Egypt: Human rights and its relationship with the UK

In 2011, Egypt was the second country, after Tunisia, to be affected by the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ - a wave of both violent and nonviolent demonstrations against numerous dictators and autocrats in North Africa and the Middle-East. The demonstrations led to the overthrow of the then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and the instillation of a new government. Mubarak had been frequently criticised for violating human rights in Egypt.

Immediately after the ‘Arab Spring’, it was hoped that the protests would lead to greater human rights protections in Egypt. However, sadly, this does not appear to be the case. The UK was heavily criticised for its alliance with Mubarak, which was in place throughout the 2000s. Similarly, the UK Government is increasingly being criticised for its support for the current President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

The UK and Egypt

Egypt is a longstanding ally of the United Kingdom, and UK ministers have continued to express support for the Egyptian Government. In 2015 President Sisi visited the UK on an official visit and was hosted by the then Prime Minister David Cameron. Last month, the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson expressed public support for Egypt in a visit to the country when he said:

The UK is a longstanding friend of Egypt. We are Egypt’s top economic partner and strong allies against terrorism and extremist ideas. The UK is a champion of a renewed Egypt, because stability, peace and growth in this region are the bedrock of opportunity and security for British people and people in the region.

The UK’s relationship with Egypt is contentious. Egyptian author and activist Ahdaf Soueif has said that President Sisi’s visit to the United Kingdom in 2015 gave legitimacy to the Egyptian Government and allowed it to ignore its human rights violations. The human rights charity Reprieve has called upon the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to publicly voice its concern about human rights abuses in the country. British historian Mark Curtis has argued that the UK’s close relationship with Egypt is tied to its close commercial and military ties. He has stated that “nothing has been allowed to upset military and commercial relations.”

The UK Government has, in some cases, been publicly critical of the Egyptian regime. In 2015, UK Ambassador to Egypt John Casson criticised the sentencing of three al-Jazeera journalists and in 2016 it was reported that FCO concerns about Egypt’s human rights record had led to a step change in relations with their government.

Human Rights Abuses in Egypt

Various Egyptian governments in recent decades have been accused of violating human rights. For example, Neil Hicks, a leading expert on Egyptian human rights, highlights autocratic practices under President Sadat, who ruled Egypt from 1970 until 1981, such as the imprisonment of opposition figures from across the political spectrum including Coptic priests, Muslim Brothers, Liberals and Nationalists. In addition to this, under President Mubarak, Human Rights Watch reported that human rights violations such as torture, arbitrary detention and unfair trials before state security and military courts were widespread and routine.

In 2013, the US NGO Freedom House reported that human rights violations had continued under his immediate successor President Morsi of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, such as a constitutional declaration that removed the authority of the judiciary to contest his decisions.

The new Egyptian constitution, agreed after the military overthrow of Morsi in 2013, and based on the previous Egyptian Constitution of 1971, emphasises freedom of expression and equality between the sexes. However, a recent FCO report found that the rights enshrined in this new constitution are not being adhered to and that the human rights situation in Egypt under the military rule of President Sisi is deteriorating.

There are three human rights in particular that are said to be being undermined in present-day Egypt: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and protection from violence for women in particular.

Freedom of speech

Freedom House found that Egyptian authorities clamp down on journalists that stray from narratives officially sanctioned by the Egyptian Government. A new law, passed by President Sisi in 2015, introduced faster court proceedings, increased pre-trial detention, and imposed hefty fines for "false" media reports. Dozens of journalists were physically assaulted during 2015 by both security agents and civilians.

At the end of 2016, a court in Cairo ordered a freeze on the assets of five leading human rights activists and three human rights organisations. A new law was then drafted a few months later banning independent Non-Government Organisations from undertaking human rights work.

A 2013 decree by interim President Mansour, which effectively bans all anti-government protests, remains in place. It has been called deeply restrictive by Human Rights Watch.

Freedom of religion

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that there has been a continued increase of Egyptian courts prosecuting, convicting and imprisoning Egyptian citizens for blasphemy, which includes practices that deviate from mainstream Islamic beliefs or whose activities are alleged to jeopardize “communal harmony” or insult Judaism, Christianity or Islam.  

Christian Solidarity Worldwide report that freedom of religion is suppressed, especially in specific areas of Egypt. A Freedom House report in 2015 found that there had been abuses against Coptic Christians such as forced displacement, physical assaults, bomb and arson attacks, and blocking of church construction. Human Rights Watch also report that authorities impose “reconciliation sessions” that allow Muslim perpetrators of violence, sometimes fatal, against Christians to escape prosecution.

Similar allegations of trying to convert citizens were made against Shiite Muslims, leading to the closure of a charity and the arrest of an activist. Egypt is a majority Sunni Muslim country. An Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights report highlighted the persecution that Shiite Muslims face, with examples including the incitement of violence and the use of torture against them.

In mid-2016, the Egyptian Parliament passed a law that imposed restrictions over the construction and renovation of churches: specifically, granting powers to officials to deny church-building permits with no appeals process, and requiring churches to be built “commensurate with” the number of Christians in the area.

Violence against women

A report by the Worldwide Movement for Human Rights found that since President Sisi led a military coup in 2013 against President Morsi and then won a democratic election in 2014 there has been a surge in sexual violence by the security forces. Victims include members of NGOs, students, women and those perceived as endangering the moral order.

According to the 2015 Egyptian Health Issues survey, around nine out of ten women between the ages of 15 and 49 had undergone female circumcision. In 2016, the Egyptian Government passed a law prohibiting FGM but to date there has only been one successful conviction.

Brigadier General Nahed Salah was appointed to a new position in 2015 to combat violence against women, which Human Rights Watch has described an endemic in Egypt. But Salah publicly urged women to avoid talking or laughing loudly in public and to be cautious about how they dress to avoid street harassment.

Conclusion

Evidence from a wide range of sources suggests that the Egyptian Government is continuing to violate human rights. Egypt is a key economic and security, but the UK Government is increasingly being criticised for failing to lambast Egypt’s human rights violations, which seemed to be focussed on undermining freedom of expression, freedom of religion and protection against violence.

Michael Hough is a research assistant at Bright Blue