Has the revolution achieved the aspirations of the Egyptian people for the respect of fundamental rights and dignity, asks Hafez Abu Seada
One of the chief motivating forces behind the 25 January Revolution was the outrage against the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Mubarak regime. All Egyptians know this, as does anyone abroad who has observed developments in Egypt. Egypt had an appalling human rights record. The Committee Against Torture (CAT) observed that torture was systematically used by Egyptian security agencies in Central Security detention camps, State Security Intelligence headquarters, and police departments, and that victims of this policy of systematic torture included not just political detainees but also ordinary citizens. The case of Khaled Said, which occurred only a few months before the revolution, is the most widely publicised instance. Security officials attempted to cover up the crime, claiming that the Alexandrian youth had swallowed a marijuana cigarette whereas, in fact, he had been brutally tortured and beaten to death by security forces.
Torture was only one of the many human rights abuses that proliferated under the 30-year long state of emergency that coincided with the period of Mubarak rule. Arbitrary arrest, lengthy detention without charges, military trials of civilians, restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly and to organise politically in political parties or NGOs, and flagrant electoral tampering persisted rampantly throughout these years. The state of emergency also served to perpetuate gags on the freedoms of opinion and expression, arrests and interrogations of journalists, penalties on publishing houses impeding publication rights, bans on peaceful protest, restrictions on religious freedoms and a host of other violations that filled the reports of domestic and international human rights organisations.
During the last decade of Mubarak rule, political horizons closed further as the result of what is commonly referred to as the succession scenario — the regime’s scheme to transfer power from Hosni Mubarak to his son, Gamal. In order to ensure its success, the architects of that project felt it necessary to engineer a severe clampdown on opposition forces. Although the Islamist opposition was affected, the liberal, left wing and Nasserist forces bore the brunt of this campaign. The Muslim Brotherhood retained an agreed-upon relative margin of freedom, because the regime needed them to use as a bogeyman to intimidate the West into approving the succession scenario.
Today, Egyptians are asking whether the Egyptian revolution has achieved their longed for progress in the cause of human rights. Or has this hope been frustrated by the current political conditions and have human rights abuses resumed their former trajectory?
The answer to these questions becomes apparent, firstly, through an examination of the relevant legislation that has been passed since the revolution and, secondly, by taking stock of the gross human rights violations that have taken place recently. Such processes will help us assess the extent to which the Egyptian aspirations for human dignity, democracy and the sovereignty of law have been met since the revolution.
The new constitution should form the foundation for the protection of human rights and the establishment and reinforcement of democracy. Unfortunately, the method in which the constitution was drafted produced provisions that have stirred considerable controversy among political forces. The final product fails to offer the necessary safeguards for human rights. In fact, the drafters of the constitution avoided the term “human rights” altogether, apart from some vague and passing reference to it in the preamble. There is no mention whatsoever of the right to life.
In addition, the drafters of the new constitution chipped away at the rights of Egyptian women, deleting the stipulation of gender equality that had existed in the 1971 constitution. Nor does the new constitution define torture in the manner of the international Convention on Torture, making it easier for perpetrators of the crime of torture to evade prosecution. Egyptians affiliated to religions other than Sunni Islam were clearly offended by crucial segments of the new constitution. The three representatives of Egyptian churches withdrew from the Constituent Assembly in protest against articles that would undermine the civil state and pave the way for a theocratic state under the hegemony of a Sunni religious establishment. Paragraph 4 of Article 219, in particular, is designed for this purpose.
On top of the foregoing, in order to secure the control of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party over the forthcoming parliament, the provisions for parliamentary elections insist upon a mixed system whereby two-thirds of the seats of parliament would be contested by party lists and one-third by candidates running on individual tickets. A broad array of political forces opposes this system on the grounds that it fails to meet the principle of fairness and equal opportunity. They hold that these principles can only be met if the party list system is applied uniformly throughout all voting districts and, moreover, if women candidates are included in the upper half of the lists so as to ensure their fair representation in the legislature.
As for rights violations, the freedom of opinion and expression is under heavy attack. Journalists and media figures critical of the policies of the president and the ruling party are being sued and reported to the public prosecutor in unprecedented numbers. For the first time in Egyptian history, the office of the president has filed suits against journalists on the charge of “insulting the president” in response to articles or television segments that have criticised President Morsi. The hundreds of complaints against journalists, political activists and other persons of opinion that have been lodged with the public prosecutor portend bleak days ahead for rights of free speech and journalistic freedoms.
Extrajudicial executions also appear to be on the rise again. In the past three weeks, the number of protesters killed by police fire climbed to over 60 in the Suez Canal governorates of Port Said, Suez and Ismailia, as well as in Cairo. It has been observed that young activists with pages on such social media websites as Facebook and Twitter and who were outspoken in their criticism of the policies of the president and the Muslim Brotherhood were specifically targeted. Mohamed Al-Guindi and Gaber “Jika” Salah are two of the most well known victims. Investigations are still in progress on those responsible for the deaths of these civilians.
The state of emergency, which had been lifted after the revolution, has been re-imposed in the Suez Canal governorates along with curfews. This action came as a shock to many political forces that had not anticipated the return to the ill-reputed policy that carries such dark memories for the Egyptian people. More dismaying yet was the fact that this action coincided with the security forces’ recourse to excessive force against demonstrators and even against ordinary citizens. The unprecedented scene, captured on video, of riot police beating and dragging Hamada Saber, naked, down the street in front of the Presidential Palace vividly signals a dangerous turn in the state of human rights in Egypt.
As the situation stands, a grim future lays ahead for democratic transformation and human rights in Egypt. There is a legal edifice that fails to furnish solid human rights guarantees and the same type of gross human rights abuses that sparked the revolution are resurfacing with increasing frequency. Will the regime step forward with an initiative that will bring all political forces together in a project to build the state and society that Egyptians have long dreamed of, a state of the rule of law and respect for human rights and dignity of all Egyptians? This seems the only reasonable way for the country to avert a dire fate.
The writer is chairman of the Egyptian Human Rights Organisation.