Human Rights Conditions in Egypt

Tom Malinowski
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Testimony Before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, House Committee on Foreign Affairs
Washington, DC
November 3, 2015

(As preprared for delivery)

I would like to start by recognizing the chair and distinguished members of the commission. Thank you for your continued leadership in promoting and defending human rights around the world, and thank you for providing me with this opportunity to testify on the important matter of Egypt and human rights.

I want to begin by emphasizing that Egypt has long been a strong partner for peace and stability in the region, and the United States is committed to the security and to the economic well-being of the Egyptian people. Secretary of State Kerry emphasized this point this August during the U.S.-Egypt Strategic Dialogue, the first such Dialogue we’ve had with Egypt in six years, which I also joined.

Secretary Kerry made clear that we want the relationship between the U.S. and Egypt to be centered around opportunities, not threats. And we know that, with the right economic choices and the right choices about governance, Egypt can address its domestic problems and continue to play a vital role in the Middle East. It is because of our support of the Egyptian people and our desire that Egypt continue to play that role, that the United States is deeply committed to this relationship.

That said, Egypt and other countries in the region face unprecedented challenges today, including the very serious threat posed by Daesh. We are deeply concerned about the insurgency in the Sinai, attacks on security and military forces there, and terrorist attacks in Cairo and other parts of Egypt. We recognize the high price Egyptians have already paid in this fight, and are committed to helping Egypt prevail.

To that end, we are providing security and economic assistance aimed at equipping the Egyptian government with the means to defeat terrorist threats and supporting Egypt’s efforts to build a more prosperous society that will be better able to counter the dangers posed by extremism.

As Secretary Kerry said during the Strategic Dialogue, “border security and law enforcement actions are a significant part of the equation.” “But,” he added, “the even larger imperative is to persuade and prevent young people from turning to terror in the first place. Otherwise, no matter how many terrorists we bring to justice, those groups will replenish their ranks and we will not be safer. We will be involved in a round robin, circular, repetitive process.”

A state’s efforts – militarily, economically, and politically – to combat the threats of terrorism and violent extremism must all be interlinked. Defeating these threats requires a comprehensive strategy that enjoys the support of religious authorities, educators, and citizens who discredit violent doctrines and who are willing to stand up to extremists in their communities – something that governments cannot do unless they work hand in hand with civil society. Success will depend on building trust between the authorities and the public, which can only happen when security forces respect human rights. It also will require disproving the terrorists’ argument that that there are no viable peaceful means to pursue justice in the Middle East, at that can only be done if those who are critical of official policies can voice dissent through a democratic political process.

Human rights and democratic governance are thus not ancillary to countering terrorism; they are central. Protecting peaceful dissent, allowing space for civil society, and supporting free participation in the political process are all essential to help stem the growth of violent extremism. These are points that Secretary Kerry and I and other U.S. officials have consistently reiterated in our engagement with the Egyptian government. Let me summarize some of the specific concerns we have expressed.

With respect to democratic governance, I note that Egypt has just concluded a first phase of parliamentary voting and another phase is scheduled for later this month. We recognize the importance of the parliamentary elections to Egypt’s political development.

While the seating of Parliament can be a significant step, we also recognize that democracy is about much more than holding elections. As President Obama has stated, “When journalists are put behind bars for doing their jobs or activists are threatened as governments crack down on civil society then you may have democracy in name, but not in substance.”

In Egypt, although President al-Sisi has made some positive symbolic gestures and statements regarding religious freedom and tolerance, concrete legislative changes and reform in the areas of rule of law and governance are needed to reverse what has been an overall negative trajectory for human rights and democracy. We are deeply concerned by recent reports of irregular, arbitrary arrests, the use of prolonged preventative detention, disappearances and deaths of activists, as well as new allegations of lethal use of force during police raids, which could amount to extrajudicial killings. It is imperative that authorities investigate these incidents in a timely and transparent manner, and signal to security forces that such tactics are not tolerated.

More broadly, a series of executive initiatives, new laws, and judicial actions have severely restricted freedom of expression and the press, freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly, and due process, and they compromise the few steps taken towards political reform. Recently, the government issued new counterterrorism legislation that does not adequately distinguish between peaceful dissent and violent extremism. This could have a significant detrimental impact on human rights and fundamental freedoms, particularly fair trial guarantees, freedom of association, and freedom of expression.

There is a pervasive lack of respect for international fair trial safeguards and guarantees, which has been evident in the judiciary’s use of mass trials, the use of military courts to try civilians, and the over-reliance on prolonged pre-trial detention. Hundreds – mostly supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood – have received death sentences in mass trials without any ability to present individual defenses or the benefit of minimum fair trial guarantees; appeals in these cases are ongoing. The government also issued a decree in 2014 that expanded the jurisdiction of military courts to try civilians. Human rights organizations estimate up to 3,000 civilians may have been tried in military courts since the decree was issued.

We welcome President Sisi’s recent decision to release the Al-Jazeera journalists and nearly 100 activists, including human rights defenders Yara Sallam and Saana Seif. But human rights organizations estimate that many thousands of Egyptians remain in detention. This includes democracy activists -- many of the same young leaders who assembled in Tahrir Square in 2011. They continued to advocate for their beliefs and were arrested for violating a law that effectively bans peaceful assembly. Many of those prisoners are being held in pre-trial detention, some for two years or more without a trial. As of the end of September, the Committee to Protect Journalists also reported that eighteen journalists remained behind bars in Egypt, while at least seven others have been released on bail after being imprisoned on pretrial detention orders in the past six months.

Conditions in prisons and detention centers are harsh due to overcrowding, physical abuse, inadequate medical care, and poor ventilation. Just last week, on October 26, President Sisi issued an amendment to Egypt’s prison law that widens the circumstances under which use of force against prisoners is authorized. Continuing large numbers of arrests are only exacerbating these harsh conditions, especially in police stations, where authorities hold large numbers of persons arrested en masse, sometimes for extended periods.

There is reason to fear that amidst these harsh prison conditions, with thousands of peaceful political activists, political party members and protestors all intermixed with common criminals and violent extremists, the seeds of radicalization will be sown. This has happened before in Egypt’s history. And the danger is especially great now because this situation reinforces one of the main arguments Daesh makes to young people who place their faith in democratic politics: that peaceful methods are doomed, that those who rely on them will end up in prison, silenced, forgotten and tortured, whereas those who go to Syria, Iraq or Sinai to fight and kill are strong and will be victorious. Where terrorists and peaceful political activists are sharing the same jail cells, Daesh has quite literally a captive audience for this message. This is why Secretary Kerry has called on Egypt to move rapidly through its judicial system to address the problem of mass incarceration so that “young people are not pushed into greater radicalization as a consequence of the fight against it.”

We also remain concerned by the restrictive environment facing civil society organizations and continued reports of harassment. Some of Egypt’s leading human rights organizations find themselves under investigation under laws that run counter to democratic practices. The Ministry of Social Solidarity has dissolved approximately 500 NGOs this year, largely those linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Remaining NGOs operate under tight scrutiny, with many reporting harassment by Egyptian authorities.

Finally, in the Sinai, 3,200 families have been forcibly displaced as a result of the government’s efforts to create a buffer zone on the Gaza border and we concerned by reports that the government has failed to adequately provide for these displaced residents. It is imperative that the government follow through on its commitments to provide these individuals with relocation assistance, as well its broader pledge to deliver social and economic development for Sinai. Otherwise these security tactics will only exacerbate the underlying social and economic conditions in Sinai that fuel radicalization and unrest.

To conclude, we appreciate that Egypt faces real and urgent security threats. We have an interest in helping Egypt counter those threats, and we are doing so. But we will continue to make clear that the best way to win, in Egypt and in every country in the region threatened by terrorism and extremism, is to build institutions legitimate and inclusive enough to unite everyone, conservative or liberal, secularist or Islamist, who pursues their goals peacefully. When some people feel shut out because of the opinions they express or the group they belong to, that creates divisions the violent extremists love to exploit and that give them their only real hope for success.

Terrorist groups like ISIL don’t need open societies to advance their goals; they thrive in the shadows; they recruit in the prison yards; they feed off the resentment that repression creates. It is the people who form the most powerful counterweight to ISIL in their communities – those who place their faith in peaceful political change and defend a non-violent vision of Islam who need freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly and the rule of law to do their work.

So we continue urge the Egyptian government to take specific steps that will help build a stronger, more stable, more united Egypt. We encourage it to revise legislation, including the Demonstrations law, NGO laws, and counterterrorism legislation, that restrict human rights and fundamental freedoms; to release those detained only for peacefully expressing dissent, including activists like Ahmed Douma, Ahmed Maher, Alaa Abdel Fattah, and Mohamed Adel, or for membership in a political group; to allow independent human rights organizations access to prisons; to address impunity and hold members of the security forces accountable for arbitrary or unlawful killings; and to take all appropriate steps to protect civilians during counterterrorism operations.

Neither the United States nor any other external force can impose such measures on Egypt; only the Egyptian government and Egyptian people can make the necessary decisions. We know as well that many Egyptians are eager for greater order and stability after the turmoil that their country has experienced since the events of 2011. But as friends of Egypt we can point out that going back to the models of governance that ultimately led to crisis in 2011 is not the best way to achieve lasting stability; that more inclusive, open governance rooted in the rule of law is the way to avoid repeated political upheaval and to unite the vast majority of Egyptians who reject violence against those who threaten the country’s peace.