The Daily News Egypt speaks with Gamal Eid, the executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, on the seriousness of human rights violations in Egypt since the 25 January revolution. The human rights activist says that while human rights during Mubarak’s presidency were systematically abused, after the revolution violations become more egregious. That said, Eid the number of activists in prison today is between 2,000 to 3,000, down from 11,000 in the first seven months following the uprising.
How would you evaluate the status of human rights and individual freedoms in Egypt, especially since the 25 January revolution? Recent reports by Human Rights Watch and the UNHCR suggests the situation has severely deteriorated recently.
The situation from 11 February 2011 until the present can’t be represented on a continuum. There were times where significant progress was achieved in the field of human rights and at other times human rights suffered major setbacks. The period between 11 February 2011 and the following June was marked by brutal human rights violations, but which could not be described as being systematic. What characterised human rights violations during Mubarak’s presidency is that they were systematic, especially in the last 15 years, following the state’s armed confrontation with jihadist groups. In the first months following the revolution, people were doubtful whether the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) would transfer power to a democratic government, or would represent a continuation of Mubarak’s repressive regime. These doubts were legitimate in light of the first forceful removal of Tahrir Square demonstrators on 25 February 2011.
The army deployed special ‘777’ and ‘999’ units to violently evacuate the demonstrators. This was compounded by the ‘virginity tests’ scandal on 9 March 2011, which raised alarm bells for those still undecided about the intentions of SCAF. People started seeing that there was an attempt to curtail the revolution and kill it in its cradle. Even during Mubarak’s presidency the Military Police never broke into the university to put and end to a demonstration by mass communications students. As such, the violations were more egregious, but not systematic.
How do you assess the brutality of such violations?
There are two aspects. In this climate of uncertainty, SCAF needed to clearly state its policies. While the SCAF was violently reacting to citizens and journalists, it did not show the intention to humiliate Egyptians and degrade their morale. Adopting the old regime’s systematic methods of violations at a time when people’s fear of the state was reduced, risked sparking a new revolution against SCAF.
This stage saw demonstrations being attacked with no respect to any rules, the military police breaking into Cairo University and beating and tasering students. The prosecution of large numbers of journalists before military tribunals never happened under Mubarak.
During the former regime, a journalist might be called in for questioning but would probably not be prosecuted. In the last ten years of Mubarak’s rule, those arrested in freedom of expression cases did not exceed ten. The first few months after the revolution, it was noticed that a large number of bloggers, journalists and media professionals were in the spotlight. SCAF afterwards followed a strategy of defamation, and seeding of division between political forces. At the same time people started to notice that violations were taking another form due to remnants from Mubarak’s regime. Political parties changed their attitude. But although political parties and forces have started to diminish their activities, the role of the civil society has stepped up, especially after the famous cases of virginity tests.
It was after this that observers realised how hard working civil society organisations had been during Mubarak’s rule. During this stage, and after the remarkable achievements of civil society, these institutions were attacked, with claims that they were operating under illegal foreign funding levelled at them. Then we saw attacks on political powers like the Socialist Revolutionist, Kefaya movement, Ahmed Maher and April 6 youth movement. I would characterise this as a deliberate strategy.
At the same time, we saw the uneven application of justice by the judiciary, with many of those charged with corruption found not guilty. Improving the judiciary and the public prosecutor could have been the first step towards a genuine revamp of police forces and its institutions.
After dissecting the status of human rights since the start of the revolution until June 2011, how would you characterise the violations from that period until today?
Since June 2011 there has been no improvement in human rights whatsoever. We saw that the former regime with all its violations of human rights is being restored once again. The media has implemented an agenda of provocation in place of the Mubarak-era practice of distortion and misreporting. The media provocation under SCAF resulted in deaths, for example during the Maspero incidents. In some instances, the Muslim Brotherhood were used to defame civil state advocates, and the opposite also took place when civil state advocates and secularists were called upon during the Friday of ‘Civil Egypt’ to defame the Islamist movement. The values of democracy were absent.
There were more human rights violations, though less egregious than before. The first stage was characterised by brutal violations, which were not systematic. The second stage consisted of violating human rights using the media as a tool, accompanied by a policy of judicial impunity. This allowed the remnants of the ousted regime to regroup. As such, anti-revolution media began to present a discourse of hatred. Military trials skyrocketed in a way Egypt has not witnessed in 30 years.
During Mubarak’s rule about 1200 individuals faced military trials. There were state security courts, but military courts were far less in number. In the first seven months following the revolution, from February to September 2011, SCAF prosecuted around 11,000 people before military courts. Meanwhile, the campaign against military trials was strong and clear, and enjoyed the participation of revolutionist youth, political powers, and writers who had been once either supporters of SCAF or confident about SCAF’s intentions. As a result, the numbers facing military trials declined from September 2011 until now.
By how much did this figure decrease?
In the past three months 3,000 people, as opposed to 11,000 in the first seven months. Not all of those facing military trials are necessarily imprisoned. Judgments passed against some of those people were overturned by a moratorium. Some were found not guilty, while others completed their sentence. In view of this, we estimate that those currently in prison are between 2,000 and 3,000 persons.
Are those detainees?
No, there have been no detainees since the cancellation of the Emergency Law. Detainment is an administrative, not a judicial, decision. It occurs following a decision by the Minister of Interior pursuant to the Emergency Law, and not through a court. Absent any state of emergency, there is no automatic ability to detain citizens. However, some state security and military cases were fabricated against some persons.
What was the number of detainees before the cancellation of the Emergency Law?
Given the difficulty of obtaining good information it’s hard to say but from the start of June 2012 we estimate the number of detainees under the Emergency Law, whether on political or criminal grounds, was around 300 persons. We think 80 out of the 300 were Islamists.
Military trials are a violation of human rights. Civilians should not be put before anything other than a civil judiciary. Those imprisoned on either military judiciary grounds or as part of specific cases are between 2,000 and 3,000. Specific cases include for instance the Suez incidents, the Council of Ministers case, and other cases related to demonstrations and strikes.
Does this mean that demonstrators were arrested, and cases were then fabricated and filed against them?
Exactly. We now have about seven ongoing cases, including the Mohamed Mahmoud Street case, which comprises 379 accused persons. Those 379 persons were set free, meaning that they attend court dates and then go home. Other cases include the Council of Ministers and the Port Said events. There are also the Suez cases. Some of the accused persons have been set free, and others are still in custody. Others received final rulings, such as those imprisoned following military court verdicts. The Committee on the Conditions of Military-Trialled Persons was formed, and included government and civil society representatives.
Are mere talks about cancelling laws to safeguard women’s rights considered a violation of human rights?
Of course. Compounding this, opposing voices defending women’s rights are absent from this debate. What we know now is that some extremists and salafists are organising a march against the Ru’ya Law, which, in addition to representing women’s rights, also protects children. They give the term ‘Suzanne Laws’ to these laws in the hopes of stirring public opinion. In fact these laws gave back to women some of their rights.
How would you comment on labour rights after the revolution?
As for the issue of workers, one cannot deny the great role that played in the revolution between 5 and 11 February 2011. Everything was closed in Egypt between 28 January and 5 February 2011, including companies. The power of workers manifests in their factories, when they conduct strikes. After they were first dissolved in the crowds of Tahrir Square, their return to their companies and factories, accompanied by their strikes, was decisive in accelerating the fall of Mubarak. After the downfall of Mubarak, workers continued demanding their rights after the success of the revolution, however, media used the weasel term ‘professional strikes’ to describe their industrial action. In essence, these strikes are social and not professional. Demanding your rights is a right. Their calls were ignored, and many of them were persecuted. The only choice workers had was to escalate their strikes. Nevertheless, just like the rest of the people, they started seeing that murderers are free to wander around. The result was that workers have returned once again to their strikes. Now we are experiencing a rising wave of strikes, instigated by the workers’ unmet demands and by the deteriorating work conditions during this period following the revolution. The old regime continues to maintain control behind the scenes, and serve the interests of capital and industry owners. The best example is Ceramica Cleopatra and Mohamed Aboul-Enein.
Speaking about the famous students strikes that hit many Egyptian universities, what do do you see as the status of their basic rights?
The revolution is a group expression of opinion. Egyptians took to the streets to express their opinion of Mubarak, and to demand restoration of their dignity. If students don’t feel free to express their opinion inside universities, society is clearly suffering from a fundamental flaw. What happens is that numerous students are either dismissed or sent to trials because of their views. The dismissal of some students yesterday from Akhbar Al-Youm Academy was decided by a holdover from the National Democratic Party (NDP), Ahmed Zaki Badr. He dismissed six students because they dared to criticise him. At the very start, the Media College students demanded the resignation of the dean, who had been writing Mubarak’s public speeches. Student rights have been lost.
As a lawyer and human rights activists, what’s your point of view regarding trials of police officers who were proven innocent in cases relating to the killing of protestors?
What happened is that those persons who were charged of criminal offenses were not held in custody, and were not even stopped from performing their jobs. This allowed corrupt police officers to exert pressure on martyr families, to press for charges to be dropped, and to secure changes to their parole conditions. This allowed officer to essentially get away with murder and explains the series of cases where police officers plead not-guilty and were set free. If such police officers didn’t in fact exert pressure on martyr families, they certainly had the opportunity to use their contacts to acquire certificates from the Ministry of Interior testifying they were somewhere else other than at the crime scene. What offered them such opportunity was their freedom to work and remain at large, which leads us to the issue of judicial reform.
The General Attorney, when he was protecting Mubarak’s regime and punishing dissident journalists and bloggers, settled cases in a matter of days if they were filed by a police officer. However, when such cases are filed against a police officer or a high-ranking official, they can drag on for months.
What is your relationship with the National Council on Human Rights?
Civil society should consist of independent institutions. In democracies, civil society organisations form the bridge between the citizen and the government. Cvil society institutions are present by default in areas where government access is limited. It interacts directly with citizens through the provision of health, educational, economic, and other services. The civil society also proposes practical solutions to problems within the government, and publicises rights violations. In Egypt, this space was not granted to the civil society. Before the revolution there was just the regime and the citizens – with no place for civil society. The state was not on good terms with civil society, given the extent of its human rights violations. After the revolution, SCAF continued to regard civil society as an opposition front, while the National Council on Human Rights remained a half-governmental body. Nominally, it belongs to the civil society, but was formed by Mubarak and then maintained by Sharaf and SCAF. It continues to exist, but with less credibility due to its relative bias towards the government at the expense of human rights and citizens. Therefore, we do not really trust it.
Do you see grounds for future cooperation with the National Council on Human Rights?
I do not see any possibilities for cooperation with this council. Before the revolution, we repeatedly said that when this council really proved its commitment to human rights and stopped working to beautifying the image of the government; only then could we cooperate with it. However, some other organisations still coordinate with this council. Egypt has 160 civil society organisations and there is an expression ‘GONGOs’, which refers to governmental non-governmental organisations. The term is used to describe civil society institutions that are biased to the government; and unfortunately they are many such organisations in Egypt.
Even now that Morsy is President, I think this council is suffering from a great deal of imbalance, because of the general atmosphere of uncertainty in Egypt. Some institutions are supportive of SCAF, others are biased towards the Muslim Brotherhood and some are trying to figure out how to manipulate both to extract the utmost benefit to themselves. If the National Council on Human Rights had adhered to the values of human rights, they could have easily passed this difficult stage. The problem is that members of this council are not used to the idea of sticking to the basics of law. They are used to sugar coating their criticism of the government that originally hired them.
Among Egypt’s 160 civil society organisations, there are only seven or eight which are considered independent institutions that properly safeguard human rights within the country. These organisations include Al-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims and Violence and the Egyptian Center for Human Rights. But there are other organisations that superficially exist in the field of human rights to receive funds from the government with a minimum of effective activity. Some other institutions exist just to serve SCAF or the Muslim Brotherhood. When serving a certain institution interferes in the proper work of civil society organisations, it deliberately destroys the essence of human rights itself.
In spite of the small number of hardworking human rights organisations, I see them making positive gains. Not only due to the efficient work these institutions are undertaking, but because after the revolution, ordinary Egyptians are more aware of their rights as humans.
For example, if you look at freedom of expression, there are thousands of journalists and bloggers today who freely express their opinions without fear of punishment. I believe this is a great step forward. If you take a look on Twitter, everyone is tweeting whatever they feel or can think of. This is an improvement with regards to freedom of expression. I don’t think this development comes as a result of Morsy’s presidency or the rising wave of Islamists, but because Egyptians have decided to claim their rights after the uprising.
How do you see the status of human rights within Morsy’s four-year term?
I don’t foresee any serious attacks on human rights in the next two years. Maybe after that, when Morsy fortifies his presidency, there will be a greater tendency to attack human rights, especially in the spheres of personal freedoms, women’s rights and freedom of artistic expression. However, these attacks wouldn’t necessarily mean an overall triumph against human rights.
So far, the early signs of Morsy’s rule are not satisfactory. This has been clear in his slow pace in releasing those standing in front of military trials. Even if he had promised to release them earlier, his slow-witted approach is unfair in itself.