture of several political activists, including Esraa Abd El Fattah, Alaa Abd El Fattah, Mohammed al-Baqer and Mohammed Walid. He also notes that judges Asem Abd al-Gabbar and Hisham Raouf were referred to the disciplinary board after they helped draft an anti-torture bill. Their disciplinary trial lasted four years before the board finally dismissed the case and cleared them.
Meanwhile, the joint report issued by 11 independent Egyptian rights groups includes data showing that of 212 allegations of torture in police detention that were submitted to the prosecution, only 88 complainants were referred to forensic medical examiners to determine the scope of their injuries and whether they were consistent with torture. In many of these cases, complainants were referred to examiners after enough time had passed to ensure that the signs of torture had faded.
In its report, the government cites official data on torture from March 2013 to April 2019, noting that police officers have faced investigation and criminal prosecution in 30 cases of torture, 66 cases of use of force, and 215 cases of ill treatment. The trials resulted in 70 convictions; 156 investigations were closed, while 85 are still pending. In addition, 344 disciplinary trials conducted by the Interior Ministry resulted in 207 disciplinary convictions.
Zaree mentions other examples of generalities. “Giving an example of Egyptian laws that comport with international standards, the government cited the counterterrorism law,” he said. “This is the same law under which everyone is prosecuted, from journalists, politicians and rights defenders to people accused of belonging to [ISIS].”
In its report, the state asserts that the counterterrorism law “protects all the human rights that are safeguarded under the Constitution and the law, without hindrance.” But the report by independent Egyptian organizations notes that Article 40 of the law allows security forces to detain suspects for up to seven days before they are questioned by a prosecutor, and Article 41 allows suspects to be detained incommunicado by limiting a suspect’s right to contact an attorney or family member with the proviso that it must not prejudice “the interests of the investigation and evidence gathering.”
The official in Cairo ruled out any reference to “specific cases” during Egypt’s scheduled review session, including any mention of internationally recognized activists who are currently imprisoned, such as Alaa Abdel Fattah and Esraa Abdelfattah, or of political figures such as Mohamed Morsi, the former president who died during a court session in June. Morsi had been imprisoned since he was ousted from power in June 2013.
On Friday, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, said in a statement that Morsi “was held in conditions that can only be described as brutal.” The statement added that during his six-year imprisonment, Morsi was placed in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and was denied access to medical care, “despite repeated warnings to authorities that such conditions would gradually undermine Mr Morsi’s health, to the point of killing him.”
The statement went on to say that the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention received “credible evidence from various sources” that gross human rights violations may be a reality for thousands more detainees across the country, “many of whom may be at risk of death.”
In the wake of the UN statement on Morsi’s death, Egypt’s official State Information Service released a video on Sunday of a visit by State Security Prosecutors to the Tora Prison complex in October. According to a statement by the SIS, the footage “shows the actual state of the situation of health services and food supplies in Egyptian prisons.” The following day, the State Information Service organized a visit for a handpicked group of journalists to Tora to take part in a carefully staged tour of the prison.
In response to Callamard’s comments, the Cairo official said that the rapporteur’s accusations were unverified did not take the views of the Egyptian state into account.
Egypt will not accept anything that impedes on its sovereignty in any way, the Cairo official said, but he added that there is a willingness to provide additional rebuttal to the abuse allegations and to work to improve human rights laws and the civil society climate.
Zaree says that the state continues to care about instruments like the Universal Periodic Review because “in general, Egypt cares about Western states’ opinion on human rights, even if most of its responses to criticism are aggressive and at times, shameless.” But Zaree also believes that the state wants to offer as few concessions as possible” and only under serious pressure.
Zaree attributes this to what he calls “the policy of accommodation” that Western nations have recently pursued in their dealings with Egypt. Human rights is a marginal issue in political negotiations between Egypt and other states, mentioned only to appease the press, lobby groups, and rights organizations in these Western states, he says. In turn, rights issues have become “an item that it is discussed briefly before moving on to arms deals or economic agreements,” Zaree says.
He believes the Egyptian government “sees this, understands it and acts accordingly.” But he believes the protection of human rights “is linked to political stability in the country and the entire region.”
For his part, Mostafa Kamel al-Sayyed, a professor of political science at Cairo University, says there has been an unprecedented deterioration in the relationship between Egypt and international institutions like the UN High Commission on Human Rights, for example.
“We have never before seen government statements that accuse these bodies of being biased against Egypt or acting based on political agendas,” he says. He expects this deterioration to be reflected in Egypt’s review session.
Nevertheless, he believes that “Egypt cares about its international image with respect to human rights, but it ultimately recognizes that the criticisms come from biased actors. So it cares, but not enough to change its policies.”
Sayyed sees Egypt’s position as part of a larger shift. “The decline of democracy globally coupled with the rise of undemocratic powers like Russia, China and Iran has naturally had an impact on compliance with human rights in general,” he said. In addition, the US stance on Egypt has shifted since the Obama administration, with the Trump administration offering more vocal support for President Sisi’s administration.
Meanwhile, Smith, of the Geneva office of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, said the Universal Periodic Review represents a competition between the narratives of the state and human rights organizations. And while Egypt will probably advertise the praise it got during the review, we can still expect some “strong condemnations and pointed recommendations,” Smith said.