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  • Transitional Injustice:Egypt's Human Rights Reversals after the Uprising
  • Joe Stork (bio)

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...


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