In September 2021, the Egyptian government launched the National Human Rights Strategy (“NHRS”) as a means of addressing ongoing human rights issues in the country. Although Egypt’s government touted these reform measures, data and reports show that little progress has been achieved nearly a year and a half since the NHRS’s launch. Worse yet, Egypt’s human rights record has been regressing by, for example, tamping down on anti-government media and maintaining inhumane detention facilities for media prisoners. This begs the question: was the NHRS all talk or is Egypt serious about wanting to get to the bottom of human rights issues?
Egypt’s History of Human Rights Issues
For years, those living in Egypt have been subjected to human right abuses. Examples include arbitrary detention and unfair trials of both actual and perceived government critics; suppression of the freedom of association and expression; torture of detainees; discrimination and violence based on sex, religion, and gender; and arbitrary arrests of refugees and migrants. To further suppress human rights defenders, Egyptian authorities have instituted repressive laws, issued as recently as 2017, to restrict human rights monitoring and nonprofit organizations working to help those in need.
Although Egypt is a constitutional republic governed by an elected president and bicameral legislature, onlookers questioned the efficacy of these democratic institutions following the 2018 election in which the incumbent President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, faced no real opposition. Both domestic and international organizations became concerned after the 2018 election that the government was limiting individuals’ rights to be involved in the political process and other forms of expression.
Human rights groups reported enforced disappearances, life threatening conditions in detention centers for those arbitrarily arrested, and official censorship. The government justified many of its actions on national security grounds. Furthermore, in 2019, the Egyptian Parliament overwhelmingly approved an amendment allowing President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to remain in power until 2030. Under his rule, many fear that true government accountability for human rights abuses will never take place.
In the midst of outcries against the human rights abuses from civilians and others inside Egypt, calls for change from outside Egypt also surfaced. 32 UN member states issued a joint statement at the Human Rights Council in March 2021, after international criticism of the Egyptian government’s conduct reached its peak. The joint statement expressed concern towards Egypt’s abuses of due process, and called on Egypt to lift restrictions on expression and to release journalists who had been arrested. Egypt launched the NHRS shortly thereafter.
The National Human Rights Strategy…And Its Failures
The Supreme Standing Human Rights Committee, an Egyptian committee chaired by Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, drafted the NHRS. The NHRS acknowledges the need to fix the criminal justice system and to strengthen the country’s commitment to “the principles of equality, justice, and non-discrimination,” while simultaneously applauding Egypt’s constitutional framework. The NHRS has four pillars: (1) Civil and Political Rights; (2) Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; (3) Rights of Women, Children, Persons with Disabilities, Youth and Elderly; and (4) Human Rights Education and Capacity Building. The NHRS was drafted in September 2021 and asserts that within five years, its targets will be met within each pillar through the help of independent experts and civil society organizations.
Despite President al-Sisi’s remarks at the launch of NHRS, that 2022 would be the “year of civil society,” individuals continue to be subjected to “human rights violations based on their sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs.” Despite the NHRS’s laudable goal of creating human rights change within just five years, reports from the end of 2022 show that the country is no closer to achieving this goal. It is hard to argue that the Egyptian government was serious in undertaking measures to address systemic human rights violations, in light of the data.
In addition to calls from UN Human Rights High Commissioner Volker Türk, the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Cairo at the end of January 2023 to strengthen US-Egypt relations, encourage action to address human rights abuses, and promote peace. Blinken stated that human rights are of the utmost importance, and conversations focused upon encouraging President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to take greater action in that regard.
With seven years left in al-Sisi’s presidency, Egypt’s future human rights landscape is unclear. More concrete efforts beyond speeches and other commendations from world leaders are needed for actual change—sitting on the sidelines while al-Sisi has been in power has failed to lead to any major improvements in human rights. Opinion is mixed, but many argue that sanctions imposed by the United States on South Africa during the mid-1980s were helpful in pushing an end to apartheid in the region. Although each situation is unique and addressing human rights abuses is no simple task, calling attention to Egypt’s abuses through the use of sanctions or other economic and political tools may be an effective way to move forward.
Author Biography: Gabrielle Hangos is a Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. Candidate at The George Washington University Law School. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a minor in Political Science and Criminal Justice from The George Washington University.
Editor: Drew Weisberg