Last week the UN put into words what many human rights organisations and activists have been saying for years now: that they are gravely concerned about Egypt’s ongoing assault on freedom of expression including the blocking of hundreds of websites and the detention of journalists in the country.
Special Procedure Mandate holders going public with a press release is one of the strongest ways they can draw international attention to an issue, Radidja Nemar, regional legal officer for North Africa at AlKarama human rights organisation told MEMO.
Incidentally, AlKarama’s website is one of roughly 130 that have been banned by the Egyptian government for allegedly supporting terrorism and spreading lies. In actual fact all of the sites – which can no longer be accessed from inside the country – are well-known for being critical of the government.
“Limiting information as the Egyptian government has done, without any transparency or identification of the asserted ‘lies’ or ‘terrorism’, looks more like repression than counter-terrorism,” confirmed the UN rapporteurs in their joint statement.
Not only does Egypt regularly, unlawfully detain and harass journalists and activists but it has created a “terror” list to help curb their activities. Those added face a travel ban; in addition, authorities can freeze their assets and withdraw their passports. They are also prohibited from holding public or parliamentary positions, practicing journalism or organising meetings and raising slogans.
With such flagrant human rights violations, what are the international community doing to put pressure on the Egyptian government to reform? For a long time many have said not enough.
For its part, the UK remains the largest investor in the country even though a wealth of information on Egypt’s heavy handed tactics has been brought to the attention of the British government.
Still, with the release of the UN statement there is hope; hope that momentum is building towards finally holding Egypt to account for human rights violations. An increasing number of Egyptian and international NGOs regularly call on powerful actors to publicly condemn violations in the country, including at the Human Rights Council’s sessions.
In August the US announced that it would halt roughly $100 million in military and economic aid to Egypt and delay some $200 million more in military financing. The red line, says Nemar, was the NGO law.
Despite promising not to, the Egyptian president approved a law at the end of May which effectively restricts the operation of some 47,000 NGOs in the country. It threatens arbitrary fees and fines, stipulates that donations over $550 have to be pre-approved and outlines a $55,000 fine for those failing to comply.
The law also requires NGOs to renew their permits on a regular basis and bans them from engaging in work that can be said to harm national security, public order, public morals or public health.
Not long after the US pledged to suspend aid to Egypt, Trump called Al-Sisi – who felt snubbed by the news – to reassure him that their friendship was strong. Many believed it was business as usual for human rights abuses in the country.
Perhaps this about turn is indicative of the wider discord between Trump and Congress, who have failed to repeal Obamacare despite the president’s best efforts and passed a bill limiting Trump’s authority to lift sanctions on Russia without their approval.
From the beginning, Nemar tells me, there has been a misunderstanding on Trump’s part about what is happening in Egypt. Trump thought that Aya Hijazi – the Egyptian-American charity worker who was imprisoned for nearly three years in Cairo and released after Trump intervened – was imprisoned by the ousted and now detained Morsi.
The president is said to have trusted Al-Sisi when he told him there were no political prisoners in Egypt. Believing this is not so difficult when you consider Trump once stated that he had tremendous support from women and lied about the President of Mexico calling him to congratulate him on his immigration policies.