Egypt: consolidating repression under Sisi

Public criticism and peaceful opposition to the government remain effectively banned in Egypt, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2017. Security forces routinely tortured detainees and forcibly disappeared hundreds of people during 2016.

Having jailed tens of thousands of political opponents since the military’s removal of former President Mohamed Morsy in 2013, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government in 2016 took unprecedented steps to criminalize human rights work and cripple independent civil society groups.

“President al-Sisi’s government is consolidating and escalating repression,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Absent strong responses from the international community, authorities will continue to squeeze the space for exercising basic freedoms into nothing.”

In late November, Egypt’s parliament approved a highly restrictive draft law on associations that, if signed by al-Sisi, would place the work and funding of independent groups under supervision of a committee including representatives of the Interior, Justice and Defense Ministries and the General Intelligence Service, Egypt’s top spy agency.In September, a Cairo criminal court approved a request from a panel of investigative judges to freeze the assets of three human rights groups and the personal assets of five people who founded or led such groups.

Authorities have banned at least 15 group directors, founders, or staff members from traveling outside Egypt, most of them in 2016, since the judges opened their investigation into the foreign funding of such groups. On December 7, one of the investigative judges ordered the arrest and interrogation of Azza Soliman, founder of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance. Soliman was released after paying bail, but it was the first time the judges had ordered the arrest of a human rights defender.

Activists fear the judges will eventually charge them with illegally receiving foreign funding, punishable by up to 25 years in prison.Officers of the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency routinely tortured and forcibly disappeared suspects with few consequences. Many of the victims were accused of sympathy with or membership in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Between August 2015 and August 2016, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, an independent group, documented 912 victims of enforced disappearance by the police, 52 of whom had not reappeared by the time the group issued its report.

Between January and October 2016 alone, 433 detainees were able to register claims that police or prison officers mistreated or tortured them in custody, according to the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture. When these claims were reported in November, authorities froze the Nadeem Center’s assets and banned its co-founder, psychiatry professor and longtime anti-torture activist Aida Seif al-Dawla, from leaving the country.