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Members of security forces keep watch in Tahrir Square during the fifth anniversary of the uprising that ended the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, Egypt, January 25, 2016. © 2016 Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
(Beirut) – Egyptian President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s government during 2017 observed few boundaries on its untamed repression of all forms of dissent, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2018. While the country faced major security threats and attacks by armed groups, the government introduced a host of repressive laws, reinstated the abusive state of emergency, and sent thousands of civilians to military courts that, along with civilian courts, issued scores of death sentences in flawed trials.

Al-Sisi is unlikely to face a serious challenge for a second term in the 2018 presidential elections, planned for March and April. His government tightly controls local media outlets, prosecutes critical journalists and activists, and maintains a zero-tolerance policy for exercising the right to peaceful assembly, effectively eliminating basic requirements for fair elections.

“Reviewing Egypt’s 2017 record, it appears that applying violence and repression to decimate the rule of law and peaceful opposition is al-Sisi’s primary ‘accomplishment,’” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The way things are trending, the government crackdown will continue to stifle citizens’ legitimate aspirations and rights.”

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

The Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency (NSA), operating with near-absolute impunity, was responsible for some of the most flagrant abuses in 2017, including the widespread and systematic use of torture to coerce confessions, typically after security forces forcibly disappeared detainees. There were also several incidents of what appeared to be extrajudicial killings, including of previously detained people in staged “shoot-outs.”

Al-Sisi declared a nationwide state of emergency in April following church bombings that the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) claimed, which killed 47 people on Palm Sunday. As of January 2018, he had extended it three times. The 1958 Emergency Law gives unchecked powers to security forces to arrest and detain people, and allows the government to impose media censorship and order forced evictions. Authorities used abusive counterterrorism laws to place hundreds of people on terrorism lists and to seize their assets for alleged terrorism links without due process.

Al-Sisi also ratified a new law on associations in May that, if implemented, could eliminate the limited remaining space for independent groups. The law criminalizes the work of nongovernmental organizations, providing for lengthy prison terms for failing to adhere to its provisions, such as by operating or receiving funds without government approval.

In October, the government reinstated the infamous Emergency State Security Courts, whose decisions are not subject to appeal. Authorities have referred political detainees to these courts, even for minor offenses.

Military prosecutors sent hundreds of civilians, including children, for military trials, raising the numbers of civilians in military prosecution to more than 15,000 in three years. In 2017, the Cassation Court upheld death sentences of at least 22 people, while the Supreme Military Court of Appeals confirmed 19 more death sentences who were later executed.

The government has kept roughly 17 journalists in prison and blocked hundreds of news websites, including of rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders.

Authorities arrested or charged at least 57 workers in 2017 alone for peaceful workplace strikes and protests. Security forces also arrested at least 75 gay and transgender people and activists, over 40 of whom have already received prison sentences.

The government campaign in North Sinai has been marred by widespread abuses including secret detentions, extrajudicial executions, and military trials of civilians. In April, a video confirmed as authentic showed army officers and pro-army militia members executing blindfolded detainees. The ISIS-affiliate Wilayat Sinai targeted residents perceived as collaborators and Christians, as well as security forces. In November, an attack on a mosque close to al-Arish that resembled an ISIS attack killed at least 300 civilians. Repeated attacks on Christians in the governorate has led to the forced displacement of hundreds of Christian families.

Egypt’s international allies rarely publicly criticized its serious human rights violations. However, in August the United States cut US$100 million and held back another US$195 million of its aid to Egypt, citing human rights violations. 

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