Human Rights Developments

Wide-ranging human rights violations continued to blemish the government of President Hosni Mubarak, which ruled under a quasi-permanent state of emergency, currently in force until May 2000. Authorities showed no sign of loosening the tight grip of the security apparatus, and documentation of its impunity — including torture, deaths in custody, "disappearances," and abysmal prison conditions — filled the pages of reports published by Egyptian human rights organizations. Nor did the government take any significant steps to provide additional space to independent institutions, or peaceful political opponents and critics. In an ominous trend, there were harsh restrictions on the press in 1998, and as of late October six journalists had been sentenced to prison terms. The ruling National Democratic Party, which swept the consultative Shura Council elections in June, continued to dominate the country's static legal political landscape, and in May the Islamist-led Hizb al-Wasat (Center Party) lost its only and final legal appeal for a license to operate. The circulation of a draft law governing private associations raised fears that the state sought to impose significant curbs on the activities of independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and local human rights organizations mobilized vigorously during the year to meet the challenge. The massacre at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor on November 17, 1997, in which fifty-eight tourists and four Egyptians were killed in a forty-five minute attack by a small group of men armed with guns and knives, was the most devastating carnage since the military wing of the Islamic Group launched its sustained if sporadic campaign of violence in 1992. The indiscriminate slaughter brought to an abrupt end the tenure of General Hassan el-Alfi, who had served as interior minister since 1993. He was replaced by General Habib el-Adli, former head of State Security Investigation (SSI), the elite internal security force whose personnel have historically enjoyed impunity for torture and other human rights abuses. Suspected Islamist militants again faced unfair trials before state security and military courts, and were sentenced to death and executed, without the right to appeal to a higher tribunal as required under international human rights law. In February, EOHR expressed concern about "the increased use of the death sentence by military courts despite the fact that most of the cases referred to these courts do not contain specific charges of violence or terrorism." As of July 29, forty-one death sentences were handed down in 1998 and thirty-two criminal and political prisoners had been executed, according to Amnesty International. Senior government officials repeatedly emphasized to the international community the threat posed by Egyptian militants based abroad, seeking their extradition and even extra-legal return, but remained unresponsive publicly to calls from militant and moderate Islamists inside Egypt for a halt to politically motivated violence. In January, leaders of the Islamic Group held in Tora High Security prison reiterated their appeal, first made in July 1997, for a suspension of all attacks. In a handwritten statement, they challenged Islamic Group leaders abroad "to issue a clear statement for an end to military activity." The same month, Mustafa Mashur, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, said that his beleaguered group sought a "dialogue with the various parties to firmly oppose violence and terrorism and end extremism." He argued that the state's "lifting of limits on freedom of expression and political action would be the best way to fight against the deviant thought" of the armed militants. Suspected Muslim Brotherhood activists continued to be detained for membership in an illegal organization and "possessing leaflets opposed to the regime." At least twice during the year, ordinary Egyptians were prompted to violent confrontations with police by alleged torture deaths in police custody. On April 9, residents of Belqas, in Daqahliyah province, clashed with police following the death of twenty-four-year-old Wahid el-Sayid Ahmed Abdallah, who was arrested on suspicion of theft. He was brought to the local police station, bound, and then "whipped and beaten with sticks and the butt of a machine gun," and electric-shocked on "the ears, nipples and penis," according to a detailed EOHR report. An officer and other policemen returned the body to the family, saying only that Wahid had lost conciousness. When the family realized that he was dead, they brought the body back to the police station, where authorities initially refused to accept it and prepare a report. Family members, including Wahid's grandmother and three aunts, were arrested before police permitted the body to be buried under tight security. During the burial, several hundred residents assembled at the police station, calling for the prosecution of the officer who had ordered the torture. Angry citizens threw stones at the police and public buildings and burned tires in the streets. Security forces shot rubber bullets and tear gas and beat residents with clubs and gun butts. One man was killed, others, including police, were injured, and at least thirty-three were arrested. On August 21, residents of al-Hamoul village in Kafr al-Sheikh, reacted violently to the death in police custody of Samir Ramadan, who was arrested when he went to the local police station the previous day to visit his son who was detained there. On learning that Ramadan's body had been brought to the local hospital bearing signs of torture, residents stoned policemen and set fire to public buildings and vehicles, and thirty-six people reportedly were arrested. Following the longstanding practice of security forces when suspicious deaths in custody occur, police buried Ramadan's body under heavy security and the official death certificate attributed his death to natural causes. The lack of accountability of the security apparatus remained a major human rights problem. Continuing the pattern from past years, security forces shot dead known or suspected militants in operations that remained shrouded in secrecy. EOHR noted in a November 1997 report that the circumstances of the killings of some of the victims "indicate that they may have been extra-judicially executed." In March alone in Upper Egypt, there were at least twelve officially reported shooting deaths of men whom the government claimed were "terrorists." The official news agency MENA provided little information about these killings, other than the names of the victims, the weapons allegedly found at the scene, and assertions that in each case security forces did not open fire first. The files also remained open on tens of cases of individuals who "disappeared" in the 1990s, most of them taken into custody by police or security forces. In August, both EOHR and the Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners (HRCAP) issued reports on the subject. Written complaints that HRCAP sent last year to Egyptian government officials about eleven men who "disappeared" between 1992 and 1996 went unanswered. Authorities did not publicly release any information relevant to the reported cases; the only official response to families who submitted written inquires was that their relatives were not being held in any Egyptian prison. EOHR continued to campaign against police abuse of ordinary citizens. In a report issued in May, following the violence in Belqas, it charged that "torture and ill-treatment have become systematic and widely practiced by policemen during the interrogation of suspects....The most widespread acts of torture are the use of electric currents and hanging the victim in the position of a slaughtered animal." EOHR also noted that police abuse also included the detention and torture of relatives both to obtain information and force the surrender of suspects. Some 2,000 Islamist prisoners were quietly released between February and April, "all of them detained without charge and most of them sick," according to one knowledgeable Egyptian human rights lawyer. Appalling prison conditions remained a problem of staggering dimensions. Reports of EOHR and HRCAP made clear that medical care for prisoners was grossly inadequate, particularly for inmates suffering from serious illnesses, and that the negligence of medical professionals in prisons required urgent remedy. In "Doctors Indicted," published in February, HRCAP noted, for example, that the only doctor at Fayoum prison, which housed about 4,000 inmates, visited prisoners once a month. "Inmates have to stand up facing the wall and with their hands raised above their head until the doctor comes and asks if there are any sick prisoners," HRCAP reported. "Then he examines them verbally. Prisoners remain four meters away from him and they are insulted and accused of pretending to be sick." The work of both groups demonstrated the link between abysmal conditions — such as severe overcrowding, poor ventilation and sanitation, inadequate daily diets — and the development and spread of diseases such as tuberculosis. Thousands of inmates at four prisons — Fayoum, Liman Abu Za'bel, Tora Istiqbal, and Tora High Security — remained completely isolated from the outside world because the interior ministry continued its punishing ban on visits by lawyers and families. There were major setbacks for freedom of expression during the year as books and newspapers were banned, and journalists criminally prosecuted and imprisoned. Twice during the year authorities confiscated and banned books that official or self-appointed censors deemed insulting to Islam. On January 14, two books by Khalil Abdel Kerim were seized by police at a publishing house, on the order of the higher state security prosecutor, because religious authorities at the Islamic Research Academy of al-Azhar disapproved of their content. Censors also banned the March 19 issue of the fortnightly Cairo Times, which carried an interview with the author. On May 13, Minister of Higher Education Mufeed Shehab officially requested that the American University in Cairo remove from its curriculum Muhammed, a biography of the Prophet written by French scholar Maxime Rodinson. The minister said that the book, which is freely available in Egypt, contained "fabrications harmful to the respected prophet and to the Islamic religion," the state news agency reported. The action swiftly followed journalist Salah Muntasser's criticism of passages of the book as insulting to Islam in a column in al-Ahram, Egypt's leading daily newspaper. Independent newspapers and journalists also came under serious pressure. On February 26, information ministry censors informed the independent weekly al-Dustour, which was licensed abroad, that its license to print and distribute in Egypt had been revoked, effectively banning the newspaper. On March 7, President Mubarak signalled his dissatisfaction with the freewheeling independent press, charging that some journalists were "destroying our country." He indicated that unfavorable press coverage of certain foreign governments was not welcome, asserting that "someone has contacted a cheap newspaper and paid it a monthly fee in order to curse Saudi Arabia." In the wake of his comments, censors banned the March 19 issue of the Cairo Times, which is licensed abroad and thus subject to pre-publication censorship, for several articles found objectionable, including the review of a book about life in Saudi Arabia written by Ibrahim Abdel Meguid and published by the American University in Cairo Press. On August 12 and August 19, authorities did not approve the distribution in Egypt of the first and second editions of Alf Leila, the newly launched cultural weekly that was licensed in Cyprus as a foreign publication and was widely viewed as Dustour 's successor. Six journalists were sentenced to prison terms in 1998 for libel offenses: Magdi Hussein, editor-in-chief, and Muhamed Helmi of al-Sha'b ; Gamal Fahmy, deputy editor of the banned al-Dustour; Amr Nasif of al-Usbou' and Mustafa Bakri and Mahmoud Bakri for articles that appeared in al-Ahrar. For example, on February 24, an appeals court upheld the 1997 libel conviction of Hussein and Helmi, and imposed sentences of one year with hard labor and fines for damages to Alaa al-Alfi, the son of former interior minister Hassan al-Alfi. The case stemmed from articles published in al-Sha'b in 1996 accusing the younger Mr. al-Alfi of influence-peddling in his business dealings in Egypt. The newspaper has been repeatedly targeted by authorities for its investigative reporting, particularly on issues related to corruption. Hussein and Helmi were released from prison after the Court of Cassation on July 2 overturned the appeals court decision. The government continued to restrict freedom of association, including the right of Egyptians to form political parties. Political parties cannot operate legally in Egypt unless a license is secured from the Political Parties Committee of the Shura Council, a government-controlled body that since its establishment in 1977 has never approved the licensing of a new political party, often on the stated grounds that the programs of fledgling political groups were not sufficiently different from those of existing political parties. Decisions of the committee can be appealed to the Political Parties Court of the Higher Administrative Court. On May 9, the court rejected the Wasat Party's appeal for a license on the grounds that it "did not offer any idea which would give it a distinctive feature which would represent a new addition to political action and distinguish it from the programmes of other parties," MENA reported. Wasat activists, determined to continue their quest for legal status, two days later submitted an application for a license for a new party, the Egyptian Center Party, with what they described as a distinctive new platform. On September 21, the committee rejected this application because it again said that the platform was "not unique." Local and international human rights groups had long criticized Law No. 32 of 1964, which governed private associations in Egypt, calling for its replacement with less restrictive legislation. The law had been used to close down independent NGOs and deny legal status to others. In 1998, a draft law to replace Law No. 32 was circulated and became the subject of intense criticism by Egyptian rights organizations, and heated discussions between NGOs and the ministry of social affairs. The draft law included a categorical prohibition of "any political activities regardless of their nature," and empowered the state to object to the proposed activities of any NGO. It criminalized any activity occurring outside the framework of legally registered organizations; permitted the ministry of social affairs to veto candidates for election to boards of directors and to add government representatives toboards; and required government approval before soliciting funds inside Egypt or abroad, sending funds abroad, or joining non-Egyptian organizations. Penalties for violating the law included temporary closure or dissolution, imprisonment of up to two years, and fines. As of this writing, a draft law had not yet been submitted to parliament. Discriminatory treatment of the predominantly Coptic Christian minority remained a sensitive and controversial issue inside Egypt. In January, an issue of the Arabic daily newpaper al-Hayat (London) was banned because of an article about the situation of minorities in the region, written by Suleiman Neguib, an Egyptian Christian. Authorities defended the longstanding prohibition on church construction and repair without the express permission of senior government officials. In a speech in al-Arish on June 11, President Mubarak said that the regulations were in place because "we want to be sure that we do not give any Christian or Muslim extremist the chance to exploit the situation." As in past years, Christians in some areas of Upper Egypt were targeted and killed by suspected Islamist militants, and the perpetrators escaped unapprehended, generating fear in these villages. In a positive development for women's and children's rights, on December 28, 1997, the State Council, Egypt's highest administrative court, upheld the Ministry of Health ban on female circumcision, which a lower court ruled illegal last year. The high court found that "circumcision of girls is not an individual right under Islamic law because there is nothing in the Koran which authorizes it and nothing in the Sunna....henceforth, it is illegal for anyone to carry out circumcision operations, even if the girl or her parents agree to it." (See Women's Rights Division, below, for additional information.)

Defending Human Rights

An impressive network of independent NGOs addressed a wide range of local and regional human rights issues, focusing on civil and political rights as well as economic and social rights. The Cairo-based Land Center for Human Rights broke new ground with reports about the environmental and human rights, and working conditions for children in impoverished rural areas. The press releases and reports of Egypt's human rights groups were freely distributed in Egypt and internationally, in print and electronically. The Center for Human Rights Legal Aid and the Legal Research and Resource Center for Human Rights maintained informative Internet sites. During the year, the groups joined together in informal coalitions to oppose publicly any tightening of restrictions on freedom of association, particularly the ability of NGOs to organize and operate without state interference. Specially assigned personnel from State Security Investigation (SSI) continued direct and overt monitoring of the activities of the local human rights community, although the groups told Human Rights Watch that SSI maintained contact with them in a polite and professional manner. Restrictions on freedom of assembly remained in place. Rights groups could not host press conferences or public meetings at locations other than their own small offices without the permission of SSI, which was rarely granted. On October 15 at three o'clock in the morning, police raided the Cairo office of the Arab Program for Human Rights Activists (APHRA), an independent NGO that has campaigned on behalf of persecuted human rights activists across the region, including most recently Nizar Nayouf (see Syria chapter) and Khemaïs Ksila (see Tunisia chapter). The officer in charge questioned an employee about the group's activities and its Arab and foreign visitors. It appeared that the police were particularly concerned that APHRA was organizing events in Cairo in support of Tunisian human rights activists.

The Role of the International Community

European Union

Negotiations continued between Egypt and the E.U. on the terms of a Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement, which include "respect for human rights and democratic principles." As of October, outstanding issues remained, including European market access for Egyptian agricultural exports. Egypt also strongly objected to the inclusion of language in agreements now being negotiated which allows the E.U. to interrupt the operation of the treaty unilaterally in response to serious human rights violations. Under the earlier treaties negotiated with Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco such issues must first be taken up by foreign ministry officials of both parties. Embassy staff of some E.U. member states—Denmark, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom—met with counterparts from the U.S., Canada, and Sweden as an informal "like-minded group" to discuss human rights issues, such as the draft law governing private associations. Human Rights Watch was not aware, however, of any public E.U. demarches in the November 1997-October 1998 period regarding the human rights situation. In March, U.K. Foreign Minister Robin Cook announced a program to train Egyptian security forces. According to British officials, the program is intended to teach "more humane ways of fighting terrorism," and in particular to protect high-level officials. U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Cairo in April, but human rights issues were not raised publicly. Nor were there any indications that the French government raised such concerns when President Mubarak visited Paris in May.

U.S. Policy

Military cooperation, commercial and trade ties, and close diplomatic coordination on regional issues -- particularly the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations -- remained cornerstones of the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Egypt. U.S. government officials, including Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer in Cairo, refrained from vigorous public advocacy on any human rights issue, continuing the unstated policy that has been in place for years. The Clinton Administration's Congressional Presentation for Foreign Operations for Fiscal Year (FY) 1999 described Egypt as "the most prominent player in the Arab world and a key U.S. ally in the Middle East." It noted that "[a strong relationship with Egypt affords us political and security benefits that no single other Arab state can provide." The administration's FY 1999 appropriation request for aid to Egypt was $2.116 billion, encompassing $1.3 billion in Foreign Military Financing (both a grant and loan program), $815 million in Economic Support Funds, and $1 million from the International Military Education and Training program, which provides training for Egyptian military officers. The Presentation stated that military assistance to Egypt is part of the administration's strategy of maintaining continued availability of Persian Gulf energy resources. It noted that the aid "assists in providing security to the Suez Canal, which serves both as an important international oil route and as a critical route for U.S. warships transiting to the Gulf." It added that the close relationship with Egypt "helps assure critical permission for the overflight of U.S. aircraft bound for the Gulf." At a press conference in Cairo on April 19 with Egyptian defense minister Field Marshal Gen. Muhamed Tantawi, Secretary of Defense Cohen said that the "strong strategic partnership" was "based on our shared commitment to stability in the Middle East." He added that at his meeting earlier that day with President Mubarak, "I assured him that the U.S. will continue to support Egypt's program to modernize its military. This year we are going to provide 1.3 billion dollars in grants and our troops are going to continue to exercise and train together." The U.S. is the world's largest supplier of goods and services to Egypt, with 1996 sales estimated at $3 billion, according to the State Department's 1997 Country Reports on Economic Policy and Trade Practices. In a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Alexandria on March 19, Ambassador Kurtzer noted that the U.S.-Egypt Partnership for Economic Growth and Development, launched in 1994, was designed to "stimulate the creation here of a free market economy which is export-oriented and in which trade, business development, and commerce become the engines that drive economic change." The bilateral trade relationship is weighted overwhelmingly in favor of the U.S. The annual $200 million Commodity Import Program of USAID provided financing to Egyptian companies to purchase U.S. products including food and agricultural goods, fertilizers and chemicals, and construction and transportation equipment. U.S. exports were also facilitated by another $800 million annually in other USAID projects, and $165 million annually from U.S. Department of Agriculture programs. In addition, the report noted that "[a substantial portion" of the annual U.S. military assistance to Egypt financed U.S. exports to the country.
This report covers events of 1998

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.