WORLD REPORT 2001 - Egypt

Human Rights Developments

The government of President Husni Mubarak intensified its efforts to exercise control over civil society institutions, harassing and restricting the activities of political parties, human rights and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), professional associations and the press. Infringements of freedom of expression, association and assembly, particularly in the run up to the People's Assembly elections scheduled for October and November 2000, raised doubt about the government's stated commitment to fair and free elections. State security forces continued to commit grave human rights violations with impunity, including the detention without charge or trial of political detainees and torture, and political opponents continued to be sentenced after unfair trials.

In May, the state of emergency was extended for a further three years. In force almost continuously since 1967, the emergency laws gave the authorities extensive powers to arrest suspects at will and detain them without trial for prolonged periods, and to refer civilian defendants to military courts or to exceptional state security courts whose procedures fall far short of international standards for fair trial.

Elections for the People's Assembly, initially scheduled to start in mid-November, were brought forward to October 18, 2000 and spread out over three rounds to allow judicial supervision of both principal and auxiliary polling stations. The change came as a result of the Supreme Constitutional Court ruling on July 8 that legislation governing parliamentary elections was unconstitutional due to the absence of full judicial supervision. In two extraordinary sessions on July 15 and 16, the People's Assembly and the Majlis al-Shura (consultative council, the upper house of the parliament) approved three presidential decrees that amended the legislation governing the elections. The principal amendment was to Article 24 of the Law on the Exercise of Political Rights (Law 73 of 1956), which had provided for judicial supervision of principal polling stations only, while auxiliary stations were supervised by civil servants.

On May 20, the Political Parties Committee of the Majlis al-Shura froze the activities of the Islamist opposition Labor Party and banned its publications, ostensibly because of a leadership dispute within the party. This action, widely perceived as part of an attempt to silence government critics ahead of the elections, followed violent street demonstrations in early May over the publication of a novel alleged to be offensive to Islam. The Labor Party's bi-weekly newspaper, al-Sha'ab, had denounced the novel (see below). Despite several court rulings in favor of the party, the ban on its publications remained in force as of October.

In another legal move on July 24, the Political Parties Committee formally requested the Labor Party's dissolution by referring the case to the Political Parties Tribunal, an exceptional court established by the Law on Political Parties (Law 40 of 1977). This followed a decision by prosecutors to charge nine Labor Party figures with having links with the banned Muslim Brotherhood, receiving unauthorized funding and "working against national unity," among them Labor Party secretary general `Adel Hussain. In April, he and three other Labor Party figures were convicted for slandering Deputy Prime Minister Yusuf Wali. Hussain was fined and the others sentenced to between one and two years in prison.

In keeping with past practice of referring civilian political suspects to military courts, the government brought twenty defendants allegedly linked to the Muslim Brotherhood to trial before the Supreme Military Court on December 25, 1999. The defendants faced incitement and other charges under articles 30, 86, and 88 of the Penal Code, including membership of, and recruiting others to, an illegal organization and attempting to control the activities of professional associations. None of the charges involved the use or advocacy of violence. The defendants, mostly lawyers, university professors, and other professionals had been arrested in October 1999 and detained at Mazra'at Tora Prison. The 2000 announcement of the verdicts, due in July, was deferred first to October 3 and then to November 7. Many Egyptians saw the prosecutions as an attempt by the authorities to prevent the defendants from running as independent candidates in elections for the People's Assembly and for the boards of their respective professional associations. Mukhtar Muhammad Nouh, for example, a former member of parliament, had been expected to stand as a candidate in the Egyptian Lawyers' Association's board elections due to be held on July 1 but postponed by the authorities pending a court ruling in a dispute over election procedures. This was resolved on September 5 when the Supreme Administrative Court rejected a government appeal against a lower court decision that board elections be held solely on the premises of the Egyptian Lawyers' Association and its branches. By October 2000 no new date had been set for these elections.

In the absence of official figures, it was not possible to specify the number of political detainees being held without trial, but the authorities freed at least several hundred between January and July. They also made scores of new arrests, mostly of suspected members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and thousands of other political detainees, the vast majority of them actual or suspected membership of banned groups, in particular al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group) and al-Gihad (Holy Struggle), continued to be held in administrative detention under emergency legislation. They included some who had completed prison sentences and others who had been held without charge or trial for prolonged periods, in some cases for over ten years. Many detainees successfully challenged the legality of their continued detention in the courts, but Ministry of Interior officials routinely ignored the courts' rulings and continued to hold the detainees in harsh conditions at prisonssuch as al-Fayyum, Wadi Natrun I and II, and Abu Za'bal al-Sina'i, where detainees were deprived of all contact with the outside world for long periods. In a positive development, at least sixty-eight detainees held in these prisons were allowed family visits in September.

Security forces tortured and ill-treated detainees, and there were reports that as many as fifteen detainees died in custody due to poor conditions and lack of medical care, and, in at least one case, due to torture. Again, however, the authorities' failure to disclose information on such cases, or whether official investigations were held to determine the causes of such deaths, hampered efforts to assess the true scale of the problem in Egypt's prisons and detention centers. One case, however, did lead to official action. The authorities charged six police officers following the death of Ahmad Muhammad `Issa, beaten to death on February 10 in Wadi Natrun prison, and their trial was continuing in October.

In a positive development, Interior Minister Habib al-Adli announced on September 17 that the practices of flogging and caning as disciplinary measures in prisons would be banned.

Egyptian courts sentenced as least sixty-six people to death, and the authorities carried out eighteen executions between February and September, according to Amnesty International. Most death sentences were imposed for ordinary criminal offences, but two of those executed had been sentenced in their absence for membership of an armed illegal group after an unfair trial.

The controversial Law on Civil Associations and Institutions (Law 153 of 1999), condemned by Egyptian and international human rights groups for excessively restricting the activities of NGOs and facilitating undue government interference in their internal affairs, was overturned by the Supreme Constitutional Court on June 3. Issued shortly after the 1999 law's registration deadline for NGOs, the court ruled the law unconstitutional on procedural grounds because it had not been presented to the Majlis al-Shura. Egyptian human rights activists welcomed the ruling, which also noted that administrative courts, not the courts of first instance, should hear cases arising from disputes between NGOs and the authorities. The day after the ruling, the Ministry of Social Affairs announced that Law 32 of 1964, which the 1999 law had been intended to replace, would remain in force, but that NGOs that had been granted registration under the overturned law would retain that status, giving rise to confusion as to which law governed their activities. On September 3, Deputy Justice Minister Fathi Naguib told Human Rights Watch that the overturned law would be revised in light of the constitutional court decision and then submitted again to the People's Assembly after the elections. He said there would be no further consultations with NGO representatives regarding the provisions of the law, which he asserted was "fair and democratic."

The government prosecuted at least one writer for his exercise of freedom of expression. On March 10, police arrested author Salahuddin Muhsin, charging him with writing books deemed offensive to Islam. Prosecutors cited two of his books, A Night Talk with Heaven and Trembling of Enlightenment, when he appeared before the State Security Court for Misdemeanours in Giza on June 17. On July 8, the court imposed a six-month suspended sentence, rendering Muhsin liable to certain imprisonment should he be convicted of a similar offence in future.

The November 1999 decision of the Ministry of Culture to authorize the re-printing of A Banquet of Seaweed by Syrian author Haidar Haidar, first published in Lebanon in 1983, led to widespread protests in Cairo following an April 28 article in the Islamist al-Sha'ab newspaper, which denounced the book as blasphemous. Several thousand demonstrators, many of them al-Azhar University students, staged a series of protests from May 7, and students at `Ain Shams and Cairo universities held similar protests. As the protests became increasingly violent, police reportedly used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the demonstrators, and several police officers and tens of students were injured. Police also arrested scores of students, prompting further demonstrations calling for their release, and all were freed without charge within days. Although a panel of literary experts appointed by the Ministry of Culture cleared the novel of the charge of blasphemy, the authorities announced that the book would be withdrawn from circulation. On May 12, the prosecutor-general's staff interrogated two Ministry of Culture employees about the re-printing of the novel but no formal charges were brought.

The right to freedom of conscience and religion also came under attack in other ways, involving both Muslims and Christians. On September 5, the Emergency State Security Court sentenced Manal Wahid Mana'i to five years in prison under Article 98(f) of the Penal Code for denigrating Islam. She was arrested, together with fifteen others, in December 1999 as the alleged leader of a Sufi sect and accused of "claiming prophecy and using the Islamic religion to propagate extremist ideas." Twelve of her co-defendants, among them her husband `Abd al-Hamid Muhammad Kamel, received sentences ranging from six months to three years of imprisonment. Two other defendants were fined. Another died in custody, reportedly of natural causes before the verdict.

In another case, the Sohag Criminal Court sentenced Sourial Gayed Ishaq, a Coptic Christian, to three years in prison under articles 160 and 161 of the Penal Code for insulting Islam. He had reportedly made offensive remarks in public about Islam after sectarian violence broke out between Muslims and Christians in his village, al-Kusheh, on December 31, 1999. A financial dispute between a Muslim and a Christian had led to three days of rioting and the deaths of some twenty-three victims, most of them Christians. Security forces imposed a curfew and arrested scores of villagers to end the bloodshed, and both the government and local human rights groups, including the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) and the Centre for Human Rights Legal Aid (CHRLA), launched their own investigations. On March 11, Prosecutor-General Maher `Abd al-Wahed announced that those responsible would be tried on murder, attempted murder, incitement to violence, robbery, and other charges, and two trials involving 135 defendants began before criminal courts in Sohag and Dar al-Salam in the first week of June. On September 5, the Sohag court sentenced four defendants tried in their absence to ten years of imprisonment and sixteen others to prison terms of between six months and two years. The court acquitted nineteen others. The trial of the remaining defendants before the Dar al-Salam criminal court was still continuing in October 2000.

Defending Human Rights

The government closely monitored the activities of human rights organizations and restricted their work. Official investigations brought against targeted activists were kept pending, in some cases for years. The case against Hafez Abu Sa'da, secretary general of the EOHR, who had been detained for fifteen days in December 1998, remained ambiguous. The government had charged him and other EOHR members with accepting funds from a foreign donor-the British embassy in Cairo-to harm to Egypt's national interests. On February 13, several days before the EOHR was due to issue a report on renewed sectarian violence in al-Kusheh (see above), the Prosecutor-General's Office announced that it had referred the case to the Emergency Supreme State Security Court. In March, however, Prosecutor-General `Abd al-Wahed told Human Rights Watch that the British ambassador had confirmed that the funds in question were intended to support a women's legal aid project, andthat in light of this information Abu Sa'da `s "file was closed." By October 2000, however, the authorities had still not informed Abu Sa'da officially that the case was closed.

The EOHR and other local human rights groups condemned the government's extension of the state of emergency. The EOHR was among a number of human rights groups that applied for official registration under the 1999 NGO law in the first half of the year but of these, only CHRLA had been granted registration before the law was overturned by the constitutional court. Applications by other human rights groups had not as yet been fully processed. The Arab Organization for Human Rights (AOHR) was granted legal status as a regional organization in early May under a separate agreement with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After the 1999 law was declared invalid, the Ministry of Social Affairs informed the EOHR on July 24 that its application for registration would be considered under the 1964 law and requested that it provide the necessary documentation. Several days later, ministry officials told the EOHR verbally that its registration had been granted, and gave a registration number, but on July 30 the ministry informed the EOHR in writing that the decision on its application had been deferred upon "a request from security officials."

Human rights activists preparing to monitor the People's Assembly elections also came under attack. On the night of June 30, State Security Intelligence (SSI) officials arrested Sa'adeddin Ibrahim, sociology lecturer at the American University of Cairo and director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. The SSI raided both his home and the center and confiscated documents, computers and other belongings. The authorities also arrested the center's chief accountant, Nadia `Abd al-Nur, and her assistant, Usama Hammad, and they, together with Ibrahim, were interrogated by officials of the prosecutor-general. The authorities issued renewable, fifteen day detention orders against Ibrahim and `Abd al-Nur under Military Decree No. 4 of 1992. Abd al-Nur went on hunger strike for two days to protest the conditions in which she was being held at the Womens' prison. During her first two weeks in detention, the authorities interrogated her without the presence of a defense lawyer. Prosecutors initially accused Ibrahim of receiving foreign funding without the authorities' permission, forgery of election documents, fraud and the dissemination of false information damaging to Egypt's interests, but failed to specify the legal basis for these or later accusations. The authorities questioned at least fourteen others in connection with the case, some of whom they detained for several weeks.

In early July, the authorities detained and interrogated staff of the Women Voters' Support Center, a NGO cooperating with the Ibn Khaldun Center on educational programs for voters. They included Warda `Ali Bahi and Magda al-Bey, detained without charges for six days and one month respectively. The authorities then released Sa'adeddin Ibrahim and Nadia `Abd al-Nur on bail on August 10, and others in the ensuing days, but took further action on September 24 after Ibrahim announced that he intended to monitor the parliamentary elections. The prosecutor general formally referred the case to the Supreme State Security Court, naming twenty-eight defendants, including ten who were not in custody and would be tried in their absence. Both the Ibn Khaldun Center and the Women Voters' Support Center remained closed. The trial was set for November 18.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, in an opinion issued on September 15, 1999, requested the government to remedy the situation of Mahmoud Mubarak Ahmad, a medical doctor held without charge or trial since January 1995, in contravention of Egypt's international legal obligations. The working group had raised the case with the government in June 1998 but received no response. In its December 1999 report, the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances stated that it had submitted new information to the government on seven cases, and had received a response on one case.

The U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on May 2 and 3 considered Egypt's initial report on the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In its concluding observations, adopted on May 12, the committee noted improvements in the educational system and the reduction of illiteracy, granting divorce rights to women, and improvements in the public health system. However, it criticized the state of emergency for limiting "the scope of implementation of constitutional guarantees for economic, social and cultural rights," and expressed concern about infringements of workers' and women's rights, child labor, media censorship, and freedom of association. The committee recommended, among other things, that the Law on Civil Associations and Institutions (Law 153/1999) be repealed or amended to conform with Egypt's constitution and its international obligations, noting that the law "gives the government control over the rights of NGOs to manage their own activities, including seeking external funding." The committee further recommended that the new Personal Status Code be reviewed to remove provisions that discriminate against women, and that new labor laws be promulgated "to protect children from abusive working conditions" and to eradicate child labor.

European Union

The European Parliament, in a January 20 resolution, expressed concern about "sectarian clashes between Copts and Muslims in Egypt, which resulted in the deaths of more than 20 Egyptian citizens in several villages in Upper Egypt on 1 and 2 January 2000." The resolution called on Egypt to "raise awareness about religious tolerance and respect for human rights and minority freedoms by launching a campaign on sectarian hatred and violence," and to consider the abolition of the death penalty. It also expressed support for the stated efforts of the Egyptian government to investigate the clashes and to compensate those injured.

The E.U. Commissioner for External Relations Chris Patten visited Egypt on April 1 for talks with Prime Minister Atef Obeid and senior cabinet members focusing on E.U.-Egypt relations, the Middle East peace process and the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement. Negotiations over the Association Agreement were concluded in June 1999 but as of October 2000 Egypt had not signed it. On September 6, the European Commission adopted a series of recommendations in preparation for the Fourth Meeting of Euro-Mediterranean Foreign Ministers, scheduled to be held in Marseilles on November 16 and 17. These urged Egypt to sign the Association Agreement and, referring to E.U. economic assistance mechanisms, advocated "greater emphasis on human rights issues," in order to make financial assistance programs "more dependent on substantial progress in these areas."

United States

The U.S. remained Egypt's largest provider of foreign aid, with military assistance in fiscal year 2000 estimated at U.S. $1.3 billion and U.S. $727 million in economic support funds, but U.S. criticism of Egypt's human rights record remained muted. For fiscal year 2001 the Clinton Administration requested U.S. $1.3 billion in military assistance and U.S.$695 million for economic support funds, describing Egypt as "a key supporter of the Mideast peace process ... [and] an indispensable ally in the region." The administration's budget document stated that 10 percent of the economic support funds were for educational and health programs, as well as to "support democracy by assisting civil society organizations' role in public decision-making."

In the case of Sa'adeddin Ibrahim (see above), who held dual Egyptian-U.S. citizenship, the State Department several times called on the Egyptian government to press formal charges or release him from detention.

In its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1999, the State Department said that Egypt "continued to commit numerous human rights abuses, although its record improved somewhat over the previous year, mainly due to a decrease in terrorist activity by Islamic extremists." In its Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2000, released on September 5, the State Department claimed to observe "a trend toward improvement in the Government's respect for and the protection of the right to religious freedom."

President Mubarak visited Washington, D.C., in late March, and President Clinton stopped briefly in Cairo on August 29 to discuss Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In neither case was there any indication that human rights issues were on the agenda. Prior to President Mubarak's March visit, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom as well as several U.S. legislators publicly urged President Clinton to raise the issue of sectarian violence and alleged discrimination against the Coptic Christian community.