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Small groups of protesters gather in central Cairo shouting anti-government slogans in Cairo, Egypt September 21, 2019.   © 2019 Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

(Beirut) – Egyptian activists and ordinary people alike demonstrated resistance to brutal government repression during 2019, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2020.

Street protests in September challenged the near-absolute ban on freedom of assembly. Rights organizations and independent journalists continued to work despite the detention and prosecution of peaceful critics, as authorities equated all forms of opposition and criticism with terrorism.

President al-Sisi tightened his grip on power during 2019, but the year was also marked by courageous acts of resilience by Egyptians who aspire to freedom and the rule of law,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future.

The government orchestrated passage of constitutional amendments that entrench repression in an unfair referendum in April. The amendments, which allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to rule until 2030, further undermine the judiciary’s independence and enhance the military’s power to intervene in politics and the public sphere.

After the September protests erupted, the authorities arrested over 4,400 people in one of the biggest mass arrest campaigns since 2013. The arrests included protesters, university professors, politicians, lawyers, and passers-by. The protests erupted in response to videos about army and government corruption that went viral. Authorities earlier in the summer arrested scores of people, including secular and leftist figures, and accused them of joining a “terrorist” group in the “Hope Coalition” case for planning a new political coalition.

Police and the National Security Agency routinely carried out enforced disappearances and torture, while the government held tens of thousands of prisoners arrested on seemingly political grounds in abysmal conditions. United Nations rights experts in October concluded that deliberately harsh prison conditions and inadequate medical care “may have directly led” to the death of former President Mohamed Morsy in June.

Serious rights abuses, including war crimes, persisted in North Sinai predominantly by the army but also by ISIS-affiliated militants. The army demolished thousands of homes and buildings and forcibly evicted residents. Approximately 100,000, or one-fifth of North Sinai’s population, have been displaced by forced evictions or the war since 2014.

In February alone, the authorities executed 15 prisoners following flawed trials in cases of a political nature. Military and civilian courts of appeal upheld at least 32 death sentences in 2019, raising the number of those on death row to 74, the majority charged with political violence.

In August, al-Sisi approved a new nongovernmental organization law that keeps in place severe restrictions on the work of nongovernmental organizations. Egypt remains one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists, with roughly 30 journalists behind bars, mostly without trial. The authorities have blocked about 600 news, political, and human rights websites, including Human Rights Watch. In November, the authorities broke into the office of Mada Masr, one of the last independent news sources in the country, and detained staff members.

During Egypt’s Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council in November, scores of countries from across various regions criticized abuses in Egypt.

“The United States continued to provide extensive military aid to Egypt while rarely offering public criticism of its human rights record. President Donald Trump reportedly praised al-Sisi as his “favorite dictator” during meetings in August,” said Stork.

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