Political opposition and violence in Egypt

Numerous radical Islamist armed groups opposed to the Egyptian government have arisen in Egypt in recent decades, including still-active groups such as Al-Gama’a Islamiyya and Islamic Jihad. In the 1980s and 1990s, some of these groups engaged in attacks against government officials and civilians, including Western tourists.

The most infamous attack on civilians by an armed opposition group was an attack in 1997 in Luxor, in which six men with automatic weapons attacked European tourists who were visiting a famed archeology site, killing 58 foreigners and four Egyptians and wounding over a dozen more. The armed men were members of Al-Gama’a Islamiyya.

A longstanding opposition group in Egypt, Al-Gama’a Islamiyya is not known to have been involved in armed violence in the last ten years, and even before the Luxor attack, much of the leadership of al-Gama’a Islamiya renounced violence and claimed to favor working for political change solely through non-violent means. Islamic Jihad, for its part, has not renounced violence, though there is little evidence its members have been involved in any recent violent attacks in Egypt.

However, some smaller radical armed groups have organized in Egypt over the last ten years. The groups appear to have formed independently of older opposition groups, and appear to embrace radical trans-national Islamist aims. These groups operate clandestinely—few details about their leadership and membership are publicly known.

Some of these groups are involved in violent activities in Egypt, especially in the Sinai Peninsula, and are responsible for several serious attacks on civilians there in the last few years. On October 2004, simultaneous bombings in and around the resort city of Taba killed 34 and injured over a hundred more; on July 23, 2005, a set of simultaneous bombings at sites in Sharm el-Sheikh killed 88 people and injured over 200 more; and on April 24, 2006 (after the arrests documented in this report) a triple bombing attack in the town of Dahab killed at least 18 people and injured dozens more.6 There was one serious incident in Cairo in recent years: a bombing in April 2005 that killed three foreign tourists, followed by a set of armed attacks a few weeks later—involving suspects in the earlier blast—in which several foreign tourists were wounded.

Egypt’s State Security Investigations

Egypt’s primarily domestic intelligence agency, State Security Investigations (SSI), is the Egyptian government’s main instrument for monitoring and controlling armed opposition groups suspected of engaging in attacks on civilians. SSI is also responsible for monitoring and controlling peaceful and legitimate opposition parties, as well as civil society and human rights groups.

SSI has a long record of abusive conduct. In the 1980s and 1990s SSI routinely ill-treated persons arrested for alleged opposition to the government, including tens of thousands of men suspected of involvement in non-violent opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as thousands of members of Al-Gama’a Islamiyya and Islamic Jihad. Widespread torture of these detainees was extensively documented by human rights groups, attorneys, and journalists.

SSI has also responded to threats from groups involved in more recent attacks on civilians, such as those that have occurred in the Sinai. As part of this effort, SSI has been monitoring and detaining young Egyptian men who are considered religiously devout; men commonly known as “Salafists,” who attend mosque regularly, dress in conservative Islamic clothes, have lengthy beards, and pray five times a day.7

Numerous attorneys, civil society leaders, human rights activists, and journalists familiar with SSI operations have described to Human Rights Watch the special attention that is paid by SSI to Salafists and other religious young men, in many cases men not associated with established opposition groups, but simply independent actors who observe Salafist practices. Some Egyptian human rights attorneys argue that, with respect to this set of men, SSI essentially uses a policy of preventive investigation and detention, whereby they aggressively surveil independent mosques, maintain extensive lists of persons who regularly attend them, and record their activities and associations with each other.

Observers told Human Rights Watch that, as part of this aggressive approach, SSI officers regularly arrest young men who are on their lists, or summon them to report to SSI facilities and question them about their activities and acquaintances. Other men are interrogated after they are detained in random detention sweeps, usually near mosques or in neighborhoods considered to be militant. Moreover, some men are occasionally transferred to SSI by regular police, who also routinely carry out random sweeps as part of their own efforts to net criminal suspects.

The Emergency Law

State Security Investigation’s aggressive policies and strategies toward Salafists (as well as toward political opponents and government critics generally) are made possible by special powers conveyed to the Interior Ministry and SSI under Egypt’s Emergency Law of 1958 and pursuant to a state of emergency that has been in effect continuously since 1981, as well as Egypt’s Law to Combat Terrorism of 1992, which amended Egypt’s penal and criminal procedure codes.8 These laws allow the Interior Ministry to detain and interrogate persons without arrest warrants and issue detention orders that allow detainees to be held for up to six months without a hearing or arraignment.

Detainees are entitled to some procedural rights under these restrictive laws: SSI officers must by law immediately inform detainees of the reason for their arrest, allow them to contact family and legal counsel, and provide for the right to appeal their detention after 30 days. Egypt’s constitution and penal code prohibit torture under any circumstances.9  The constitution deems null and void any statement that is proved to have been made under torture.10

In addition, human rights treaties to which Egypt is a party, most notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, ensure basic human rights protections for all persons, including the right not to be deprived of liberty without due process of law, and the right not to be tortured or otherwise mistreated.11

During a declared state of emergency, states may derogate from some due process rights. There are, however, important legal limitations on this practice. According to the Human Rights Committee, the expert body that monitors state compliance with the ICCPR, “[m]easures derogating from the provisions of the Covenant must be of an exceptional and temporary nature.” Furthermore, such measures must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”12

Even during states of emergency, detainees cannot be held indefinitely without any legal review, and they must be treated humanely and not subjected to torture; trials must meet international fair trial standards. 13 On the issue of torture in particular, international law is unambiguous: security threats, however grave, can never be used as a justification for torture. Any use of torture by Egyptian authorities is a clear violation of international human rights law14 and Egyptian domestic law.15

The UN Committee against Torture, in its 2002 response to Egypt’s periodic report on compliance with the Convention against Torture, stated: “The Committee is aware of the difficulties that the State party faces in its prolonged fight against terrorism, but recalls that no exceptional circumstances whatsoever can be invoked as a justification for torture, and expresses concern at the possible restrictions of human rights which may result from measures taken for that purpose.”16

The Egyptian government conceded this in its 2003 response to the Committee against Torture:  “There is nothing in the [Emergencies] Act that could serve to nullify the provisions of the Penal Code relating to the offences of torture, wrongful imprisonment or the use of cruelty…. Hence, the crime of torture and other crimes continue to obtain, even when a public emergency has been declared in the country.”17

The emergency law allow for trials of civilians before military tribunals and special state security courts, which lack basic due process protections.18  The Human Rights Committee, the expert body that monitors compliance with the ICCPR, in 2002 found it alarming that Egypt’s “military courts and State security courts have jurisdiction to try civilians accused of terrorism although there are no guarantees of those courts' independence and their decisions are not subject to appeal before a higher court,” as required by the ICCPR.19

SSI Abuses

Egyptian authorities have a longstanding and well-documented record of engaging in arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, and torture and other ill-treatment of detainees.20 As documented by Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups, SSI in particular repeatedly has violated the fundamental rights of persons in its custody. Such detainees are rarely able to communicate with their families or counsel, or effectively challenge their detention in the courts. They are routinely detained for months and even years without any proper legal process, and are in many cases subjected to torture.

The UN Committee against Torture expressed “particular concern at the widespread evidence of torture and ill-treatment in administrative premises under the control of the State Security Investigation Department [SSI], the infliction of which is reported to be facilitated by the lack of any mandatory inspection by an independent body of such premises.”21

Attorneys who represent and advocate on behalf of SSI detainees say that detainees are routinely tortured during interrogation and detention.

Mohamed Zare’i, an attorney and for many years director of the Cairo-based Human Rights Association for the Assistance to Prisoners (HRAAP), a human rights organization that engages in prison visits and reports on prison conditions and detention practices, explained the basic range of typical abuses in SSI facilities:

Typical case, in the beginning, there’s a severe dose of beating. You might be suspended on a pole, put behind your knees and lifted up [hanging from the knees]. Or they might handcuff you from behind, and then lift up your arms behind you and hang you that way—that’s very bad, since it dislocated your shoulders, many people suffer permanent damage from that.

And then there are the electrical shocks: on your tongue, your nipples, your genitals. Or sometimes State Security will pinch your nipples really hard—we had one client, his nipple was actually torn off. The pinching of the nipples is very bad, since it bruises and cuts, and their nipples become so sensitive, you can’t even wear a shirt.

Anything and everything is allowed. . . . Anywhere State Security exists, there is torture like this.22

Proposed New Counterterrorism Law

The Mubarak government is reportedly considering submitting a new counterterrorism law to the Egyptian parliament in late 2007 or early 2008.  If the law passes, the government would not request the renewal of the State of Emergency in early 2008, and the Emergency Law will lapse.

Human Rights Watch is concerned that the new law may contain provisions allowing the abusive practices that are currently made possible under Egypt’s Emergency Law, including the use of renewable detention decrees and indefinite detention without trial. As the UN Human Rights Committee stated in 2002, Egypt must ensure that steps taken in the campaign against terrorism are fully in accordance with the ICCPR.23  At this writing, a draft of the planned counterterrorism legislation had yet to be made publicly available; though the Mubarak government presumably aims to have it adopted by April 2008.

6 Initial reports indicated that 23 were killed in the blasts, but authorities soon lowered the number to 18. See Daniel Williams, “Egyptians Face Grim Task of Bomb Cleanup,” Washington Post, April 26, 2006.

7 Many Egyptians refer to religiously conservative persons as “Salafists.” The words Salafist is derived from the Arabic words “al-Salaf al-Salih,” which essentially mean “the pious ancestors.” Salafism generally refers to current Islamic movements that stress a return to what adherents believe to be the original faith and practices of the Prophet Muhammad and his contemporaries, in rough terms: following the words of the Qur’an alone, literally interpreted; avoiding most innovation in religion and technology; and largely disregarding modern scholastic Islamic theology and jurisprudence.

8 Egypt’s Emergency Law 162 of 1958 and Anti-Terror Law 97 of 1992. The Egyptian parliament has routinely approved renewals of the emergency law; most recently in late April 2006, weeks after the arrests documented in this report.

9 Egypt Constitution, art. 42.

10 Egypt Constitution, art. 42.

11 See International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976; Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture), adopted December 10, 1984, G.A. res. 39/46, annex, 39 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 51) at 197, U.N. Doc. A/39/51 (1984), entered into force June 26, 1987. Egypt ratified the ICCPR in 1982 and the Convention against Torture in 1987.

12 Human Rights Committee, General Comment 29, States of Emergency (article 4), U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.11 (2001), para. 2.

13 Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 29, paras. 14, 16.

14 ICCPR, article 4(2).

15 Article 42 of Egypt’s Constitution provides that any person in detention “shall be treated in a manner concomitant with the preservation of his dignity” and that “no physical or moral (m`anawi) harm is to be inflicted upon him.” Any statement that is proved to have been made under torture is deemed null and void. Ibid. Egypt’s Penal Code recognizes torture as a criminal offense, but the definition of the crime of torture falls short of the definition in article 1 of the Convention against Torture.

16 Committee against Torture, “Conclusions and Recommendations, Egypt,” U.N. Doc. CAT/C/CR/29/4 (2002), para. 4.

17 Government of Egypt, Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee, Egypt,
U.N. Doc. CCPR/CO/76/EGY/Add.1 (2003), para. 32.

18 See, e.g., Human Rights Watch, Margins of Repression, vol. 17, no. 8(e), 2005, pp. 8-9.

19 Human Rights Committee, “Concluding Observations, Egypt,” U.N. Doc. CCPR/CO/76/EGY (2002), para. 16(b).  See ICCPR, art. 14.

20 Numerous and comprehensive reports about Egypt’s poor detention record have been published by Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups. See Human Rights Watch, Egypt – Mass Arrests and Torture in Sinai, vol. 17, no. 3(E), February 2005,; Egypt’s Torture Epidemic,February 2004,; In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2004),; Egypt – Security Forces Abuse of Anti-War Demonstrators, vol. 15, no.10(E), November 2003,; and Behind Closed Doors: Torture and Detention in Egypt (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1992). See also Amnesty International, “Egypt – Systematic abuses in the name of security,” AI Index: MDE 12/001/2007, April 11, 2007, (accessed November 27, 2007); and Amnesty International, “Egypt – No protection - systematic torture continues,” AI Index: MDE 12/031/2002, November 12, 2002, (accessed September 6, 2007).

21 Committee against Torture, “Conclusions and Recommendations, Egypt,” U.N. Doc. CAT/C/CR/29/4 (2002), para. 5(c).

22 Human Rights Watch interview with Mohamed Zare’i, Cairo, June 12, 2007. Zare’i added, ironically: “We probably have over 70 different forms of torture here in Egypt, including some that have been exported. In job skills, it’s the only area in which we have a comparative advantage over other countries.”

23 Human Rights Committee, “Concluding Observations, Egypt,” U.N. Doc. CCPR/CO/76/EGY (2002), para. 16(c).