Egypt receives rare international rebuke for human rights violations

The statement condemning the Egyptian regime was signed by more than 30 countries

Borzou Daragahi
Friday 12 March 2021 18:12
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Finnish diplomat urges Egypt to improve its human rights track record

More than 30 nations on Friday signed on a scathing condemnation of Egypt’s record of human rights abuses under rule of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, a staunch partner of the west and an enthusiastic customer of its weapons.

The statement, issued during the ongoing session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, urged Egypt to halt repression of human rights and civil society activists, dissidents, lawyers, critics and LGBTI individuals, many of them persecuted under the blanket excuse of fighting terrorism.

Among those signing the statement were the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy. These western states are key economic and military partners of Mr Sisi’s Cairo regime, which came to power nearly eight years ago after toppling the country’s first freely elected president.

“We remain deeply concerned about the trajectory of human rights in Egypt,” said a statement issued by Kirsti Kauppi, the Finnish ambassador to the human rights council. “We urge Egypt to guarantee space for civil society – including human rights defenders – to work without fear of intimidation, harassment, arrest, detention or any other form of reprisal.”

The 31 nations signing onto the statement are the largest contingent denouncing Egypt via the human rights council since Mr Sisi came to power in 2013; more states may sign on to the statement over the next month. But the signatories were mostly confined to western and European nations, and included no Arab, African, or Asian countries. Bosnia was the only Muslim-majority country that supported it. 

Egypt has yet to respond to the declaration. It has a long record of condemning any international attention on its human rights abuses as unwelcome foreign interference.

Egypt has for years deftly deflected international concerns by focusing attention on its counter-terrorism and security challenges, and unlike Iran, Russia, or China has escaped harsh western scrutiny for its human rights violations, which include disappearing political dissidents, torturing detainees, and holding prisoners of conscience in dank, overcrowded prisons for months without access to legal recourse. Former US President Donald Trump famously referred to Mr Sisi as “my favourite dictator” and overlooked all but persecution of American nationals.

Human rights groups hailed Friday’s statement.

“The March 12 declaration ends years of a lack of collective action at the UN Human Rights Council on Egypt, despite the sharply deteriorating human rights situation in the country,” Bahey el din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said in a statement. “Countries should continue to make it clear to the Egyptian government that it will no longer have a carte blanche to arbitrarily imprison, torture or violate the right to life or unlawfully kill people.”

Mr Sisi, a former military and intelligence officer, launched an escalating crackdown to roll back democratic gains won in the aftermath of a 2011 uprising. The human rights council statement urged Egypt to open up civil society, and lift travel bans and asset freezes targeting groups such as the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the country’s most prominent human rights watchdog. It also called on Egypt to stop blocking the websites of independent media outlets.

But in recent months, the Egyptian authorities appear to have grown more confident internationally, recently resuming diplomatic relations with rivals Qatar and Turkey. Both countries supported the presidency of the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, whom Mr Sisi shoved from power and jailed following weeks of popular protests.

On Friday, Turkey announced it had resumed diplomatic contacts with Egypt strained over the coup and Mr Morsi’s 2019 death. “We hope that we can continue this process with Egypt much more strongly,” said Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Egypt and Turkey are finding their interests becoming more aligned on issues of eastern Mediterranean security and energy exploitation, as well as restoring order to Libya, where Cairo and Ankara have found themselves supporting clashing camps.

None of the western countries that signed has indicated it was willing to halt arms to Egypt, which have blossomed under Mr Sisi, according to a report in October by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. According to the report, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada, Netherlands have sold Mr Sisi fighter jets, military transport planes, submarines, aerial drones, radar and control systems, naval warships, and guns.

“Egypt’s arms procurement expanded significantly after al-Sisi became president,” said the report. “Notably, France...has emerged as one of the largest arms suppliers to Egypt, alongside Russia.”

The statement by Ms Kauppi gave a nod to the increasing security partnership between Mr Sisi and the west, while warning of overreach. “We recognise Egypt’s role in supporting regional stability, managing migration, fighting against terrorism, and recall the need to counter terrorism in full respect of international human rights law,” she said. “However, we are deeply concerned about the application of terrorism legislation against human rights activists, LGBTI persons, journalists, politicians and lawyers.”

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