Background Briefing

II. At the Domestic Level

1. Recent Constitutional Amendments and Proposed Anti-Terrorism Law

The Egyptian government's pledges refer to current "historic steps in the direction of political reform" and commit "to lifting the current state of emergency upon the completion and adoption of a new anti-terrorism legislation," all in the framework of "the momentum of the preceding two years and the achievements realized."20

Constitutional amendments that Parliament approved in a party-line vote on 21 March and that Egyptian voters approved in a March 26 referendum enshrined some of the worst aspects of emergency rule into the constitution.21 Judicial and civil-society monitors, including those from the ruling party’s National Council on Human Rights, said that serious irregularities marred the polling, and that the real turnout was a fraction of the official rate of participation of 27 percent.

Changes to Article 179 of the constitution have effectively removed constitutional safeguards requiring the government to obtain judicial warrants before searching a citizen’s home, correspondence, telephone calls, and other communications, when the government deems the activity being investigated is terrorist-related. In such cases the president will also be allowed to send cases to special “exceptional” courts or military tribunals which fall short of international and regional fair trial standards, including the stipulation that they be independent and impartial and that they should allow any party to the case to challenge their impartiality. The amendments also authorize the security forces to exercise powers of arrest that could lead to arbitrary, and potentially indefinite, detentions.

Another of the adopted amendments outlaws any political party or political activity “within any religious frame of reference or on any religious basis or on the basis of gender or origin.” The ICCPR prohibits such broadly worded bans on particular categories of political parties or political activity. Rather, it guarantees to citizens, in Article 25, the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs either directly or through freely chosen representatives and the right to vote and to be elected in periodic and fair elections. These rights entail participation in, and voting for, political parties, and may not be denied on the basis of race, religion or gender, among other distinctions. The present law violates the rights of supporters of a party that claims a religious basis for its program to associate together and to vote for representatives of their choice.

This amendment should properly be seen in the context of the government’s continuing crackdown on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which, despite having renounced violence for decades and despite being the largest opposition bloc in parliament, remains banned in Egypt. Over the course of the past year, the government has detained more than 1,000 members of the organization. Many were held as long as eight months without ever being charged or brought to trial. Others were first acquitted by civilian courts, promptly re-arrested, and detained again pending a trial before a military court, whose procedures fall short of international standards and whose decisions could not at the time be appealed.22 On May 9, Parliament voted to strip two Brotherhood-affiliated members of Parliament of their parliamentary immunity, days after the government briefly detained them in the Nile Delta province of Munufiyya while they attended a meeting to discuss the upcoming elections for the upper house of parliament.

2. Impunity for Human Rights Violations

The EIPR and HRW welcome the Egyptian government’s pledge to “further strengthen the national redress mechanisms available to all citizens with a view to enable them to report any complaints and to guard against impunity of any kind,”23 particularly since torture in Egypt has become an epidemic, affecting large numbers of ordinary citizens who find themselves in police custody as suspects or in connection with criminal investigations. The Egyptian authorities do not investigate the great majority of allegations of torture despite their obligation to do so under Egyptian and international law. In the few cases where officers have been prosecuted for torture or ill-treatment, charges were often inappropriately lenient and penalties inadequate. This lack of effective public accountability and transparency has led to a culture of impunity.

Provisions of Egyptian law that allow for prolonged, incommunicado detention have in many cases made torture difficult to prove; by the time detainees are allowed access to lawyers or forensic doctors, the marks of torture are often so old that it is difficult to determine when they occurred.

Torture prosecutions have also been hampered by legal definitions of the crime. Under article 126 of Egypt’s Penal Code, torture is limited to physical abuse, occurs only when the victim is “an accused,” and only when torture is being used in order to coerce a confession. This narrow definition improperly excludes cases of mental or psychological abuse, and cases where the torture is committed against someone other than “an accused” or for purposes other than securing a confession. The result has been that officers, in the rare cases when they are convicted of abusing detainees, receive light sentences. Opposition Egyptian lawmakers have repeatedly and unsuccessfully submitted draft legislation to the People’s Assembly that would change the law to fit international definitions of torture. 

3. Freedom of Association and Role of Civil Society

The EIPR and HRW also welcome the Egyptian government’s pledge to “encourage the efforts of civil society, NGOs and the media to contribute as partners towards the protection and promotion of human rights within the applicable national legislations.”24 The EIPR and HRW hope that toward this end, the government will rescind its order to close offices of the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS). Security officers on April 25 closed the headquarters of the CTUWS, which offers legal aid to Egyptian factory workers, educates them as to their rights, and reports on labor-rights issues in the country. The Ministry of Social Solidarity has blamed the CTUWS for inciting labor unrest around the country.25

The government’s closure of the CTUWS headquarters was the latest step in its crackdown on the organization. On April 11, approximately 100 police officers arrived at the CTUWS office in the Nile Delta town of al-Mahalla al-Kubra to deliver an administrative decision ordering its closure. This came after General al-Sharbini Hashish, head of the local council in the southern industrial town of Naga` Hammidi, issued an administrative decision on March 29 ordering the closure of the CTUWS branch there, on the grounds that it violated Egypt’s law on associations, though the order did not specify how.26

The EIPR and HRW further hope that the government’s pledge to “encourage civil society groups…to contribute as partners towards the protection and promotion of human rights within the applicable national legislations”27 indicates a willingness to remove legal restrictions on those groups. Although Egypt's Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of association, Egyptian NGOs operate in an extremely restrictive legal and policy environment. The NGO Law (number 84 of the year 2002) enables the government to interfere with the registration, governance and operation of NGOs in several ways. The law allows for associations to be dissolved by an administrative order of the Ministry of Social Solidarity and restricts the right of NGOs to seek and receive foreign funding to support their activities. It imposes prison penalties on NGO members and activists for offences related to their activities. In short, the law "entrenches a system in which NGOs are treated as the children of a paternalistic government."28

The Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Human Rights defenders has repeatedly expressed her concern to the Egyptian government regarding the hostile legal environment in which defenders operate in Egypt. In 2006 the Special Representative reported that:

Law 84 of 2002 still severely compromises the right to freedom of association by giving the government unwarranted control over the governance and operations of NGOs. The law which took effect in June 2003 provides for criminal penalties for so-called “unauthorized” activities, including “engaging in political or union activities, reserved for political parties and syndicates” (Article 11). In addition, it provides for up to six months in prison for receiving donations on behalf of an NGO without prior ministry approval. Persons carrying out NGO activities prior to the organization’s formal registration are also liable to a three-month prison term.29

The EIPR and HRW further hope that the government’s pledge to encourage the media to “contribute as partners towards the protection and promotion of human rights within the applicable national legislations” signals its intention to reverse its recent crackdown on freedom of expression in the country and to reform Egypt’s laws governing the media.

On May 2, 2007, on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, a Cairo criminal court sentenced Al-Jazeera journalist Huwaida Taha Mitwalli, who also works for the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, to six months in prison for a documentary she made about torture in Egypt.

The sentence follows a string of threats to freedom of expression in Egypt. On April 14, 2007, security officers arrested television journalist and blogger `Abd al-Monim Mahmud at Cairo airport as he tried to board a plane for Sudan to work on a story about human rights abuses in the Arab world for the London-based Al-Hiwar satellite channel. Mahmud, who is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, had recently written in his blog about his experience of torture in 2003, and prior to his arrest he spoke out about torture in Egypt at conferences in Doha and Cairo and in interviews with journalists and human rights organizations. He is currently in Tura prison, outside Cairo, awaiting trial on charges of “membership in a banned organization.” 

On March 12, 2007, the Alexandria Court of Appeals upheld a four-year prison sentence against `Abd al-Karim Nabil Sulaiman, a blogger who had criticized Islam and President Hosni Mubarak. And on March 10, secular activist and blogger Mohammad al-Sharqawi – himself a victim of police torture – returned home to find that his laptop, which he said contained an unreleased video depicting police abuse, had been stolen. Cash and other valuables in the apartment were untouched.

On October 31, 2006, a military court in Cairo sentenced Tal`at al-Sadat, a member of parliament elected as an independent but affiliated with the suspended opposition al-Ahrar party and nephew of late President Anwar al-Sadat, to one year in prison for “insulting the military and the republican guard.”

On June 26, 2006, a court near Cairo sentenced Ibrahim `Issa, editor of the opposition newspaper al-Dustur, and Sahar Zaki, a journalist for the paper, to one year in prison for “insulting the president” and “spreading false or tendentious rumors” in connection with an al-Dustur article reporting a lawsuit against President Mubarak and senior officials in the ruling National Democratic Party. The two appealed the sentence, and on February 27, 2007, a Cairo appeals court reduced the sentence to a US $3,950 fine.

Long-awaited amendments to Egypt’s Press Law passed in July 2006 left in force Article 308 of the Penal Code, which imposes a minimum sentence of six months in prison on journalists whose articles “comprise an attack against the dignity and honor of individuals, or an outrage of the reputation of families.”

Article 179, which calls for the detention of “whoever affronts the president of the republic,” also stays on the books, as does Article 102(bis), which allows for the detention of “whoever deliberately diffuses news, information/data, or false or tendentious rumors, or propagates exciting publicity, if this is liable to disturb public security, spread horror among the people, or cause harm or damage to the public interest.” 

These vague and broadly worded provisions in Egypt’s Press Law invite abuse and contravene international standards of freedom of expression.

20 Egypt's pledges, paras. B 8, 9, 10.

21 See: "Personal Rights in Peril: The Counter-Terrorism Constitutional Amendment and its Impact on the Legal Protection of Freedoms in Egypt" The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights 18 March 2007. The report is available at:

22 Human Rights Watch, “Egypt: Muslim Brotherhood Detainees Face Military Trials,” February 15, 2007

23 Egypt’s pledges, para 4 B.

24 Egypt's pledges, paras B 15

25 Human Rights Watch, “Egypt: End Harassment of Labor Rights Group,” April 27, 2007,

26 Human Rights Watch, “Egypt: End Campaign Against Labor Rights Group,” April 16, 2007,

27 Egypt's pledges, paras B 15.

28 Human Rights Watch, "Egypt: Margins of Repression—State Limits on Non Governmental Organization Activism", July 2005, Volume 17, No.8, available at

29 Report submitted by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights defenders, Hina Jilani- Addendum: Compilation of developments in the area of human rights defenders, UN Doc. E/CN.4/2006/95/Add.5, para 517.