Egypt’s new strategy for human rights is a “milestone” in the country’s history, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi says. But journalists and civil rights defenders are skeptical that it will lead to tangible change.
The five-year plan announced by the president includes commitments to political, cultural and civil rights; rights for women, children and people with disabilities; and education and capacity building.
The strategy confirms Egypt’s commitment to respect rights, el-Sissi said at a ceremony livestreamed late last month. Cairo “has always welcomed a diversity of opinion,” he added.
But journalists and analysts say that when it comes to media freedom and judicial process, Egypt has a poor track record. Others believe the plan is an attempt to secure foreign funding contingent on Egypt’s human rights record.
A leading jailer of journalists, Egypt has blocked access to websites and used laws against false news and terrorism to detain opposition voices, critics and their relatives.
Sherif Mansour, an Egyptian media expert based near Washington, says the plan “wouldn’t change the state of freedom in Egypt by any measure.”
Through his work at the Committee to Protect Journalists and personal experience, Mansour has seen how Egypt responds to critics. He and his father have both been arrested and falsely accused of belonging to a terrorist organization, and in 2020, authorities arrested his cousin, Reda Abdelrahman.
“This strategy has no teeth nor an action plan for accountability. It’s a document of contentious promises,” Mansour told VOA. “(It) doesn’t address the human rights crisis in Egypt right now.”
Opening a new chapter in Egypt requires acknowledging that el-Sissi’s government has held thousands of political detainees in poor condition in pretrial detention, with no legal rights, Mansour said.
Egypt has recently released some activists, but Mansour says they shouldn’t have been imprisoned in the first place and were denied a proper legal process.
VOA attempted to contact Egypt’s Foreign Ministry for comment, but emails were returned as undeliverable. The ministry did not respond to a request sent via its official Facebook account.
In an interview on state television last month, el-Sissi denied that Egypt had violated human rights.
Abuse of laws
Media rights groups and legal experts regularly raise two issues: the use of Egypt’s penal code to jail critics and its trend of repeatedly renewing pretrial detention periods.
For some in media, such threats have hung over them since the popular uprising in 2011 that ousted President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years.
A blogger and icon of that uprising, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, has been repeatedly detained since Egypt started to arrest large numbers of media workers and critics in 2013. The most recent arrest, in 2019, was on accusations of distributing false news and supporting a banned group.
Just two days after Egypt announced its new plan for civil rights, a court renewed Abdel-Fattah’s pretrial detention period, adding to the two years he had already spent awaiting trial.
In a statement after the hearing, Abdel-Fattah’s lawyer Khaled Ali said the blogger had spoken of taking his own life because of the poor conditions in prison.
For years, Egypt has been using its legal system to detain journalists who work for opposition outlets or are critical of el-Sissi and his government, said Sabrina Bennoui, who runs the Middle East desk for media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Journalists are often detained on accusations of belonging to or supporting a terrorist group and spreading false news, and Egypt blocks access to websites, including RSF’s, Bennoui said.
Egypt “needs a complete reform of its legal framework, which is currently used to imprison journalists in the name of national security and fight against terrorism,” Bennoui said, adding that if Cairo was serious about its strategy, it should start by releasing those wrongly imprisoned.
Another issue that rights activists say must be resolved is Egypt’s use of transnational repression, threatening or detaining relatives of critics as a form of retaliation or pressure.
This targeting of families is in violation of the constitution and law and shows a “blatant disregard for human rights values and conventions,” according to a 2020 statement by the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.
Hisham Abdullah, an actor and journalist who fled to Turkey in 2016, says Egyptian authorities have arrested members of his family and tried to pressure him in exile.
The repression has increased recently, after Cairo began negotiations with Turkey, he told VOA.
Abdullah said that in June he was suspended from El Sharq, the TV network where he works, and his show Ibn el-Balad (“Countryman”) was canceled at the request of Turkish authorities.
The journalist said he was not given an official reason for the suspension. It happened, however, after Egypt had entered talks with Turkey to restore relations that had fallen apart after the popular uprising in 2011.
El Sharq did not immediately respond to VOA’s request for comments.
Abdullah believes the move was one of Egypt’s conditions for the talks.
“As part of its negotiations with Turkey, the Egyptian government is asking to ban us from speaking out and sharing our reviews, to ban us from participating in public life and even on posting on social media,” Abdullah told VOA.
He said that Turkish authorities had asked his wife to not publish critical posts on her social media accounts.
In a TV interview in June, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry described Ankara’s efforts to reduce criticism broadcast from stations in Turkey as a “positive” step to normalizing relations.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to VOA’s request for comment submitted through its website.
Abdullah believes improving foreign relations, including with the U.S., is behind the newly announced human rights strategy.
Citing human rights concerns, the U.S. last month withheld $130 million from the $300 million it provides in annual military aid to Egypt and placed restrictions on how the remaining funds can be used.
But critics say more needs to be done to change Egypt’s systematic violation of human rights.
For Mansour of the Committee to Protect Journalists, what matters is “real aid conditionality and accountability” and “prosecuting human rights violators and imposing sanctions against Egyptian officials.”