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Egypt faces backlash over response to UN criticism of human rights record

A statement signed by 31 countries has prompted furious denials from Cairo, which in turn have been met with scorn
Policewomen stand outside al-Qanatir women's prison during a government guided tour (AFP)

Egyptian opposition figures and rights advocates have lashed out at Egypt's response to a rare international statement signed by 31 countries condemning Cairo's human rights record. 

Egypt's government has condemned the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) statement, which was signed last Friday and which decried the country's stifling of dissent, paying particular attention to the use of "terrorism" charges against peaceful opponents. 

Issued during a UNHRC session, the text called on Egypt to immediately stop the repression of human rights and civil society activists, as well as dissidents, lawyers, critics and LGBTQ people. 

The United States, which has observer status at the UNHRC, was among the signatories of the joint statement, the first since 2014. 

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Following its release, Egypt's parliament, senate, and foreign ministry rejected the international condemnation and defended the country's crackdown on journalists as lawful. 

The foreign ministry issued a response calling the criticism inaccurate and incomplete, saying it would present its own rebuttal to the UNHRC highlighting the shortcomings in the human rights records of some of the signatories.

Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukri, said that the text was baseless and ignored positive achievements. 

“They focus on political aspects only, intentionally ignoring the economic and social dimensions of human rights,” he said.

In a parliamentary session earlier this week, Shoukri blamed "a strong media machine" run by "terrorist organisations" seeking to denigrate Egypt abroad. The comment was perceived by opposition journalist Gamal Sultan as the "first official confession that opposition media has triumphed over state media."

Meanwhile, Egyptian government spokesman Ahmed Jamal Bahaa El-Din used the HRC session in Geneva on 15 March to convey Cairo's response to the statement.

'Double standard'

In his speech, Bahaa El-Din said that the signatories had no right to assess the human rights situation in Egypt, calling it a double standard.

“Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Norway are described as the most respectful of human rights, yet as soon as refugees arrived to these countries they had their properties confiscated and were met with racist tweets against Africans and Muslims from their politicians.”

The spokesman also highlighted that in the countries that have signed the statement, non-white people are treated as second-class citizens. 

“Countries such as Germany, Ireland, Austria, France, Belgium and the Netherlands always call for freedom of expression and peaceful demonstrations outside their countries, but when protests happen in their counties, they are immediately shut down by force and unjustified violence,” he added. 

Translation: For history. This is the Egyptian regime’s response to the statement by 31 countries regarding the human rights situation in the country. Spokesman/Ambassador Ahmed Jamal Bahaa El-Din. Dated March 15 2021, at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. 

On Saturday, the Egyptian parliament also issued a statement in which it said that the UNHRC communique was full of innacurate claims and did not represent what was really going on in Egypt.

The Egyptian Publishers Association has also condemned the statement, calling it a blatant and unacceptable interference in Egypt’s internal affairs. 

The association further stressed that the text failed to mention Egypt’s role in eliminating terrorism in the region and the country’s efforts in adhering to internatonal human rights standards.

Social media ridicule

Egypt’s rejection of this international criticism has attracted widespread scorn from opposition politicians and social media users.

"I had hoped that the response to the human rights statement would be that we have real problems and are working to solve them instead of the canned response since the sixties that the statement is politicized and we are ok," former vice president Mohamed el-Baradei tweeted.

"Facing reality is the path to reform, beginning with the release of prisoners of conscience, and ending with the much-needed foreign direct investment."

Former minister of parliamentary affairs Mohamed Mahsoob condemned Egypt's response as "shameful."

Translation: Shameful statement in response to the condemnation of the Human Rights Council in Egypt. How can a wise person justify the degradation of human rights in their country by stating that others do the same and therefore are not permitted to criticise them. Is it difficult for them to understand that respecting the rights and freedoms of people is the duty of the ruling authority - regardless of what others do?

Translation: Even if their claims are true, there is a significant difference some isolated cases in these countries and the systematic policy of the Sisi regime regarding human rights in Egypt 

An estimated 60,000 political prisoners are being held in Egyptian jails, according to rights groups, and the country is considered the world's third-worst jailer of journalists, behind China and Turkey.

Sisi has consistently denied that there are political prisoners in the country, framing the crackdown as part of a fight against terrorism.