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The brutal backdrop to Cop27: How Sisi's Egypt became a crucible of repression

A breakdown of why civil society activists are raising their voices against the human rights crisis in Egypt during the climate summit
An Egyptian riot policeman stands guard on top of a vehicle in Cairo during a protest against a controversial deal to hand two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia (File pic/AFP)

The annual UN climate summit (Cop27) currently being held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, has been overshadowed by criticism of the human rights record of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Egyptian and international rights groups have been campaigning under the slogan “No climate justice without open civic space”, underlining the lack of respect for civil liberties under Sisi's government.

In particular, the case of the hunger-striking detainee Alaa Abd el-Fattah has shone a light on the abuses committed against tens of thousands of political prisoners languishing in Egyptian jails.

While Egypt is a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has repeatedly accused Sisi of overseeing the country’s worst campaign against human rights in its modern history. 

Below is an overview of the human rights situation in Egypt since Sisi came to power nine years ago, after ousting his democratically elected predecessor Mohamed Morsi in a coup.

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Freedom of assembly

A year prior to becoming president, Sisi - in his then capacity as defence minister and the leader of the coup against Morsi - oversaw in 2013 a bloody crackdown on anti-coup protesters, authorising the killings of at least 1,150 predominantly peaceful protesters in one day.

The mass killings, which have become known as the Rabaa masacre, have been desribed by HRW as “likely crimes against humanity”.

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No military or police officers have been held accountable for the killings, and only the protesters have been referred to courts, where they have faced terrorism-related charges in trials widely denounced as politically-motivated.

Shortly after the Rabaa massacre, the Egyptian government introduced the Protest Law, which was seen by rights groups as effectively criminalising protests and giving security forces free rein to use excessive force against peaceful protesters. Since then, thousands of people have been detained and referred to mass trials on charges of violating the law.

In September 2019, thousands took part in anti-Sisi protests across the country, in the largest protests since 2013. Security forces dispersed the protests by force, and detained thousands, including children.

Deprivation of liberty

According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, the total number of prisoners in Egypt in March 2021 was 120,000, with an estimated 65,000 political prisoners - at least 26,000 of them held in pre-trial detention. 

There is no official tally of the number of political prisoners, and the Sisi government denies holding any dissidents in jail. 

Many of those who are arbitrarily detained are subjected to enforced disappearances, which has become a "systematic practice" under Sisi's rule, according to the Committee for Justice.

Meanwhile, rights groups have accused authorities of maintaining a policy of medical negligence, torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people since 2013.

Morsi himself suffered from poor health during his five years of detention, before collapsing in court and dying in June 2019. The UN high commissioner for human rights accused authorities of "arbitrarily killing" the 67-year-old, who it said was kept in "brutal conditions" in Tora prison.

Freedom of association

Civil society in Egypt has been dealt a crippling blow since Sisi came to power, with the crackdown on the political opposition effectively precluding the establishment of real political parties, and restrictions on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) enshrined by a law delibertately aimed at curtailing their operations. 

The law bans activities such as public opinion polls and field research without government approval and empowers the government to dissolve NGOs that operate against restrictive government regulations.

Most independent human rights groups have left Egypt and operate from abroad for fear of being prosecuted, while one of the country’s leading rights group, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, closed in January, citing persecution. 

Freedom of speech and press

Under Sisi, Egypt has become the world’s third worst jailer of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists

Independent media has been crushed and criticism of Sisi or his government is punishable by jail. 

According to Reporters Without Borders, the government and intelligence services control nearly half of Egypt’s popular media, with the rest owned by pro-government businessmen.

The few remaining independent outlets, such as Mada Masr, whose editor Lina Attalah was briefly detained in 2020,  are blocked online.

Freedom of movement

Sisi's government has also resorted to travel bans as a tool of repression against its opponents, according to rights groups.

There are no laws currently regulating the enforcement of travel bans, creating a legal vacuum that is exploited by judicial and security services.

The policy has been used systematically against civil society workers and critics of Sisi, rights groups have found.

The right to life

Under Sisi, Egypt has become the third-most prolific executioner after China and Iran, according to Amnesty International’s 2020 tally.

In 2021, Egypt issued the largest number of death sentences worldwide. Many of those sentenced to death had been subjected to torture, enforced disappearances, and politicised mass trials, rights groups have said.

Meanwhile, the security forces and the military have been accused of committing extrajudicial killings with impunity. 

Freedom from torture

Torture remains a widespread practice by the security services. International media outlets have published several revelations about torture in places of detention, but none of the incidents have been investigated by authorities and the perpetrators remain at large. 

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The issue of torture in Egypt as been under the international spotlight since an Italian parliamentary panel accused Egypt's security apparatus of the kidnapping, torture and murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni in Cairo in 2016.

A post-mortem examination showed he had been tortured before his death. Egyptian police deny any involvement in the killing.

In the first 11 months of 2021, Egypt's Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims documented around 93 incidents of torture in police detention, along with 54 deaths in police custody.

HRW said in its World Report 2022 that "Egypt's security forces act with impunity, routinely conducting arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and torture of real or suspected political activists as well as ordinary citizens". 

Socio-economic rights

Sisi has sought to downplay the importance of civil and political rights vis-a-vis social and economic rights.

Yet, the president's government has failed to prioritise education and healthcare in its annual budget - favouring instead spending on mega construction projects and repaying debts - consistently falling short of the constitutionally mandated minimum expenditure on health and education, three percent and six percent of gross national income, respectively.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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