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  • Transitional Injustice:Egypt's Human Rights Reversals after the Uprising

for a concise summary of egypt's deplorable human rights record under President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, we could not do better than the August 21, 2018, "memorandum of justification" accompanying US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's waiver of human rights–based restrictions on US military funding to Egypt. "The overall human rights climate," the memo states, "continues to deteriorate." It then identifies arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, and deaths in detention, as well as "increased restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of association, and the right of peaceful assembly" (Toosi 2018).

The 2011 uprising had opened space for free expression, association, and assembly, space that had been closed for decades. People felt free to speak their minds about politics without fear of arrest or prosecution. There were clashes, but generally citizens could organize strikes and protests without being brutally dispersed by the police. Media outlets critiqued the government and security forces with unprecedented vigor. Once-banned movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, worked in the open. There were free and fair elections for president and parliament. The government of President al-Sisi, and that of the preceding military-backed interim president, systematically reversed these gains, with the often enthusiastic cooperation of the judiciary. Al-Sisi summarized his objective when he told a conference [End Page 337] on November 5, 2018, "After all the effort we have done, all we are hoping for is that we go back to where we were before 2011" (Hendawi 2018a).

Certainly, in the domain of human rights, al-Sisi has frog-marched Egypt back more than five decades with a ferocious and comprehensive political repression unmatched since the worst days of President Gamal Abd al-Nasr's rule in the 1960s. This is part of a regional trajectory that saw numerous countries ravaged by armed conflict and consolidation of authoritarian rule. But this is not the whole story; economic performances have generally been quite poor, and the recent experience of revolt has not been erased. In all the Arab countries that experienced popular uprisings starting in 2010–2011, the insurrectionary moment was provoked by systematic and egregious human rights abuses.

In Egypt the trigger was torture and police brutality "on an epidemic scale" (Stork 2012, 464). Writing in these pages in 2012, I characterized the military-run transition following Hosni Mubarak's departure as "highly uncertain" in its human rights implications, but I too-optimistically forecast that, under the Muslim Brotherhood, the most difficult conflicts would concern freedom of expression and religious belief and women's rights. Surveys showed popular support for democratic rights and accountability (Pew 2012; Barsalou and Knight 2014). But the military coup that ousted Morsi just a year later, with considerable popular support at the time, ushered in a level of repression far more severe than that under Mubarak's three decades of rule.


Morsi's presidency was fraught with political conflict with the army, security services, and judiciary. Shortly before he took office, the Constitutional Court invalidated the parliamentary election in which Brotherhood candidates had dominated, and the Supreme Committee of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued a "constitutional decree" abrogating to itself legislative authority. On August 5, 2012, just weeks into Morsi's term, armed militants attacked two military checkpoints [End Page 338] in northern Sinai, near the border with Gaza and Israel, killing 16 soldiers. Morsi responded by forcibly retiring the defense minister and replacing him with General al-Sisi, then head of military intelligence, as well as dismissing other top officers. Morsi proposed legislation that would lower the retirement age, with the intent of ridding the judiciary of older judges considered hostile to the Brotherhood agenda. In November 2012, he issued a "constitutional declaration" proclaiming decrees and legislative amendments issued by the presidency to be immune from "legal challenge in any way or before any party" pending the enactment of a new constitution and elections for a new parliament (Human Rights Watch 2012).

Morsi's tenure was marked by clashes between supporters and opponents. In early December 2012, clashes outside the presidential palace resulted in 10 deaths. Brotherhood members held captive four dozen protesters for a time. When Morsi commented that those detained "confessed" to being "hired thugs," he lent credence to allegations that the protestors had been physically abused. In June 2013, in a village close to Cairo, months of anti-Shia hate speech by Salafi sheikhs led to the mob lynching of four Shia men. Morsi made a perfunctory call for an investigation but failed to insist that Shia Muslims in Egypt had the right to practice their religion. He alienated a nervous Coptic Christian community by declining an invitation to attend a January 2013 Christmas ceremony.

Morsi had little control over a largely hostile police force, which often resorted to lethal force excessively and incompetently. In January 2013, street violence erupted in Port Said after a court sentenced 21 residents to death in connection with killings at a soccer match a year earlier. Police continued firing after the threat against them receded, and did so again over the next two days, bringing the death toll to 50.

This episode and others, including instances of deaths in detention, displayed the desperate need for security sector reform, a challenge Morsi never addressed beyond cosmetically renaming the Interior Ministry's feared State Security Investigations unit. He declined [End Page 339] to act on or make public the report he received in December 2012 from the official fact-finding commission he had appointed to look into army and police abuses during the 2011 uprising and the 17 months of military rule that followed. Sections of the report were leaked to Egyptian and international media, alleging military responsibility for disappearances, torture, and killings over this period (Hill and Mansour 2013). Rather than undertake reforms, Prosecutor General Talaat Abdallah asserted that the report contained no evidence linking the military to the alleged atrocities, and Defense Minister al-Sisi ominously hoped "everyone thinks carefully before they offend the army." Morsi too warned against "slandering" the army (El Deeb 2013).

None of this protected Morsi from the army coup that toppled him in early July. In the clashes preceding that event, his interior minister said police would not protect Muslim Brotherhood headquarters, site of some of the worst violence in the days preceding the coup. The mass anti-Brotherhood protests in Tahrir Square between June 30 and July 2, 2013, witnessed an epidemic of rape and other sexual assaults against scores of women.


Deadly clashes between Morsi supporters and opponents, and between supporters and security forces, erupted across Egypt immediately following the army coup. On July 8, 2013, the army and police killed 51 people when they moved to break up a peaceful protest outside Republican Guard headquarters. Some six hours of deadly fire starting around 1:00 a.m. on July 27 left at least 74 dead near the Brotherhood sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya, following a call by Defense Minister al-Sisi a few days earlier for demonstrations "to give me the mandate and order that I confront violence and potential terrorism" (Fisher 2013). In early August, the interior minister announced the reinstatement of State Security Investigations veterans who had been sidelined after the 2011 uprising. [End Page 340]

The most serious incident—one of the worst massacres by security forces in recent history anywhere—occurred on August 14, 2013, when the army and police used deadly force on a large scale to end the pro-Brotherhood sit-ins at Rabaa al-Adawiya and Nahda squares. In Rabaa and five other documented incidents between July 5 and August 16, at least 1,165 people died, with the actual number likely hundreds higher (Human Rights Watch 2014). Plainclothes thugs threatened journalists who attempted to speak with bereaved family members who came to Cairo's central mortuary to claim bodies of loved ones (Nordland 2013). More than five years later, no officers have been held accountable for what likely amounted to crimes against humanity. A five-year trial of 734 Rabaa protesters concluded in August 2018, with 75 people sentenced to death, 47 to life in prison, and 374 to 15-year prison terms. Some 215 people sentenced to five years in prison, who should have been released for time served, remain jailed because they cannot pay fines amounting to tens of millions of pounds for alleged damages to public and private property.

The summer of 2013 saw mounting sectarian-motivated attacks on Christians and churches, spiking in the days surrounding the military coup and in the wake of the Rabaa massacre. The attacks followed weeks of allegations by Muslim Brotherhood supporters that Christians were implicated in Morsi's overthrow. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which documented the attacks, blamed "the anti-Coptic hatred fomented by some Islamist leaders" and "the lackluster response" of the state (EIPR 2013).

Since the July–August 2013 mass killings by security forces, further clashes killed or wounded mainly peaceful protesters. This period also saw violence on the part of opponents of the government, mostly small bombs targeting security institutions. On June 30, 2015, assailants attacked the motorcade of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat, killing him.

The deadliest antigovernment attacks took place in the northern Sinai Peninsula. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which subsequently rebranded itself as the Sinai Province of the Islamic State, has taken [End Page 341] responsibility for more than a thousand attacks since 2013; many more attacks went unclaimed, most targeting security forces or installations. According to the Washington-based Tahrir Institute, the Sinai Province has claimed or had responsibility attributed to it for 955 attacks that killed 588 security officers and 329 civilians between November 2014 and October 2016. The Sinai Peninsula was also the locus of Egyptian counter-terrorism operations, with over 27,000 arrests and more than 7,100 killed as of January 2018 (Tahrir Institute 2018, which covers armed group attacks and Egyptian counter-terrorism operations on the Egyptian mainland as well as the Sinai Peninsula).

In late 2016, the group began targeting an increasing proportion of civilians, often with sectarian motives. Suicide bombings of churches, claimed by Islamic State, killed at least 25 people in Cairo on December 11, 2016, and 45 people in Tanta and Alexandria on April 9, 2017. A string of murders in January and February 2017 in northern Sinai prompted hundreds of Christians to flee to mainland Egypt. The deadliest Islamic State attack was on a Sufi mosque in the northern Sinai village of al-Rawda, on November 24, 2017; 311 people were killed in that attack.

New (for Egypt) were incidents of extrajudicial executions, disguised to look like shootouts, of people already in custody. On July 1, 2015, security forces killed nine Brotherhood members in a Cairo apartment after initially claiming to have arrested them; relatives said security forces had arrested, fingerprinted, and tortured the men before shooting them. In January 2017, security forces in Sinai executed between four and 10 men, some of whom they had detained and forcibly disappeared months earlier. Phone videos of the scene showed the executions, which were subsequently staged in an official video to look like a shootout.

Authorities have taken no steps to hold any officers or officials accountable for mass protester killings in 2013, and courts generally exonerated the few officers charged in connection with the 2011 killings. (According to an EIPR report in early 2013, 186 police [End Page 342] were charged in connection with the 2011 killings, but only three low-level officers were convicted and sentenced to prison (see Mada Masr 2014). "Leaders have tried to wipe away histories of atrocities by foot-dragging on investigations until new bloodshed dulls memories of the old," said human rights researcher Heba Morayef (Fahim and El Sheikh 2013). On July 3, 2018, Egypt's lower house approved Law 61/2018, Governing the Treatment of Certain Senior Commanders of the Armed Forces, granting high-ranking military officers the benefits and rights of sitting ministers, among other things protecting them from prosecution for acts committed in the line of duty between the SCAF takeover in February 2011 and January 2016, when the lower house first convened. An earlier draft specified the period between July 3, 2013, and June 8, 2014, making clear that the purpose was to enshrine impunity for the murderous dispersals of protesters in the aftermath of the military coup.


The repression following the 2013 coup involved mass arrests and incarcerations, and systematically unfair trials, some involving death sentences against hundreds of people at a time. The main targets were actual or suspected Brotherhood members, supporters, and sympathizers. Security officials told the Associated Press in March 2014 that they had jailed 16,000 people over the previous eight months (Hendawi 2014). The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) credibly estimated that the actual figure was then more than 21,000, including most high-level and many midlevel leaders of the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party. A December 25, 2013, decree designating the Brotherhood a terrorist organization criminalized virtually all its activities and associations—"membership in a banned organization" served as catchall grounds for jailing. The ECESR in May estimated that by then the total jailed was 41,000. Al-Sisi had a ready explanation: "When foreigners ask me about detainees in Egypt," Al Shourouk newspaper reported him saying, "my answer is: we had no choice. We had to detain those who breached the laws, otherwise the alternative was to kill them" (Hussein 2014). [End Page 343]

The repression did not spare leftist activists like Alaa Abdel Fattah, Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma, and Mohamed Adel, all of whom ended up serving long prison terms following unfair trials. In January 2014, seven activists faced criminal charges for possession of posters advocating a "no" vote in the constitutional referendum later that month. There were roundups on national security charges for things as innocuous as handing out yellow ribbons, understood to be a symbol of the Rabaa massacre. When a Washington-based public relations firm that Egypt enlisted to burnish its image sent a film crew to shoot a bit of "order and progress" footage, the crew was quickly arrested (Rodenbeck 2014). A 31-year-old farmer landed a one-year prison term for "humiliating the military" when he named his donkey "Sisi" (Tomlinson 2014).

The pattern of politically motivated arrests spiked in 2018. In January, the retired army chief of staff Sami Anan announced that he would contest the presidential election in March; al-Sisi had him jailed. In February, authorities arrested Abd al-Moneim Abu al-Fotouh, a 2011 presidential candidate, and members of his Strong Egypt party, alleging that Abu al-Fotouh's media interviews "stir[red] chaos and instability" by urging an election boycott. A court placed Abu al-Fotouh on a national "terrorism list." Later arrests included poets, filmmakers, actors and playwrights, and a belly dancer, after al-Sisi declared that insulting the army or police constituted "high treason."

Routine and repeated renewals of pretrial detention orders keep thousands in jail without charge for months and years while "under investigation," often on flimsy and unsubstantiated charges. One example: Ola al-Qaradawi and her husband Hosam Khalaf, arrested on spurious charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, have spent 500 days (as of mid-November 2018) in separate prisons, often in solitary confinement, their jailing routinely renewed every 45 days, ostensibly for "investigations." The Criminal Procedure Code sets an outer limit of two years for pretrial detention, a limit authorities frequently ignore. In July 2014, the Interior Ministry acknowledged that 7,389 of those arrested in connection with the unrest surrounding [End Page 344] the coup a year earlier remained jailed in pretrial detention. An Egyptian newspaper aggregated Interior Ministry reports for the first five months of 2015 and estimated that the total arrests in that period were nearly 4,000 (Khater 2015).

Even when charges were serious, trials were not. Often hundreds of defendants were tried together and convicted en masse, without the faintest effort to prove individual culpability. On March 22, 2014, Judge Said Youssef sentenced 529 persons to death in connection with an attack on a police station—a ruling so gross that Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat began appeal proceedings, expressing concern for "the proper administration of justice." The same judge, on April 28, recommended death for 683 persons in connection with a separate police station attack, and confirmed 37 of the earlier death sentences. A third mass death sentencing occurred on December 2, 2014, when Judge Nagi Shehata sentenced all 188 defendants to death in connection with an attack on police in Giza province. A June 2016 acquittal of 22 protesters arrested two months earlier was a notable exception to what had become standard court operating procedure of convicting solely on the basis of a security officer's testimony. In this case the National Security officer was unable to answer the judge's questions about the criminal responsibility of each defendant. As of late November 2018, the number of judicial executions stood at 32 for the year; over the same 11 months military and civilian courts handed down at least 581 death sentences, involving "ordinary" criminal cases as well as those of a political nature and including defendants who alleged they had been tortured during the times security forces had "disappeared" them (Mada Masr 2018).

Despite the evident readiness of regular criminal courts to conduct sham trials and convict without evidence, in October 2014 President al-Sisi expanded the role of military courts by directing state prosecutors to refer to military counterparts all alleged crimes involving "public and vital facilities," including electricity transmission facilities, pipelines, roads, and bridges. (The two-year decree was renewed for an additional five years.) Three weeks later, five Al-Azhar [End Page 345] University students found themselves in front of a military court for allegedly threatening violent antigovernment protests at the university, after a Cairo criminal court ruled that it no longer had jurisdiction.

Prosecutors in some cases used the decree retroactively, including for persons released on bail by regular courts. As of January 2018, military prosecutors had brought cases of more than 15,000 civilians, including children. In one instance, a Cairo military court mistakenly handed down a life sentence to a three-year-old boy after prosecutors had failed to remove his name from the case.

The independent Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) documented 912 victims of enforced disappearances during the year from August 2015 to August 2016, 52 of whom had not reappeared at the time their report was issued. Reports of enforced disappearances were numerous enough to prompt the quasi-official National Council for Human Rights to publicly call on the Interior Ministry to follow Criminal Procedure Code requirements to present suspects to judicial authorities without delay.

One especially notorious case involved Guilio Regeni, an Italian doctoral student studying Egyptian trade unions, who was disappeared in downtown Cairo in January 2016. His body was found along the Cairo-Alexandria highway; an autopsy showed that over the course of four days he had been brutally beaten, burned, and stabbed before his torturers broke his neck. US intelligence officials later said they "had incontrovertible evidence" that Egyptian security officials had abducted, tortured, and killed him (Walsh 2017). On November 29, 2018, Italian media reported that Rome prosecutors, frustrated with the lack of Egyptian collaboration in the joint investigation, had added the names of five Egyptian security officials to their list of suspects, including two National Security Agency officers, after Egypt declined to question any security officials in connection with the case, claiming there was not enough evidence to warrant their prosecution.

On July 3, 2017, the Supreme Administrative Court, considering the facts regarding the April 2014 disappearance of Asmaa Khalaf, a doctor in Assiut, ruled that the Interior Ministry is obligated to divulge [End Page 346] the location of persons in custody, and whether they remain alive or are deceased. The ruling appears to have had little effect on the behavior of the state.

According to the Cairo-based Stop Enforced Disappearances campaign, authorities had "disappeared" at least 230 people between August 2017 and August 2018. One emblematic case is Ibrahim Metwally, an attorney and cofounder of the Association of Families of the Disappeared, whom authorities arrested on September 10, 2017, as he was about to board a flight to Geneva. Metwally was headed to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) to provide information about the disappearance of his son, Amr Metwally, who had gone missing in early July 2013. Authorities "disappeared" Ibrahim Metwally for several days before charging him with "establishing an illegal organization," "communicating with foreign entities to harm state security," and "disseminating false news." As of this writing he remains in jail, with no indication as to when he will face trial, and his son remains unaccounted for.

In its most recent report to the UN Human Rights Council, covering the May 2017–May 2018 period, the WGEID reported that it had raised 173 urgent cases with the Egyptian government, to which it had received one response, and that the number of outstanding cases had risen from 258 to 363 (WGEID 2018).


Torture at the hands of security services appeared to decline but did not cease during President Morsi's year in office. In January 2013, halfway through Morsi's year, the EIPR reported that it confirmed three out of 10 cases of deaths in custody from torture reported in Egyptian media.

The five-plus years since Morsi's overthrow have seen a wholesale resumption of torture by police, along with rampant and institutionalized impunity, particularly on the part of the Interior Ministry's National Security Agency. In June 2014 the Guardian published an exposé of widespread torture of "disappeared" Egyptians in the secret [End Page 347] Azouli prison compound, inside a large military camp near Ismailia, where suspects were stripped, forced into painful stress positions, and subjected to electric shocks. An Amnesty International researcher told the newspaper that many were arrested randomly and then tortured to learn if they had any relevant information (Kingsley 2014).

The ECRF reported that it had received 830 torture complaints in 2016 alone, and that it had documented 44 deaths from torture in custody between August 2013 and the end of 2016. Human Rights Watch documented 20 cases in considerable detail, showing a pattern of extremely painful practices designed to elicit confessions and information regarding others, or in some cases simply as punishment. All but one of those interviewed said they had told prosecutors about the torture, to no evident effect, giving the lie to official assertions that "all allegations of torture and ill-treatment are investigated and perpetrators are brought to justice" (Human Rights Watch 2017).

In March 2016 authorities charged lawyer and rights activist Negai al-Borai with offenses that could lead to 25 years in prison, after his firm conducted workshops around a proposed law to prohibit torture. The Supreme Judicial Council launched disciplinary proceedings against two judges who helped design the workshops. In February 2017, in a separate move against activists combatting torture, authorities closed down the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

A pair of court rulings announced on November 11, 2018, demonstrated the wide disparity in sentences for killings in custody and attacks on police. In one, the Cassation Court upheld death sentences against seven men convicted of killing a police officer in 2013. In the other, a court sentenced a detective and a police officer to prison terms of three years and six months, respectively, after convicting them of beating to death a 22-year-old painter they had detained arbitrarily.

Mass incarceration led to a drastic worsening of detention conditions, many times life-threatening. Al Watan newspaper, citing the Justice Ministry's Forensic Medical Authority (FMA), reported 90 [End Page 348] deaths in custody just in the governorates of Cairo and Giza in the first 10 and a half months of 2014, a 40 percent increase over a year earlier; an FMA spokesperson said the spike in deaths was primarily a result of overcrowding following the waves of arrests. The Nadeem Center reported 35 deaths mostly in police stations between early June and September 2014. The government has made no information public regarding deaths in custody countrywide. Daftar Ahwal, an independent group, reported that there had been 834 deaths in custody between February 2011 and April 2016, 493 of them since the military coup in July 2013.



From the first days after the overthrow of Morsi, Egypt's new rulers invoked terrorism to justify the police and army violence against protesters and large-scale roundups of persons suspected of being members, supporters, or sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood described above. In the words of army spokesman Ahmed Ali, "When dealing with terrorism the consideration of civil and human rights are [sic] not applicable" (Abdel Kouddous 2013). Television networks all carried a motto in the corner of their screens, "Egypt Fighting Terrorism," in English and Arabic (Kirkpatrick 2018, 258). Al-Sisi, in a March 2015 Washington Post interview, denounced the Muslim Brotherhood as "the godfather of all terrorist organizations" (Weymouth 2015).

On December 25, 2013, amid an ongoing arrest campaign targeting Brotherhood sympathizers as well as non-Brotherhood critics, the Egyptian government officially labelled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, enabling authorities to invoke those sections of the penal code (articles 86 through 99) concerning terrorism. An Interior Ministry official noted that participants in demonstrations would face five years in prison, and protest leaders risked the death penalty. This came a day after a bombing at a police station in Mansoura killed 16 and wounded 130, despite the fact that the Brotherhood [End Page 349] immediately condemned the attack, the Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis claimed responsibility, and authorities acknowledged they had no evidence of Brotherhood involvement. The Interior Ministry also announced a "hotline" for citizens to report suspected members of the outlawed organization; the front-page headline of the privately owned daily Al Yom al-Sabaa read, "The people want the execution of the Brotherhood" (Cunningham 2013).

Egypt certainly has legitimate concerns regarding terrorism, especially in northern Sinai, but the highly politicized use of those concerns to justify a campaign of annihilation against the Muslim Brotherhood and other opponents has brought extensive human rights violations in its wake. In addition to indiscriminate arrests under the "terrorism" rubric for nonviolent "crimes," such as possessing Brotherhood literature, the government shut down the newspaper of the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, and the Central Bank froze the accounts of 130 Brotherhood leaders and more than 1000 nongovernmental organizations and charities with alleged Brotherhood links. Criminal courts acting on prosecutor requests placed thousands of Egyptians on a national terrorist list, a designation that typically included a travel ban, asset freeze, and suspension of political rights. Those named were unable to contest their listings.

The government supplemented the already extensive counter-terrorism provisions in the penal code with the Terrorism Entities Law, which came into force in February 2015, enabling "competent state bodies" to dissolve designated organizations that "undermine public order," freeze their assets, close affiliates, ban membership and meetings, and strip individuals of their political rights. Law 95/2015 for Confronting Terrorism, enacted in August 2015, broadens the penal code definition of terrorism to encompass civil disobedience, allows detention without judicial review and surveillance without a court order, and labels already criminalized offenses as terrorism, thus authorizing more drastic punishments. Article 35 prohibits publication of news that differs from or contradicts Defense Ministry statements about counterterrorism operations. [End Page 350]

In April 2018 al-Sisi ratified the Law to Regulate Procedures for the Seizure, Enumeration, Management and Disposal of Assets of Terrorist Organizations and Individuals, enabling the state to confiscate the assets of designated individuals and organizations. A few days later a court added 1529 persons to the national terrorist list, allowing for the seizure of their assets. On September 11, 2018, the Committee for Inventory, Seizure and Management of Terrorist Funds announced it had confiscated the assets of nearly 1600 individuals, more than 1100 NGOs, 175 schools and hospitals, and 33 television stations and websites, and reportedly transferred 60 billion Egyptian pounds ($3.4 billion) to the state treasury (Mahmoud 2018). In October 2015 the Interior Ministry announced it had arrested 12,000 people so far that year on terrorism charges.

The government invoked a state of emergency for the northern Sinai Peninsula in April 2014, and for the entire country in April 2017, following two church bombings. The declaration extended surveillance and censorship, and provided political cover for the already ongoing mass arrests and unlimited pretrial detentions. In October 2017 authorities formally reinstated the State Security Courts Emergency Section and referred political detainees to these courts even for minor offenses. Emergency court decisions cannot be appealed.

Law Outlawing Peaceful Assembly

The post-coup military-led government moved quickly to prohibit public protests with a decree on November 24, 2013 (Law 107/2013 on the Right to Public Meetings, Processions and Peaceful Demonstrations) that gave the Interior Ministry the authority to ban and disperse any meeting "of a public nature," including those relating to electoral campaigning, if more than 10 people were involved. Article 7 of the decree set a prison term of up to five years and a fine of up to 100,000 Egyptian pounds for vaguely worded offenses such as "influencing the course of justice" or "impeding the interests of citizens," potentially criminalizing at official whim the legitimate exercise of the right to peaceful assembly. [End Page 351]

Prominent leftist opposition activist Alaa Abdel Fattah called a demonstration two days later, on November 26, to protest military trials of civilians. Police used water cannons and batons to disperse the 200 or 300 protesters and arrested scores, including Abdel-Fattah, his sister Mona Seif, and numerous human rights lawyers. A criminal court located inside Tora Prison later convicted 25 of them of violating Law 107 and sentenced them to 15 years in prison (reduced on appeal to five years) and large fines. On November 27, a court convicted 21 women and girls between 15 and 19 years old for "illegal public gathering" in Alexandria, and sentenced the 14 who were over 18 years of age to more than 11 years in prison. Their trial produced no evidence supporting the state's allegation that they had engaged in "thuggery" or rioting.

Other arrests of non-Islamist opposition activists included April 6 Movement founders Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel. In late April 2014, a court froze the activities of the April 6 Movement, responding to an individual lawyer's complaint and weeks of pro-government media vilification of the group for allegedly "defaming Egypt's image abroad" and "working with foreign hands." Maher, who had loudly criticized Morsi and initially supported the July 2013 coup, summed up the bleak turn of events, saying that "everything we rose against in the January 25th [2011] revolution is back and worse than before" (Stork 2015). The Interior Ministry announced over a thousand arrests in connection with the January 25, 2014, anniversary of the 2011 uprising. Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim told a press conference in early January that "every Friday no less than 500 to 600 get arrested." "At the beginning," he said, "we used to wait for the demonstration to turn violent, but now we confront them once they congregate. When we confront them, there are some that run, but whoever we can grab, we detain" (Loveluck 2014).

"I'm not saying protesting is rejected, no," President al-Sisi said at a Police Day celebration in January 2015 before invoking "those 90 million [Egyptians who] want to eat, drink, live and feel secure about their future." After mentioning plummeting revenues from tourism, [End Page 352] he added, "There are things that can be accepted and others that may harm the country" (Ahram Online 2015).

On December 3, 2016, Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that article 10 of Law 107, authorizing the Interior Ministry to ban protests, violated the constitution. A week later the cabinet approved a draft amendment specifying that the ministry could ban a protest after securing judicial approval. The amendment has not resulted in any practical limits on the application and enforcement of Law 107.

In 2017 the prosecutor general authorized the referral of violations of the assembly law and other decrees to the State Security Courts Emergency Section.


An outspoken media had been a significant consequence of the 2011 uprising, continuing through Morsi's year as president. Since 2013, though, Egypt has been among the worst countries for jailing journalists, writers, and critics generally whose sole offense is the written or spoken word.

The campaign to silence critics enlisted not just the military, police, and judiciary but also all the major print and electronic media outlets, ranging from state-owned organs such as Al Ahram to the formally independent platforms whose owners were fervent supporters of the military coup. On October 26, 2014, a consortium of editors issued a statement endorsing al-Sisi's jingoistic antiterrorism campaign, asserting they would impede "Infiltration by elements supporting terrorism" and reject criticism of government policies or institutions that "may reflect negatively on their performance." Hundreds of journalists, in response, endorsed a "Gagging Is a Victory for Terrorism" statement: "Standing up to terrorism with a shackled media and sealed lips means offering the nation to extremism as an easy prey" (Associated Press 2014).

Following a BBC exposé of torture that aired on February 22, 2018, the official press center called on Egyptian officials and prominent [End Page 353] persons to boycott the British network. President al-Sisi the next day declared that "defaming" the army and police constituted "high treason." "It's no longer a question of freedom of speech," he said (Al Jazeera 2018). Several days later, authorities detained progovernment talk-show host Khairy Ramadan on accusations of "false news" and defamation after he aired a segment in which the wife of a police colonel complained of low police wages.

Around the same time, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) called for all newspaper and website editors to enroll in mandatory "strategic training sessions in media and national security." Weeks earlier, the Ministry of Higher Education reportedly signed a protocol enrolling faculty and students in similar "training sessions" (Marsad 2018).

The SCMR fined the daily Al Masri al Yom 150,000 Egyptian pounds (US$8,376) for reporting government efforts to mobilize voters in the just-concluded presidential election, which al-Sisi won once again with 97 percent of the vote, ordering the paper to apologize to the National Election Authority. Police separately raided the office of a news website and arrested the editor for republishing a New York Times article on election irregularities such as cash handouts for voters and fines for nonvoters.

According to the New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists, as of the end of 2018 there were at least 25 journalists jailed for their work in Egypt, 19 of them on "false news" charges, and others in hiding (Committee to Protect Journalists 2018). A military court on May 22, 2018, sentenced Ismail Alexandrani, a journalist and researcher who covered developments in Sinai, to 10 years in prison for allegedly publishing unspecified "secret information." He had spent nearly three years without charge in pretrial detention. Gamal Hafez, who covered the judiciary for Al Fajr, faces charges of "insulting the Supreme Judicial Council" after writing about appointments of relatives of judges and security officials. At dawn on May 23, 2018, security officials raided the apartment of blogger and rights activist Wael Abbas and took him, blindfolded, to an undisclosed location before [End Page 354] presenting him to a prosecutor three days later, alleging that he had joined "a terrorist group" and used social media to spread "false news." Plainclothes State Security officers staged a dawn raid on May 6, 2018, on the home of 25-year-old Shadi Abu Zaid, who had posted some two dozen satirical and decidedly secularist videos on YouTube; authorities are charging him, along with other non-Islamist bloggers, with "spreading false news" and "joining a banned group."

Authorities arrested Amal Fathy, a women's rights activist, in May after she posted a video on Facebook criticizing political repression and recounting an incident of sexual harassment. A court sentenced her to two years in prison for "spreading false news with intent to harm national security" and she remains "under investigation" in connection with another case, accused of joining a "terrorist organization" and "misusing the internet."

Outright censorship, intimidation, and prison are not the only ways the Egyptian government attempts to control the media. A law that went into effect in October 2018 directs online media outlets to register with the newly created Supreme Media, which has the authority to block any website for offenses including "publishing false news" and "insulting Abrahamic religions" (Mohie and al-Abd 2018). Registration requires a fee of 50,000 Egyptian pounds (US$2800) with no assurance that the council and the various security agencies will approve the application.

Hossam Bahgat, who was detained and interrogated in November 2015 after Mada Masr published his article detailing dissent in the military, documented the acquisition of key media outlets by the General Intelligence Service (GIS). Former Al Masri al Yom publisher Hisham Kassem characterized the acquisitions as "a shopping rush in response to public instructions from the president to reach the level of full media lineup behind the leader" (Bahgat 2017). One GIS media property, the DMC television network, had planned to launch a channel to rival the Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya networks with the financial assistance of Turki al-Sheikh, the Saudi sports minister close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, but negotiations were reportedly [End Page 355] suspended in the wake of the October 2, 2018, murder of Saudi exile journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The CBS network's flagship news program on January 6, 2019, aired an interview with President al-Sisi that the Egyptian government had tried to kill. When 60 Minutes broadcast the interview, Egyptian security officials instructed media in the country to not cover or even mention the broadcast.


The Egyptian government's decades-long hostility to nongovernmental civil society organizations (NGOs), especially those focused on human rights, escalated throughout the period since the 2011 uprising. While the generals were in charge, authorities continued to harass and threaten NGOs for allegedly not complying with the highly restrictive associations law of 2002, and briefly introduced even more restrictive draft legislation. State-controlled media, following the lead of Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Fayza Abul Naga, one of the few holdovers from the cabinet of former president Mubarak, regularly vilified democracy and rights activists as foreign-backed conspirators bent on destabilizing the country. (Abul Naga today serves as al-Sisi's national security advisor.)

In July 2011 the state security prosecutor announced he would investigate treason charges against unregistered NGOs that received funding from abroad, and in November banks received a Cairo criminal court order to report all private account transactions of 63 human rights activists and organizations. The Interior Ministry's National Security Agency, along with the General Intelligence Service, compiled a "fact-finding report" that was partially leaked to the media in September, naming 37 groups "under investigation." Western—mainly US—organizations that funded Egyptian groups were the initial targets: in late December 2011 security forces raided the offices of 10 NGOs, including Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the International Center for Journalists, and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and banned 17 non-Egyptian staff from leaving Egypt, accusing the groups [End Page 356] of funding opposition demonstrations at the behest of the CIA. All but one of the non-Egyptians left the country in March 2012 after the US put up some $4 million (around $300,000 per person) in bail.

In June 2013 after a trial that began in February 2012, a Cairo criminal court sentenced 43 NGO staff to between two and five years in prison for allegedly operating unlicensed organizations and accepting foreign funding with intent to "harm national security." The verdict also closed down the US and German funders. The Court of Cassation in April 2018 annulled these 2013 convictions and ordered a retrial; on December 20, 2018, the South Cairo Criminal Court acquitted the defendants of all charges.

Meanwhile, authorities ramped up the campaign to target Egyptian organizations. In July 2014 the Ministry of Social Solidarity announced that "all entities which practice civic work" had 45 days to register under the 2002 NGO law, and subsequently extended the deadline to November 10. Under Law 84/2002, then still in force, authorities can shut down groups at will, confiscate assets and property, and reject nominees to their boards.

In September 2014 al-Sisi amended by decree the penal code to allow life sentences for several broadly worded offenses, including receipt of foreign funds "with the aim of pursuing acts harmful to national interests." Leading Egyptian rights organizations cancelled plans to participate in the UN Human Rights Council's periodic review of Egypt's rights record in Geneva in November.

In June 2015 Social Solidarity Ministry "experts" visited the offices of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), requesting its registration documents, budgets, financial statements, and funding contracts from the previous four years. In February 2016, tax authorities demanded millions of Egyptian pounds in alleged back taxes and banned travel by more than 10 rights activists, and the Health Ministry ordered the closure of the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture for "performing unlicensed work." In March prominent activists were summoned for questioning, and a court-imposed gag order prohibited media reports [End Page 357] on the case. In September a court froze the assets of three groups and the personal funds of five rights defenders.

The parliament, operating in virtual secrecy, passed legislation in November 2016 criminalizing NGO work "of a political nature" and requiring that NGO activities "agree with the state's plan, development needs and priorities." President al-Sisi on May 24, 2017, signed Law 70/2017 Regulating the Work of Associations and Other Institutions Working in the Field of Civil Work, prohibiting work that "harms national security, public order, public morality or public health," vague terms that authorities can use to criminalize legitimate activities. A National Authority for the Regulation of Foreign Nongovernmental Organizations includes representatives of the General Intelligence Service, the Central Bank, and the Defense and Interior ministries. The authority has the power to interfere in virtually every aspect of NGO administration and activities, with prison penalties of up to five years for violations. As of November 2018 the government had still not issued implementing regulations for the new law. According to NGO activists, authorities have continued to use the implementing regulations of Law 84/2002 to harass and intimidate them.

Authorities are not relying solely on administrative and regulatory means to suppress the work of Egypt's human rights community. They arrested Ezzat Ghoneim, head of the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, in early March 2018. After being "disappeared" for three days, he was formally charged by the State Security Prosecution with "spreading false news" and "joining an unlawful group" (Human Rights Watch 2018). The ECRF has been at the forefront of reporting on torture and enforced disappearance. The Interior Ministry released a video on March 15 that included footage of Ghoneim in a segment alleging that human rights groups and activists contribute to terrorism. A judge ordered his release on September 4, but police kept him in custody despite the court order. As of this writing, the last time anyone had seen him was when his wife visited him in a police station on September 13, 2018, the day he was supposed to be released. [End Page 358]

On November 1, dawn raids by security forces took away 31 people from their homes, including several ECRF staff and other rights lawyers and activists. The same day, the ECRF announced that it was suspending its operations.

As of this writing, numerous human rights organizations are among the more than 500 groups, including news outlets, whose websites authorities have blocked. More than a dozen leading rights activists have had their passports confiscated and assets frozen, and been banned from travel. Scores of human rights and democracy activists have been jailed, many on the basis of violating the law criminalizing peaceful protests. Others have felt compelled by the implicit or explicit threat of prosecution or physical harm to leave the country. Some groups have relocated abroad and attempt to continue their work from outside. The number of active groups has shrunk; those that have stayed and remain active have adopted low media profiles and are operating with staffs, and capacity, at a fraction of their former selves, in part because the authorities have made funding increasingly difficult and donors have consequently scaled back support, especially for work on "sensitive" issues like torture and enforced disappearances. As one staff member put it, "we are looking at a straight line of negativity."

President al-Sisi acknowledged early in November that the new NGO law "contained phobia and a fear" of NGOs and expressed "the hope we can move to redraft it" (Reuters 2018). Prime Minister Mustafa Madbuli appointed a committee to review the law, but meanwhile wholesale arrests of political and human rights activists continue apace—at least 40 in October and November.

In this light, it is hard to miss the irony when the government announced, in late November, the creation of the High Commission for Human Rights, comprising representatives of the Foreign and Interior Ministries and intelligence agencies, with the mandate to "respond to claims" about rights violations. Al-Sisi, in a public forum a few weeks earlier, disputed criticisms of Egypt's appalling human rights record. "I want to be on record," he said, "that safeguarding nations is a human right" (Hendawi 2018b). [End Page 359]

Joe Stork

joe stork was deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch from 1996–2017, co-founded the Middle East Research & Information Project (MERIP), and from 1971–1995 was chief editor of its magazine, Middle East Report.


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