Egypt’s Human Rights Crisis Deepens

In December 2012 Human Rights First released a blueprint for the new U.S. administration, How to Make Change in Egypt a Human Rights Success Story. It laid out specific recommendations for the U.S. government on areas including aid, engagement with Egyptian civil society, and how the U.S. government might publicly demonstrate its commitment to human rights values.

Human Rights First visited Egypt on a fact-finding mission March 17–22, 2013, meeting with dozens of figures in civil society and foreign governments. This included representatives of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Nazra for Feminist Studies and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), journalists and human rights activists, some of whom preferred not to be named, and with officials at the U.S. embassy and several other western embassies. This paper is based in part on that visit and aims to update and provide further context and specificity to the recommendations made in the blueprint.


The U.S. government’s stated commitment to support democracy in Egypt is being challenged and questioned by civil society groups and by many others in the country. Although the reasons for this may be varied, the United States must respond to this challenge if it wishes to make Egypt a human rights success story. The recommendations in this report will not by themselves reshape the perception of the U.S. government in Egypt but can help put the United States on the track to a productive [or mutually beneficial] relationship with Egyptian civil society. Establishing trust with some Egyptian human rights activists is unlikely to be easy or quick, but it is worth doing and can be done.

Part of the criticism stems from many years of U.S. support for Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, and there are likely to be some in Egypt who will be suspicious of U.S. actions and motivations irrespective of what the U.S. government says or does. But others point to what they see as a top-heavy U.S. relationship with current President Morsi at the expense of engagement with other parts of Egypt’s divided polity as evidence of American bad faith. They see in this U.S. policy reverting to business as usual, conducting the relationship through a single leader regardless of that leader’s adherence to human rights principles.

Egypt now has several competing centers of power, including the president, the government bureaucracy, the judiciary, the parliament (when it is reconstituted), the military, private business freed from the constraints of operating in an authoritarian climate––and the new element of public opinion. Failure to respond adequately to these new and changing realities risks the U.S. government engaging in democracy prevention in Egypt, despite its intention to the contrary.

Today’s problems include an Egyptian economy on the brink of bankruptcy and increasing social and political unrest. A major challenge for the U.S. government is that it is seen by many as doing business with President Morsi in much the same way as it did business with President Mubarak––just as in the past, the U.S. government would “reward” President Mubarak for his cooperation toward U.S. foreign policy goals by ignoring his lack of progress on long-promised, but always postponed, political reforms. Political opposition and civil society groups now see their concerns underplayed or ignored by a U.S. government reverting to its old approach.

While it is welcome that President Morsi is willing to cooperate with the United States in seeking to contain the crisis in Gaza, for example, it does not follow that he should therefore be exempt from meaningful U.S. pressure to move forward with political reform.

Although Morsi was elected president, unlike Mubarak, he has failed to respect or establish other vital democratic institutions. For example, rather than building broad support for a new constitution, in November 2012,  he pushed through a draft prepared by a 100-person constituent assembly dominated by representatives of Islamist groups, which was quickly approved by a referendum in which less than a third of the electorate took part. The approved constitution fails to provide adequate protections for basic rights and freedoms.

The majority of Egyptians desire a more representative government that will introduce the rule of law and provide the conditions that can produce a much-needed economic recovery. In a 2012 Pew Research Center poll of public attitudes in Egypt, 81% of respondents said that the desire for “improved economic conditions” and the need for a “fair judiciary” were equally the most important issues facing the country.

  • The U.S. government should urge that the military budget come under civilian oversight, and that extensive military control over many sectors of the economy should be reined in.
  • In the immediate future, the U.S. government should speak out publicly about human rights violations caused by the police and call for urgent and fundamental reform and accountability, while offering support in training and technical assistance, including in the areas of policing demonstrations and confronting gender violence.
  • The U.S government needs to be seen to be more transparent about why it wants to engage with human rights activists by explaining to them why it values their input and how it intends to use their information.
  • U.S. officials should share information with human rights defenders and discuss strategies to improve human rights conditions, in addition to gathering data from them.
  • U.S. officials should feed back to the group of civil society activists how their information was used, and if it was raised in Secretary Kerry’s subsequent meeting with President Morsi.
  • In his public remarks in Cairo Secretary Kerry rightly referred to issues of advancing protection for women’s rights, the rights of religious minorities, and security sector reform. Other U.S. officials should consistently and publicly reinforce U.S. support for these principles in the weeks ahead.
  • On the proposed NGO law the U.S. government should speak quickly, forcefully and publicly against any proposed law that falls short of international standards.
  • The U.S. government should speak publicly for NGO law reform using as a starting point the draft endorsed by 56 Egyptian civil society organizations.
  • On the elections, the U.S, government could publicly urge a review of the more controversial elements of the electoral laws, particularly the independence of the electoral commission and the drawing of constituency districts.
  • On the constitution, the U.S. government should be much more forceful in expressing doubts about the feasibility of the document forming the basis of a democratic state and in urging President Morsi to take steps both to amend the document and to gather support for it from a much broader section of Egyptian society.
  • The U.S. embassy should translate into Arabic, and publicize and promote the State Department’s newly released policy on engaging with human rights defenders worldwide.
  • Senior U.S. officials in Egypt should issue statements and hold events with other likeminded governments on human rights issues of shared concern in order to counter the idea that the United States is undermining Egyptian sovereignty but rather upholding universal principles.
  • The U.S. embassy should coordinate private visits to NGO offices or the homes of activists with diplomats from other countries.

Published on March 16, 2013


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