Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Conflict of loyalty?

The election of a former police officer as head of parliament’s Human Rights Committee stirs controversy. Gamal Essam El-Din reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Alaa Abed, parliamentary spokesperson of the Free Egyptians Party, is the new head of parliament's Human Rights Committee. The former police officer replaces Anwar Al-Sadat who resigned in August after accusing Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal of not doing enough to support the work of the committee.

Abed won the seat uncontested after seven MPs who initially stood withdrew from the race. They include head of the Conservative Party Akmal Qortam who accused the Free Egyptians Party of packing the Human Rights Committee with its MPs to ensure Abed’s election.

Oil business Qortam, described the voting process as "undemocratic" and announced he would resign his seat in protest. “Most of the MPs who joined the committee for parliament’s second legislative season have no interest in human rights. They were following the Free Egyptians Party’s instructions and joined simply to vote for Abed," claims Qortam.

Independent MP Osama Sharshar, who also withdrew his candidacy, told reporters that the Free Egyptians Party, which has 65 MPs, had hijacked the influential Human Rights Committee.  "Twenty six of its MPs, none of whom has any record of human rights advocacy, joined the committee just to get Abed elected." Sharshar described the vote as "a complete farce".

Deputy speaker Mahmoud Al-Sherif, who supervised the vote, insists that the increase in committee members, from 38 to 64, reflects an increased interest on the part of MPs in human rights. "They decided to join the committee because they have an interest in human rights issues and not because they were asked to do so by their parties," claimed Al-Sherif.

He pointed out that parliamentary bylaws place no limit on the number of MPs sitting on committees.

Abed concedes that MPs affiliated with the Free Egyptians Party secured him the chairmanship of the Human Rights Committee but also stresses he won the votes of some MPs not affiliated with his party.

In setting out his credentials to head the committee Abed, a former police officer, told reporters he “resigned from the police to work as a lawyer” and was elected head of a human rights centre.

"My view of human rights is not confined to dealing with complaints filed against the Interior Ministry concerning abuse in prison cells and police stations. I also want to improve conditions in crucial areas like education, and health," said Abed. "I want to defend the rights of the oppressed and address injustice in this country."

On 20 October, two days after his election as head of the Human Rights Committee, Abed launched a campaign under the title Defend Helpless Citizens. The initiative, he says, “will allow citizens to report human rights abuses to the committee and have access to lawyers to represent them free of charge".

Abed also revealed he has telephoned Qortam to ask him not to resign from parliament.

"Qortam's contribution to committee debates is very important. We want to improve the human rights situation in Egypt and for that it is essential we have diversity of opinion on the committee," said Abed.

MP Anwar Al-Sadat, the committee’s former head, did not stand for election. He has faced a concerted campaign claiming he used his position on the committee to promote the agenda of Western human rights organisations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Abed says he will approach human rights from a national perspective and stresses the committee will work in cooperation with the official National Council for Human Rights.

"I hope that we will be able to work together to improve human rights while simultaneously defending national security and internal stability," said Abed.

Abed criticised Sadat for attending conferences organised by human rights groups which are “hostile to Egypt”.

"He did this without seeking the approval of parliament, a mistake we will not repeat," said Abed.

He told the committee's first meeting on 20 October that its agenda should include discussing amendments to the protest law, the transitional justice law and the anti-terror law and that an open debate “on the worrying phenomenon of forced disappearances" should be held.

"Sixty per cent of complaints sent to the committee in the first session concerned human rights abuses in prison cells," says MP Magdi Seif.  "Part of our job is to help eliminate violations in prison cells but before any prison visits can be undertaken we must first secure approval from the prosecutor-general."

Abed argues that the committee is not in a position to make surprise visits to prisons. "There is no such thing as a surprise visit. There is a series of procedures that must be followed before committee members can visit prison cells."

Seif, who accuses the Muslim Brotherhood of spreading false reports about the human rights situation in Egypt, says "the committee has a role to play in defending the image of Egypt against malicious reports."

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