Egypt recently accepted 119 of 165 recommendations made by the UN’s Universal Periodic Review. It deferred a decision on the remainder to a Human Rights Council session in June 2010.
Heba Morayef, a Human Rights Watch researcher quoted by Al Masry Al Youm said that “I think [this] shows that Egypt is taking the process seriously. You can’t go to the Universal Periodic Review and reject all recommendations. There’s a natural pressure and governments have to engage.”
Prior to the conference, the Minister of State for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Moufid Shehab, told government-affiliated Al-Ahram that
Foreign and local forces have been trying their best in recent years to tarnish the image of Egypt in the area of human rights […] As a result the Egyptian delegation decided to go to Geneva, not to stand as defendants but because it is our duty to tell the world that Egypt has come a long way towards respecting human rights.
In a press conference held on Febraury 11th, he preemptively dismissed many of the most common concerns regarding Egypt’s human rights record, saying
The issue of international organisations participating in monitoring elections in Egypt is under study although there is little government enthusiasm for such participation […] In principle we are not against inviting some of these organisations to participate in the process of monitoring but we will not countenance such organisations entirely monitoring the poll, supervising the voting and vote-counting […] We view international supervision as interference in Egypt’s internal affairs since it could amount to an admission that there is a degree of electoral fraud. The proliferation of terrorist acts in the region has forced us to keep the [Emergency Law] in place […] Egypt is free from sectarian strife though there are isolated sectarian clashes from time to time between extremist Muslims and Copts. The government has vowed that it will do more to correct reports made by some organisations in this respect […] Prosecution authorities do their best to ensure that there is no torture in prison cells or police stations. Several officials and police officers have been referred to trial on charges of mistreating detainees […] Egypt has flourishing press freedom. Independent, state-owned and party-based newspapers exercise supervision on public money and help hold state officials to account.
The defensive tone of Shehab’s comments hardly conjures up images of a government ready to embrace reform.
The Universal Periodic Review highlighted the following points and many more:
- “Egyptians enjoy no protection against torture, a systematic and routine practice in police stations.”
- “Internet writers (or bloggers) in Egypt are among the most harassed in the world”
- “State Security Investigations (SSI) agents continue to arrest arbitrarily and detain individuals without charge”
- “the government has failed to create a legal environment that protects women from violence”
It is true that Egypt exists in a security climate that is far less stable than that of the United States and of European nations. The Muslim Brotherhood in particular is a prolific opposition organization that operates in a nebulous space triangulated by political activism, community outreach and radical fundamentalism. It is unlikely ever very far from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s mind that he ascended to the post after his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated by Islamic radicals (Egypt’s Emergency Law, which grants police and state security agents most of their broad powers for detention and interrogation, has been in effect since Sadat’s assassination in 1981).
However, many rights groups allege that the Egyptian government uses its broad powers to curb reform movements and political opposition. The United States was fond enough of the government’s lax stance toward torture that it ‘renditioned’ suspected terrorists to the Egyptian government for brutal interrogations without any kind of trial. In many ways, Egypt’s Emergency Law is a manifestation of the fears the Bush Administration sparked with the Patriot Act following 9/11. The government has manipulated the threat of terrorism so as to apply it to anyone critical of its behavior or policies.
No matter how many UN recommendations the government tacitly accepts, it’s going to take real government action to enact real reform.
Whether the will to act exists remains at best a subject for debate.
Sources: Al Masry Al Youm, Al-Ahram, UN Universal Periodic Review