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One Step Forward, Many Steps Back

By Joscelyn Jurich

Nearly five years since the Egyptian revolution, some of the sidewalks around downtown Cairo’s historic Talaat Harb Street are filled with sand rather than concrete, waiting to be remade and paved smooth. Several of the majestic art deco buildings on the surrounding streets have been carefully cleaned of soot and sand and re-painted to reveal their original gleaming white and off-white facades. Ramses Square is now quieter and more pedestrian friendly, as are Talaat Harb, Qasr al-Nil, and Abdel Khalek Tharwat streets after being emptied of the throngs of street vendors that used to occupy these areas and who have over the past year been forcibly relocated to more remote areas of the city. 

Other buildings continued to be painted and restored, ostensibly with the goal of beautifying the city and increasing tourism. Meanwhile, Egypt’s worsening human rights abuses — including the increase in arrests and detentions of citizens, activists, and journalists — are being reported with urgent frequency. In the even broader context of the recent rise in torture, imprisonment, and enforced disappearances throughout Egypt, these ‘improvements’ seem more like erasures or disguises. Instead, the scattered barricades of barbed wire that in places still line the dark green iron fences enclosing Tahrir Square make for a far more accurate representation of Egypt’s current state. 

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights documented how lack of accountability and “massive and systematic violations of basic rights” came to define Egypt in 2014 — a year that began with the promise of constitutional change. This year has not made for much of a difference.   

In May 2015, The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies issued a statement against the Egyptian government’s “increasingly aggressive actions…against civil society, especially rights groups.” Later at the beginning of June, Human Rights Watch declared 2015 a “year of abuses” under Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, pointing to the 20 people killed during the most recent anniversary of the 2011 revolution, including poet and activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh.  

On June 11, a Cairo criminal court sentenced police officer Yassin Salah Al-Din to 15 years in a maximum-security prison for al-Sabbagh’s death by beating, a charge equivalent to manslaughter, not murder. There has been no legal accountability for the others killed during the 2015 anniversary, or for the more than 1,000 protesters killed since July 2013.  “The el-Sisi government is acting as though to restore stability Egypt needs a dose of repression the likes of which it hasn’t seen for decades,” stated Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director for Human Rights Watch  Joe Stork, “but its treatment is killing the patient.” 

In late June, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a report documenting that at least 18 Egyptian journalists are currently imprisoned for their reporting, the highest number since CPJ began tracking journalist arrests in 1990. Its conclusion:  “Journalists face unprecedented threats in President Abdelfattah el-Sisi’s Egypt.”  

Researcher for the Committee to Protect Journalists Yasmin El-Rifae explained that the increasingly dire situation motivated her organization to research and release this additional report.  “One of the foundational pieces of research that CPJ puts out is a census of journalists jailed,” she explained. “This usually comes out in December but because the situation has gotten so bad for journalists in Egypt, we decided to put out another report in June.” 

A graffitied wall in Cairo, 2012

On July 9, CPJ sent an open letter to el-Sisi stressing concern for the worsening situation for press freedom in Egypt.  

The more recent car-bomb attacks on the Sinai and General Prosecutor Hisham Barakat will only result in the state bolstering “the language of security, of terrorism, of ‘you’re with us or against us,’” El-Rifae told World Policy Journal. “The government has tried to exert complete control on public space and online space,” said El-Rifai. “People have been arrested for Facebook posts, for photos downloaded onto their phones.” 

On June 30, the second anniversary of the protests that led to Morsi’s removal, Amnesty International issued a statement condemning Egypt’s mass arrests of young people, detailing fourteen examples of the thousands who have been detained, arbitrarily arrested and tortured while in police custody. Amnesty’s statement is based on the organization’s 25-page report, “Generation Jail: Egypt’s youth go from protest to prison” that details “that Egypt has fully reverted to being a police state.”   

“The sweeping arrests we’ve seen have targeted youth activists across the political spectrum,” said Nadine Haddad, Egypt Campaigner for Amnesty International. “The government doesn’t appear to be willing or capable of distinguishing between peaceful criticism of their policies and abuses by armed groups that should rightfully be condemned.”  

The Amnesty report came out just a couple of weeks after the disappearance of three young people during the first week of June:  23-year-old photojournalist Esraa El-Taweel along with students, Sohaib Saad, 22, and Omar Mohamed, 23. Later in the same month, it was reported that each of them had been imprisoned. Mohamed Al-Baqr, a human rights lawyer on El-Taweel’s defense team told the Daily News Egypt that during her imprisonment, El-Taweel was also blindfolded, interrogated continuously and denied contact with her family and lawyers. 

“The space for critiquing the government is shrinking,” Haddad said.  “A wide variety of people who are perceived as a threat to ‘national security’ face the risk of arrest, imprisonment and huge fines.”

A recently restored building in Cairo, 2015

As a part of Cairo’s renovation efforts, the charred hulk of the National Democratic Party’s headquarters is now in the final stages of being bulldozed and demolished, an act that one witness to its destruction described as “the last movement of the eraser that is undoing everything since January 2011.”  Director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Gamal Eid commented, "I see the NDP building being demolished every day, but I am also witnessing a worse regime being built every day."  As Egyptian blogger Zeinobia argued in a post illustrated with videos of the demolition, while its physical structure is destroyed, the El-Sisi government “is still keen to keep…the NDP alive with the same old authoritarian policies.”  

In the eyes of Haddad, the continuation and enhancement of authoritarian rule in Egypt from Mubarak to el-Sisi is tacitly supported by governments with geopolitical interests in the region that perceive security, stability and counter-terrorism efforts as higher priorities than human rights, rather than as inextricably linked with human rights. In fact, the Obama administration described its resumption of full military aid to Egypt at the end of March 2015 as in the interest of “national security.” On May 12, the Obama administration sent Congress its obligatory annual report on Egypt documenting that “impunity remains a serious problem in Egypt;” that “government forces have committed arbitrary or otherwise unlawful killings during dispersal of demonstrators, of persons in custody, and during military operations in the Northern Sinai peninsula;” and that there exists “a pervasive lack of respect for international due process standards and other fair trial summary safeguards.” During the past weeks, the House and Senate still refused to link Egypt’s $1.3 billion in military aid to progress in human rights and democracy.  As of this writing, neither Obama nor any other U.S. administration official has made a substantial statement in response to El-Sisi’s recent anti-terror law that would heavily fine journalists for reporting anything other than the official state position on terrorist attacks.

Yet by consistently refusing to hold Egypt fully responsible for its human rights abuses — and in some cases, even profiting from those abuses as with the CIA’s use of torture in Egypt during the extraordinary rendition program — the Obama presidency is undermining their own credibility to call for accountability, much in the same fashion as his predecessors. If ensuring loyalty or influence is the motive for continued assistance from the U.S., it has not been terribly successful given El-Sisi’s efforts to cozy up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has turned the same blind eye to the Egyptian dictator’s recent crackdown as his Western counterparts. That human rights have been and continue to be ignored in favor of re-constructing repression in Egypt creates a new form of transnational collaboration in violating human rights, one for which not only El-Sisi but the United States and world leadership must be held responsible.  

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Joscelyn Jurich is a freelance journalist and critic who has worked as a reporter, editor, and media trainer in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Egypt and as a print, online, and television journalist in the U.S.

[Photos courtesy of Sebastian Horndasch, and Joscelyn Jurich] 

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