(New York) – Human rights remain in crisis in President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt, more than two years after the army removed the former president, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016.
In response to a rising threat from armed extremists based in the Sinai Peninsula and other anti-government groups, the authorities have used torture, disappeared scores of citizens, banned many others from travel, and possibly committed extrajudicial killings.
“The threat to Egypt’s security is real, but the past two years show that the authorities’ heavy-handed response has only led to more division,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. “Egypt’s government should learn from the country’s own decades-long experience that grinding oppression can plant seeds for future upheaval.”
In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.
In an effort to counter an affiliate of the armed extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, Egypt’s armed forces forcibly evicted more than 3,000 families from a town on the border with the Gaza Strip, violating international law. The ISIS affiliate, called Sinai Province, carried out attacks throughout the year and claimed responsibility for bombing a Russian passenger jet, killing 224 people.
Between the army’s removal of former President Mohamed Morsy in July 2013, and the election of Egypt’s new parliament in December 2015, al-Sisi and his interim predecessor, former President Adly Mansour, governed by decree, without opposition. Morsy has been sentenced to death, though the sentence remains on appeal.
In August, following the killing of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat in a car bomb, al-Sisi issued a counterterrorism law with a definition of terrorism so broad that it could encompass civil disobedience.
The government has yet to implement the new law widely. Instead, the Interior Ministry – in particular the ministry’s semi-autonomous National Security Agency, formerly known as State Security – has returned to practices that were common before the 2011 uprising, effectively operating outside Egypt’s laws altogether.
National Security officers have been responsible for dozens of enforced disappearances, often targeting political activists. National Security officers and other members of the police also regularly use torture in their investigations.
In December 2015, the authorities took action against a dozen officers suspected of involvement in multiple torture cases. Courts preliminarily have sentenced three of them to five years in prison.
In July, a special police force shot nine Muslim Brotherhood members to death inside an apartment in a Cairo suburb. Human Rights Watch found that the killings may have constituted extrajudicial executions.
In October, the Interior Ministry announced that it had arrested nearly 12,000 people on terrorism charges in 2015, adding to already dangerously overcrowded prisons and police stations. Local groups claim that more than 250 people have died in custody during al-Sisi’s administration, most from medical negligence.
The National Security Agency banned scores of Egyptians – including activists, politicians, and academics – from traveling and seized their passports, violating the fundamental international right to freedom of movement.
A November 2013 protest ban has stifled public demonstrations. Investigators visited nongovernmental groups, seeking financial and registration documents as part of an investigation into the foreign funding of such groups. In November 2015, military intelligence authorities detained the journalist and human rights activist Hossam Bahgat for two days to investigate an article Bahgat published about a foiled military coup attempt.
“Al-Sisi’s administration has made it clear that dissenting opinions will be crushed, whether by threats or force,” Houry said. “Egypt’s new parliament should exercise its democratic mandate to check these oppressive excesses.”