WORLD REPORT 1998 - Egypt

Human Rights Developments

Conflict continued in Egypt between institutions of civil society and the government; security forces and suspected Islamist militants; and Islamist activists and proponents of intellectual freedom and a secular state. Facing a new political challenge from the countryside in 1997, the government clamped down well in advance of the October implementation of sweeping changes in the rent and tenure system regulating agricultural land, pursuant to a reform law passed in 1992 and due to take effect after a five-year grace period. Citizens uninvolved in politics suffered torture and ill-treatment at police stations around the country, abuses to which criminal suspects and sometimes their male and female relatives fell victim. On the positive side, Egypt's independent human rights community continued to flourish and new organizations were launched, despite the restrictive and much-criticized 1964 law that regulates the formation and activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Women's rights groups actively campaigned against gender-based discrimination and female genital mutilation, a widespread practice in Egypt ( see Women's Rights Project).

In February, the state of emergency was extended until May 31, 2000. Emergency law, in effect for almost thirty years except for an eighteen-month hiatus during the rule of Anwar Sadat, permits arrest and detention on the basis of suspicion or because individuals are considered a danger to security and public order; these powers continued to be widely abused. Emergency law also provides the legal basis for trials of civilians in military courts and exceptional state security courts, whose verdicts cannot be appealed to higher tribunals as required by international law, and allows the retrial of defendants previously acquitted by security courts.

The state maintained its strategy of undermining politically the long-banned but also long-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood, the most well-entrenched political group in the country. Prominent members were serving prison sentences of three to five years following military court trials in 1995 and 1996 in which they were prosecuted for peaceful political activities. These included elected leaders of professional associations and former members of parliament such as physician Eissam al-Erian and university professor Muhamed al-Sayed Habib. Other Muslim Brothers detained in 1997 for peaceful political activities included thirty-four men, teachers and engineers among them, who were arrested on August 9 for allegedly planning to recruit new members at Alexandria University. A prosecutor ordered their detention pending investigation for possession of anti-government leaflets and membership in a "banned organization" whose goal is to seize power, according to legal sources cited by Agence France-Presse.

The Interior Ministry claimed repeatedly in 1997 that it had vanquished Egypt's armed Islamists, who are affiliated with Jihad, the Islamic Group, and other small, clandestine organizations. Interior Minister Gen. Hassan al-Alfi, in an interview with the weekly Rose al-Yusef (Cairo) published on April 21, said that political violence had been "reduced to limited random incidents." Violent incidents in 1997 included a series of attacks in Upper Egypt in February and March in which twenty-two villagers were killed by suspected militants who went unapprehended. Christians clearly appeared to be the intended targets, one of the patterns that has marked the bloodshed of the 1990s.

In one such incident on February 12, four masked gunmen entered St. George Church in Fikriyah village near Abu Qurqas in Minya province, where a weekly youth meeting was in progress. According to the Cairo-based Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), which interviewed eyewitnesses, three of the gunmen "closed the door and fired for some sixty to ninety seconds at a group of young people sitting on the left hand side of the hall." Eight were killed and five wounded; they ranged in age from thirteen to twenty-six years old, and most were students. The assailants fled into nearby fields, killing a farmer en route. On February 14, the bodies of three Copts-a sixty-year-old fisherman, his son, and a police officer-were found in a field near Abu Qurqas.

An unnamed Islamic Group official, quoted in the Arabic daily al-Hayat (London) on February 17, claimed responsibility for both attacks. Referring to the three men who were found dead, he said: "The [Group] was convinced they were collaborating with the police." Regarding the slaughter in the church, he noted that "our policy is not to kill Christians wherever they are, nor to attack places of worship, unless plots are being hatched there against Islam."

In a March 27 report, EOHR expressed alarm about unconfirmed reports that in Upper Egypt "security forces have trained popular militias in the use of weapons and assigned them to guard some public buildings, set up ambushes and search suspects." EOHR warned that a cycle of violence could be set in motion if the Interior Ministry used armed civilians as substitutes for or supplements to police and security forces. It stressed that the state was responsible for protecting citizens, and that the rule of law was best upheld if trained law enforcement officials were "subject to supervision and accountability."

Armed militants, many of them wanted by authorities, were shot dead in security force operations, although few details were available about the circumstances of these killings. Between June and August, for example, at least twenty-three suspected militants, some reportedly senior leaders in the Islamic Group's armed wing, were killed, according to information provided to the press byunnamed Egyptian security sources. This included a report in the semi-official daily al-Ahram (Cairo) on August 17 that thirteen Islamic Group militants had been killed in a major operation in the Minya region.

In July, imprisoned founding members of Jihad and the Islamic Group appealed "to all our brothers to halt military operations inside and outside the country." The highly publicized signed statement was read at the July 5 opening session of a military court trial of over ninety civilians, including five women. The government was reportedly unresponsive to this call for a unilateral cease-fire, and it was not heeded by some cadres on the ground, as violence intensified. Suspected militants mounted several attacks in Upper Egypt, killing policemen and in some circumstances civilians. For example, on October 13, gunmen, some wearing police unifoms, killed nine policemen and two civilians in two separate but simultaneous operations near Abu Qurqas and Mallawi.The victims were forced out of cars at roadblocks and executed, some of them after being bound at their hands and feet. The Islamic Group later claimed responsibility for these attacks.

Military and state security courts handed down death sentences against alleged militants convicted of acts of violence, bringing to eighty-two the number of death sentences issued by military courts since President Mubarak began referring civilians to these courts in 1992; of these, fifty-eight had been carried out as of October 22, according to Amnesty International. Criminal courts also sentenced men and women to death in 1997 for nonpolitical offenses.

Thousands of suspected Islamist militants, as well as some of their defense lawyers and suspected supporters, remained detained-without charge or awaiting trial- under grossly substandard conditions which caused or contributed to a number of deaths. In a February report, EOHR documented wholly inadequate medical care, including the cases of twenty-five prisoners who died between 1994 and 1996, the majority of them in Wadi al-Gedid, Liman Tora, Fayoum, and Wadi al-Natroun prisons, and thirty-two cases of seriously ill inmates whose poor health, EOHR said, merited release or transfer to specialized medical facilities. Among them were men in their twenties and thirties whose official causes of death had been noted as tuberculosis, heart or circulatory failure, and pneumonia. Prisoners in need of urgent medical attention included men suffering from cancer, partial paralysis, cardiac problems, tuberculosis, detached retinas, and asthma.

Shortly after the EOHR report's release, two more political detainees died in prison apparently due to inadequate medical attention. One of them, Bekheit Abdel Rahman Salim, a thirty-eight-year-old teacher who was partially paralyzed and had severe bed sores on his buttocks, was seen by an EOHR representative in Tora Istiqbal prison on March 12, so weak "that he was unable to speak and fainted during the visit." He was transferred shortly thereafter to Liman Tora prison hospital and then to a regular cell in Fayoum prison, where he died on March 26.

Egyptian rights groups increased the focus in 1997 on the routine nature of torture and ill-treatment in police stations. In a March report, EOHR stated that torture was "widespread," and was used on suspects to coerce confessions and on their relatives to obtain information or force suspects to surrender to authorities. In one case, eighty-five-year-old Ahmed Abdel Halim al-Zeini was held for one week in Meit Ghamr station in Dakahliya, in Lower Egypt, for a minor offense, kicked in the genitals by an officer, and died in early June 1996 from what a June 3 forensic medical report said was injury to the testicles that led to cardiac arrest. EOHR's report profiled the cases of fifty-seven citizens who were tortured in police custody between December 1993 and September 1996, twelve of whom died. It said the most common abuse was cuffing victims' hands behind the back and suspending them "in a slaughtered animal position," which "is usually accompanied by beatings, punching or electric shocks."

These findings were reinforced by a report of the Nadim Center for the Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, another Cairo-based NGO. Nadim maintained, too, that torture by police was a nationwide phenomenon, and described various methods of torture that had been used on its clients including: beating with sticks and whips; kicking with boots; electric shocks; and suspension from one or both arms. Nadim noted that in all cases victims had been threatened, insulted and humiliated, and in some cases, particularly those involving women, victims had been stripped, exposed to "verbal and tactile sexual insults," and threatened with rape.

Passions ran high in the countryside as grass-roots organizing proliferated in advance of the implementation in October of the agricultural reform law (Law No. 96 of 1992) that lifted rent controls and protections against eviction put place during the Nasser era in the 1950s. Protests, some of them violent, erupted nationwide. The independent, Cairo-based Land Center for Human Rights (LCHR) documented how security forces intervened to prevent conferences and meetings that had become increasingly popular mechanisms during the year for bringing together farmers to discuss concerns about the law. On May 14, for example, violence broke out when security forces forcibly dispersed participants at a peaceful conference in Nazlit al-Ashter village in Giza, near Cairo. On June 25, security forces prevented farmers in Saft al-Arafa village, south of Cairo, from holding a meeting, and twenty were arrested after the village farming cooperative was burned down. LCHR reported that 176 conferences had been held on the land law since the beginning of the year through August 20; forty-three had been cancelled, and thirty-one people arrested. Authorities also arrested farmers after peaceful protest marches were dispersed. In one incident on August 4, sixty-three farmers were arrested in the Salihiya area of Ismailiya after police broke up their march. Farmers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in July said that security forces had also arrested local activists in advance of planned protest demonstrations and forced farmers to remove black flags that flew in symbolic opposition to the law.

Authorities also targeted supporters of the farmers. For example, four activists were arrested on June 17, including journalist Hamdin Sabbahi, a prominent Nasserite. Prosecutors accused them of "promoting ideas intended to incite a social class to use violence against other classes," "acquiring printed materials prepared for distribution" to further those ideas, and related charges. They were detained until September 25. As of October 5, at least five other activists remained in detention, according to EOHR, along with some 182 of the 822 farmers arrested during the year, according to LCHR. As of September 29, fifteen had been killed and 238 injured in rural unrest related to the land law since the beginning of the year.

Freedom of expression, including press freedom, faced challenges during the year from several quarters. Scholars at al-Azhar, the state-funded university which has served as an authoritative center of Sunni Islamic scholarship for 1,000 years, continued to take actions that fueled a climate of intimidation and physical danger for Egyptian intellectuals. For example, Dr. Hassan Hanafi, a professor of philosophy at Cairo University, was singled out as an apostate in an April 29 statement issued by Dr. Yehia Ismail, secretary general of the Azhar Scholars Front (ASF). He called for Dr. Hanafi's expulsion from the university, and claimed that his work in Islamic studies "scorned, mocked and derided every feature of the nation's religion." The independent, Cairo-based Center for Human Rights Legal Aid (CHRLA), condemning initiatives of this sort in a press release it issued the next day, stated that "such allegations, coming from respected institutions such as al-Azhar, will be like a license for armed Islamic organizations to kill, especially in the current atmosphere where fanatical religious intolerance is rampant."

A 1992 court sentence of one-year imprisonment for writer Ala' Hamed, because his novel The Bed was judged immoral pursuant to vaguely worded penal code provisions, was upheld on appeal on May 25. The court also supported the lower court's order that the book be confiscated. Public prosecutors filed the original complaint against Hamed in 1991, charging that his book showed "disrespect for religious clerics," and advocated "immorality" and "sexual freedom." CHRLA, while acknowledging that the exercise of free expression should not conflict with the protection of public morals, pointed out that the penal code provisions used to prosecute Hamed were "imprecise," and served to intimidate writers and "create an atmosphere in which the exercise of freedom of opinion and expression becomes a risky adventure fraught with danger [of imprisonment.]"

The government moved a step closer to its goal of controlling the content of sermons delivered in Egypt's tens of thousands of private mosques. In December 1996, with the amendment of Law. No. 272 of 1959, parliament required mosque preachers to obtain permits from the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments) or face fines and possible one-month jail terms. Under the law, four-member committees (two representatives from the ministry and two from Al-Azhar) in each province were assigned the task of vetting applications. "Preachers who have personal ambitions or seek popularity should not have a place in the propagation of Islam," said Awqaf minister Hamdi Zaqzug after the measure was passed. The minister reported in June 1997 that 15,000 permits had been issued.

Outright censorship by authorities and criminal prosecution of journalists compromised press freedom for Egyptian and foreign newspapers alike. For example, in August the interior minister charged that the opposition biweekly al-Sha'b (Cairo) was "the organ of the Moslem Brotherhood and the terrorists," adding that "everything that is printed in this newspaper is a lie." His complaint led to the initiation of legal proceedings that month against editor-in-chief Magdi Hussein and five other journalists for a series of allegedly libelous articles about corruption and abuse of power by the minister and his associates. The prosecutor general subsequently banned Egyptian and foreign media from any reporting about the lawsuit, and later ordered that al-Sha'b suspend publication of its next three issues because it had defied his ban. The trial against the Sha'b six began on October 15, and the next session was set for November 10; the journalists faced up to three years in prison if convicted.

Authorities also prevented the printing in Cairo of 5,000 copies of the September 17 issue of al-Hayat because a front-page article about the Halaib triangle, the long-disputed border area between Egypt and Sudan, was deemed biased. On September 14, two publishers and three editors with the weekly al-Jadida magazine and its parent-the London-based, Saudi-owned al-Sharq al-Awsat daily-were convicted of libeling President Mubarak's sons Ala' and Gamal for an article that was never published but had been advertised on May 27 in al-Sharq al-Awsat , concerning the sons' alleged corrupt business practices. The five, tried in absentia, were fined, and sentenced to one-year prison terms. The Egyptian who wrote the unpublished article, Sayyed Abdel Ati, was fined and sentenced to six months in prison.


The Right to Monitor

The number of Egyptian human rights organizations continued to expand and gain increasing international exposure and recognition, but the government remained hostile to their wide-ranging work and members of leading organizations told Human Rights Watch that internal security agents continued to monitor closely their activities. EOHR, which was founded in 1985, continued its legal battle to have overturned the decision of the Ministry of Social Affairs denying it registration under the associations law (Law. No. 32 of 1964) on the grounds that there was another group carrying out similar work. EOHR maintained that Law No. 32 was an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of association and, along with other Egyptian NGOs, has long advocated its repeal. In the past, the law has been invoked to dissolve NGOs and seize their assets. The law constitutes unwarranted interference with free association by preventing openly functioning NGOs from securing legal status and unreasonably forcing these groups to operate under the constant threat of closure.

A Human Rights Watch researcher was refused entry into Egypt on the night of June 19, despite the fact that Human Rights Watch had notified the Egyptian government well in advance of his visit. He was detained for ten hours at Cairo International Airport, refused permission to make any phone calls, and forcibly placed on the next return flight on June 20. Some Human Rights Watch publications were confiscated from his luggage. He was subsequently allowed to return to Egypt and conduct his research, although his movements and contacts were openly monitored by SSI officers in plainclothes.

The Role of the

International Community

European Union

Negotiations continued between the European Commission and the Egyptian government over the text of an Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement, similar to those already concluded with Israel, Tunisia and Morocco. Article 2 of each agreement states that "respect for human rights and democratic principles...constitute an essential element" of the agreement. Egypt reportedly objected to having to accept an accompanying joint declaration, identical to one accompanying the Morocco agreement but not those with Israel and Tunisia, which specifies that breaches of the "human rights" and "democratic principles" conditionality could trigger suspension of the agreement.

United States

Egypt continued to enjoy a strong bilateral relationship with the U.S. in areas of trade, aid and military cooperation. As in past years, the Clinton administration also relied on Egyptian officials as intermediaries in ongoing negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. Egypt's annual $2.1 billion package of U.S. aid, second only to Israel's, included $1.3 billion in Foreign Military Financing and $815 million in economic support funds. Egypt was also a major market for U.S. products, importing some $3 billion annually.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright articulated the basis for the long-standing bilateral ties at a joint press conference following her September 13 meeting in Alexandria, Egypt, with President Mubarak. She said that the U.S.-Egyptian relationship "has grown in importance and scope every year," praised Egypt as "a vital force for moderation in a region where violent extremists have inflicted enormous suffering," and added that "the United States considers Egypt a valuable partner in the quest for peace and stability, especially in the Middle East and Gulf." Citing bilateral efforts "to bring the peace process back to life," she said: "The United States cannot forget that without Egypt there would have been no peace process; without Egypt there would have been no Camp David Accord, no Madrid Conference, no Oslo process, and no handshake on the White House lawn." The secretary omitted mention of human rights when identifying common interests of the two countries-which she identified as "a joint commitment to peace, security and development," and "a rapidly increasing exchange of business people, students and tourists traveling back and forth between our two nations"-and did not make references to human rights elsewhere in the text.

The State Department, in its 1997 report "United States Policies in Support of Religious Freedom: Focus on Christians," stated that the U.S. embassy in Cairo "maintains a continuous dialogue with the Government of Egypt on all human rights issues." More specific information about the nature and substance of this dialogue was not publicly disclosed. The U.S. embassy in Cairo told Human Rights Watch in September that the only high-level demarches during the year focused on female genital mutilation and religious persecution.

This page last modified 01/24/2017 02:10:59

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