Egypt: Human Rights Background
Human Rights Watch
October 2001

Egypt has long been a key country for U.S. strategy in the Middle East and will soon host some 23,000 U.S. troops for long-scheduled military exercises, Operation Bright Star. The Cairo West airbase could be an important forward-supply base for attacks on Afghanistan. For more than two decades Egypt has been one of the largest recipients of U.S. economic and military aid, second only to Israel. For fiscal year 2002 the Bush Administration has requested $ 1.3 billion in Foreign Military Financing funds, $ 655 million in Economic Support Fund assistance, and $1.2 million for training of Egyptian military officers.

Egyptian officials appear to be banking on this strategic linkage to deflect attention from the country's poor human rights record. President Hosni Mubarak told an interviewer recently that human rights arguments should not be put forward on all occasions, and that those who carry out terrorist acts have no claim to human rights. Prime Minister Atef Abeid lashed out at U.S. criticism of torture and unfair trials in Egypt. "After these horrible crimes committed in New York and Virginia", he said, "maybe Western countries should begin to think of Egypt's own fight against terror as their new model".

Model of Abuse

The Egyptian model has included non-stop emergency rule ever since President Mubarak took over in October 1981, after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Following a resurgence of political violence in the early 1990s, the government introduced anti-terror laws giving the security and intelligence services greater powers of arrest and detention and rounded up thousands of suspects. While fiercely suppressing opposition political activists, the authorities attempted to gain the support of the country's conservative religious establishment by delegating to them the authority to censor artistic expression, intellectual debate touching on matters of religion, and social mores.

The state of emergency enables the authorities to arrest people deemed "a threat to national security and public order" and hold them without charge for prolonged periods, even years. The state also uses emergency rule to refer civilian defendants to military courts or to exceptional state security courts, in effect creating a parallel court system under direct government control. Since 1992 hundreds of civilians, mostly alleged members or supporters of al-Gihad (Holy Struggle, known abroad as Egyptian Islamic Jihad), al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group), or the Muslim Brotherhood, have been referred to military courts. These trials, sometimes held en masse, fail to meet international fair trial standards: basic rights, such as the right to appeal, have been routinely violated, even in cases where the defendants faced and were punished with the death penalty.

These measures have been used widely against Egyptians attempting to exercise peacefully basic political rights like freedom of association or freedom of expression, as well as persons accused of committing or advocating acts of violence. Having crushed much of its Islamist political opposition by the mid-1990s, and with many of the leading figures of such groups in prison or in exile, the government widened its security net, further eroding basic civil rights. Non-governmental organizations, professional associations, the media, trade unions and political parties - all have had their work hampered by laws aimed at silencing them and increasing governmental control over their activities. One recent high-profile example was the Supreme State Security Court conviction of sociology professor and democracy advocate Saadeddin Ibrahim in a politically motivated trial. He was sentenced to seven years; five of his associates also received prison terms, and his Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies was forcibly closed down. Ibrahim is critical of the Islamists, but has also spoken out about election irregularities, treatment of minorities, and other sensitive topics.

Torture in Egypt is widespread and systematic. Security forces and the police routinely torture or ill-treat detainees, particularly during interrogation. In his January 2001 report to the Commission on Human Rights, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture cited thirty-two cases of death in custody, apparently as a result of torture, occurring between 1997 and 1999. Confessions extracted under torture are commonly used as evidence in political trials and form the basis for convictions. Victims of torture have no effective remedy and little opportunity for redress: most apply for and get financial compensation from civil courts, in effect an admission on the part of the authorities that torture has taken place. But very few victims can convince the authorities to institute criminal proceedings against their torturers: in the handful of such cases reaching the courts in recent years almost all resulted in acquittals or derisory punishments. While reports of torture of political detainees have decreased recently, torture of ordinary criminal offenders in police stations remains rife.

A widening net of repression

The government does not provide information on the number of detainees held in prisons and other places of detention, but there is reason to believe that thousands continue to be held in connection with real or suspected membership of banned Islamist groups. Many are held under administrative detention -- in other words, without trial -- and in some cases have been held for more than ten years. Among them are individuals who were arrested as children in their early teens and who remain incarcerated as adults. Others were kept in prison though their sentences had expired. Others were never released even though acquitted in court, such as Abd al-Mun'im Gamal al-Din Abd al-Mun'im, a freelance journalist with the bi-weekly newspaper al-Sha'b. He has remained in detention since 1993 even though he was acquitted twice (in 1993 and 1999) of all charges by military courts. Many detainees have successfully challenged the legality of their continued detention before administrative courts, but Ministry of Interior officials routinely ignore court rulings and continue to hold detainees in harsh conditions, depriving them of all contact with the outside world for long periods.

The 1992 Anti-Terror Law also criminalized non-violent political opposition, and was used to arrest and bring to trial persons not accused of committing or advocating violence but simply of alleged affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. Since 1995, over one hundred defendants were tried and dozens sentenced to terms of up to five years after being convicted of membership in an illegal organization. In 1999 the government arrested and tried twenty alleged Muslim Brothers, mostly lawyers, university professors and other professionals, accused of membership of an illegal organization and attempting to control the activities of professional associations. The prosecutions appeared to be an attempt by the authorities to prevent the defendants from running as independent candidates in parliamentary elections and for the boards of their respective professional associations. In November 2000, the Supreme Military Court sentenced fifteen of the defendants to prison terms ranging between three and five years, and acquitted the rest.

The government has also targeted other Islamist opposition groups seeking to exercise their political rights peacefully. In May 2000 the Political Affairs Committee, a government body responsible for licensing and monitoring political parties, froze the activities of the legal Islamist opposition Labour Party. This step, ostensibly taken because of a leadership dispute within the party, was widely perceived as an attempt to silence government critics ahead of parliamentary elections. A ban on the party's publications remains in force despite several court rulings in its favor. In a separate case in April 2000, four leading Labour Party figures were imprisoned after being convicted for slandering a government minister.

As part of its efforts to stifle free political participation, the government strictly limits the number of licensed political parties. Since 1996, for example, Muslim Brotherhood affiliates who formed a group known as al-Wasat (The Center) have repeatedly applied to register as a political party but without success. This partly accounts for the overwhelming number of candidates who run as independents in Egypt's parliamentary elections. As an added measure to ensure a comfortable victory for the ruling National Democratic Party in these elections, the government routinely arrests opposition candidates and their supporters in the run-up to elections.

The primary target has been the Muslim Brotherhood, hundreds of whose members and supporters were rounded up and held in administrative detention ahead of and during the October-November 2000 parliamentary elections in what has become a regular feature of Egyptian democracy. The pattern repeated itself in the run-up to the mid-term Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council, the upper house of the parliament) elections held in May and June 2001, when at least 140 persons suspected of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested for days or weeks, including several candidates running as independents.

Emergency legislation prohibits strikes, public meetings, and election rallies. The government has taken arbitrary measures to stifle the voices of trade union activists who have been outspoken around issues such as worker safety in the state sector. In some cases the authorities issued threats to persuade activists to withdraw their candidacy in union elections. In October 2000 Fathi al-Masri, a board member of Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS), an independent NGO, was detained for a month on charges of "disturbing public order" after he distributed leaflets criticizing medical services at a state-owned company. In September 2001 two other CTUWS board members, including its director, Kamal Abbas, were questioned by prosecutors regarding "unwarranted" criticisms of working conditions at another company.

The government controls the electronic media and on occasion has shut down newspapers and periodicals that cross red lines. The Press Law of 1996 provides jail terms for offences such as defamation, insult or libel. The government has gone out of its way to appease Islamist sentiment in the country by implementing and encouraging measures that in practice violate of freedom of expression. These include banning novels considered to be sexually explicit or denigrating to Islam, and prosecuting writers whose views are deemed blasphemous. In effect, the government has compensated for its repression of Islamists in the political sphere by allowing the conservative religious establishment, such as the leading figures in Al-Azhar University, to exercise a high degree of control over cultural expression and social mores.

In May 2001 the authorities arrested a group of fifty-two men for alleged homosexuality. In a trial that began in July, they were charged with committing "obscene behaviour," and two of them also faced additional charges of "contempt for religion." Their trial before the Emergency State Security Court for Misdemeanours allows for no right of appeal upon conviction, and the court has declined to investigate statements by some of the defendants that they had been tortured to obtain confessions. They face prison terms of up to three years on the "obscenity" charge, and five years on the "contempt for religion" charge.

Islamist groups and political violence

The two major Islamist groups associated with acts of political violence in Egypt are al-Gihad one of the groups named by the U.S. as connected with Osama bin Ladin's al-Qa'ida network and al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya. Both seek to establish a state based on their interpretations of Shari'a law in place of the military-dominated republic that has ruled since 1952. Al-Gihad, which first became known in 1978, apparently has its roots among activists who became dissatisfied with the quiescent approach of the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps the oldest Arab political-religious organization, founded in Egypt in 1928. The Brotherhood was banned in 1954 following the attempted assassination of then-president Gamal Abd al-Nasser by some of its more radical adherents. It remains under official ban to this day, although under Presidents Sadat and Mubarak it has been permitted to operate, within varying but often sharp limits on its activities, and to extend its influence within Egyptian society.

One of the leading figures associated with al-Gihad was Shaikh Omar Abd al-Rahman, who is currently serving a life sentence in the U.S. after his conviction in 1995 for conspiracy to carry out bomb attacks in New York (including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing). In October 1981, al-Gihad claimed responsibility for the assassination of President Sadat. In the ensuing trial before the State Security Court, five of the scores of defendants linked to al-Gihad were sentenced to death. Ayman al-Zawahiri, today reputed to be a close associate of Osama bin Laden, was sentenced to three years in prison for his part in the assassination. (Interpol issued an arrest warrant for al-Zawahiri on September 25, 2001, in the wake of the September 11 attacks.)

Shaikh Omar Abd al-Rahman, also arrested, was acquitted. In 1984, more than 300 alleged members of al-Gihad were convicted, and some subsequently executed, for killing security force personnel during clashes in the southern province of Asyut. Further clashes took place in al-Fayyum, southwest of Cairo, in April 1989. Among those arrested was Shaikh Omar Abd al- Rahman. He was released, pending trial, in August that year, but fled Egypt shortly thereafter and settled in the United States in 1990.

Beginning in 1992, Egypt arrested thousands of persons and tried hundreds accused of membership of banned organizations -- various Islamist groups -- and, in some cases, acts of violence. In addition to al-Gihad, these included al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, which made its appearance in the early 1980s and whose members also regarded Shaikh Omar Abd al-Rahman as their spiritual guide. Another, Talai' al- Fatah (Vanguards of the Conquest), is believed to be an offshoot of al-Gihad. Egyptian officials claimed that members of these groups had received financial assistance from Iran as well as military training at camps in Sudan, and Pakistani-run camps inside Afghanistan. Some were also said to be veterans of the war in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

According to information compiled by the non-governmental Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), 1,357 people were killed in acts of political violence in Egypt between 1992 and 1998. Al-Gihad, which operated mainly in the Cairo area, targeted senior government officials and military personnel. Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya carried out many of its attacks in the governorates of Asyut, Minya and Qena, targeting police, security and military personnel as well as scores of civilians, including Coptic Christians. Tourists were also targeted, the most notorious case being the killing of fifty-eight foreigners and four Egyptians at the site of the temple of Queen Hatshepsut in the town of Luxor in November 1997, for which al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya claimed responsibility. Both Islamist groups also targeted various professionals, among them writers, journalists, academics, and members of the judiciary, some for their condemnation of acts of political violence, and others because they were deemed to be 'atheists' or 'secularists.' Among several acts of violence perpetrated outside Egypt was an attempt on the life of President Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995, for which al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya claimed responsibility.

The government's campaign against those suspected of involvement in acts of political violence has been characterized by widespread arbitrary arrests, grossly unfair trials, torture, and executions. The Law to Combat Terrorism (No. 97 of 1992), subsequently incorporated into Egypt's Penal Code, gives extensive powers to police and the security forces. Thousands - the precise number is not known - were arrested in and around Cairo and in several provinces known to be Islamist strongholds. They were commonly interrogated under torture before being referred to prosecution officials or released. The majority was held in preventive detention without charge, while hundreds were convicted in mass trials before military courts, deemed by the government as more amenable to issuing guilty verdicts. Among other things, officials did not want a repeat of trials such as the 1984 State Security Court trial where judges acquitted a number of defendants in the Sadat assassination case on the grounds that confessions had been extracted under torture.

More than a thousand defendants were tried before military courts in thirty-two separate cases between 1992 and 1998, according to the EOHR. Of these, 479 were alleged members of al-Gihad, of whom thirty-seven were executed, 277 imprisoned, and 165 acquitted. Others included 383 alleged members of al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya; fifty-one of them were executed, 247 imprisoned, and eighty-five acquitted. None had the right to appeal their sentences before a higher tribunal, a fair trial requirement, and none of the officials they accused of having tortured them were ever brought to justice.

The last major military trial of this kind was held between February and April 1999, involving 107 defendants, 60 in absentia. Most were charged with membership of an illegal organization (al-Gihad), as well as other charges including conspiracy to commit murder, weapons possession, and forging official documents. Several had been arrested the previous year in Albania, reportedly in connection with a planned attack on U.S. interests there. Several other defendants had been extradited from Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Libya. The Supreme Military Court sentenced nine to death, among them Ayman al-Zawahiri in absentia. Seventy-eight were sent to prison and twenty were acquitted. As in previous cases, a number of defendants stated in court that they had been tortured. In July 1997 five members of al-Gama'a al-Islamiyyas leadership issued a statement from Tora Prison, where they are currently serving prison terms, calling for a halt to violence. With the exception of the killings at Luxor, this directive has been largely adhered to and has been reiterated on several occasions since. As a result, several thousand Islamist detainees have been released since 1998, most of whom had been held without trial.