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Letter from Human Rights Watch to The Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi

Dear Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, 

At this critical moment in the history of Egypt and the Middle East, a heavy burden of responsibility falls on the leaders of the Egyptian Armed Forces to ensure a smooth transition from an era of political repression characterised by severe abuse to one in which fundamental human rights are respected.

In the midst of anxious days of popular protest and revolt against police brutality, torture and corruption, and with protesters calling for a new constitutional order in Egypt, the Egyptian Armed Forces now stand as the only security organs of the Egyptian state that retain the trust of the Egyptian people.

The legitimacy of the Egyptian police and other internal security organs have long been tarnished by a record of human rights abuses, including the systematic use of torture. Furthermore the role of the internal security forces in the attempted suppression of protests in recent days, in which Human Rights Watch and the international media have witnessed countless examples of excessive use of force and other egregious abuses, has further undermined their credibility. Human Rights Watch is already calling for accountability for these abuses and the prosecution of those responsible.

In contrast, the Egyptian military, which was called onto the streets on Friday 28 January, has so far shown commendable restraint and has been welcomed by the majority of protesters. Human Rights Watch is therefore now calling on you and your fellow chiefs of the Egyptian military to maintain this commendable posture of trust and restraint and to remind you of the legal obligations, under international law, of the Egyptian Armed Forces, given their current involvement in policing activities.

First, the Egyptian Armed Forces must respect the rights of the Egyptian people to freedom of assembly and peaceful protest against a government that has ruled through repression and dictatorial whim for decades. 

Second, to the extent that the Armed Forces are engaged in protecting public security, they are obliged to abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Under these principles, law enforcement officials may use reasonable and proportionate force to prevent crimes, but firearms should only be used in situations of grave and imminent threats of death or serious injury.

Third, Human Rights Watch draws your attention to the real possibility that failure to abide by these international standards would open individual soldiers, officers and their superiors to investigation and prosecution.

We urge you to reflect on the fact that the current crisis in Egypt and the rest of the region is in great part the result of years of corrupt and abusive government and unlawful torture and repression by its security forces, against which the people are now in open revolt. The solution to this crisis is not further repression, but a swift and orderly transition to a new democratic order in which the basic rights and freedoms of the people of the region are respected. We urge you to shoulder your historic responsibility and to assist in bringing about this transition.


Kenneth Roth

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