In an interview televised last week, the Egyptian president of the National Council for Women (NCW) said a group of jailed female activists were better off behind bars than they were on the outside.
In an hour-long interview on privately-owned Dream TV Egypt, Mervat Tallawy, defended Egypt’s human rights record, pointing out the favourable conditions in which she said female activists are living in Egyptian detention facilities.
“They talk about torture inside the prisons. I went to the prisons and saw the 7 am girls and the Muslim Sisters and so on. They live better than they were living on the outside. Seriously. I asked them: Is anyone hurting you? Do you get books? Do you go out for a break? Do you go to the canteen to buy? Are there problems? There are no problems,” she told the host of ‘Kalam Tany’, a show that discusses social and political issues in Egyptian daily life.
In December 2013, 21 young women were handed prison sentences ranging from 11 to 15 years for assembling on a street in Alexandria. The group which Tallawy referred to in her interview came to be known as the '7 am movement' because the young women protested the military-led government early in the morning, on their way to university and school.
Tallawy's comments follow Egypt's human rights review which was held in Geneva on 5 November. Tallawy, who formerly served as the country's minister for insurance and social affairs, attended the hearing as a member of Egypt's official delegation which also included Minister of Transitional Justice Ibrahim El-Heneidi and representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Social Solidarity, the Ministry of Interior and the general prosecutor’s office.
During the review, several member states strongly condemned the country’s human rights conditions, with the US, UK, Germany, Sweden and Norway delegations among others calling for the withdrawal or amendment of the country's controversial protest and NGO laws. The delegations said the laws do not fall in line with the provisions for freedom of assembly and association enshrined in Egypt’s constitution or with international treaties and conventions ratified by Egypt.
Egypt was handed 300 recommendations by 121 member states, many of which focused on women's issues, amending the NGO Law of 2002, which required the registration of civil society organisations by 10 November and has been decried by human rights organisations as a means to control civil society organisations, as well as the Protest Law which has been seen by human rights activists as a means to legalise the stifling of political dissent.
In response to criticisms made about Egypt’s protests law and freedom of expression and assembly, Tallawy said in her TV interview: “While we have four years to address the recommendations given during the session, we will amend the laws as soon as a new parliament is voted in". Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi announced last week that Egypt would hold its parliamentary elections by March 2015.
“The president is currently facing very challenging times fighting [terrorism]. Raising this issue [by the international community] is a means to portray Egypt as a terrorist country that doesn’t respect the rule of law,” she added.
However, she also put up a bullish defence against the criticism of the NGO law arguing that Egyptians NGOs decrying the country's human rights record were only seeking funding from the international community.
“If they [local civic organisations] did not do this, they would not receive money from abroad. This is what it is clearly. This is their commodity, regrettably,” Tallawy said.
“Civil society organisations were used [by the West] to topple the Soviet Union. This is what we need to understand; this [civil society] is the new weapon they using [the West] are to topple the state,” she continued.
“I lived abroad more than I lived inside (the country). Even if you were to turn your ten fingers into candles and light them, you would not please them [international community]. They will always criticise. Either you submit to their policy and act according to their instructions or they'll [do] … anything to fabricate,” she continued.
Women’s rights organisations reacted to the interview with dismay.
Referring to Tallawy's interview, Rothna Begum women's rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa region at Human Rights Watch said, "As the head of the NCW she’s in a place to advocate for women activists and women’s rights activists to try ensure their rights are protected. It is unfortunate she has come out against them instead of protecting them against violations by the state or others."
"A NCW should be a body that consults with the NGOs and civil society that works on women’s rights issues and should be one that advocates for them," Begum told MEE.
According to Begum, this is not the first time that Tallawy has made such comments.
"One of the issues around the head of this body (NCW), Mervat Tallawy, has been the kind of comments she’s made against women activist which have been very concerning, particularly the last one," added Begum.
Soha el-Sheikh, representative of the Save Women and Children from Oppression (SWACO), a London-based organisation that advocates on human rights issues in the Middle East agrees: "The statement by the head of Egypt's NCW, Mervat El-Tallawy, comes as a huge disappointment from a woman who has presented herself throughout her career as a defender of Women's rights."
“Her views represent a serious blow to any hopes that the regime in Egypt will reconsider its oppressive policies against peaceful protesters and NGOs, in line with the recent recommendations made at the UN human rights review,” she added.
Nearly two weeks after the hearing in Geneva, Egyptian ministers and local media have continued to discuss the routine review which has frequently been painted as a battle between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Several local news outlets reported on the review as a victory for the Egyptian delegation which “managed to foil a Muslim Brotherhood plot” to defame the government.
Some Egyptian media reports referred to a press conference organised by representatives of the Brotherhood and other opposition activist groups prior to the conference as an attempt to “attack the government”, while Egyptian satellite channel al-Mihwar reporter Mohamed Shordy described a report, produced by the group’s legal team Irvine Thanvi Natas solicitors for the review, as a collection of “unfounded lies” that were used to “embarrass Egypt”.