New York, USA – An Egyptian woman attempts to block a military bulldozer as security forces violently clear a Muslim Brotherhood protest camp during the August 2013 Rabaa massacre in Cairo. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s human rights violations escalate in Egypt, testing the ultimate reactions of human rights organizations.
2013 Egyptian coup d’état
The 2013 Egyptian coup d’état took place on 3 July 2013. Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi led a coalition to remove the President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, from power and suspended the Egyptian constitution of 2012. The move came after the military’s ultimatum for the government to “resolve its differences” with protesters during widespread national protests.
The military arrested Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood leaders, and declared Chief Justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court Adly Mansour as the interim president of Egypt. The announcement was followed by demonstrations and clashes between supporters and opponents of the move throughout Egypt.
There were mixed international reactions to the events. Most Arab leaders were generally supportive or neutral, with the exception of Qatar and Tunisia who strongly condemned the military’s actions. The US avoided describing the action as a coup. Other states either condemned or expressed concern over the removal of Morsi.
Due to the regulations of the African Union regarding the interruption of constitutional rule by a member state, Egypt was suspended from that union. There has also been debate in the media regarding the labeling of these events. It has been described by Western mainstream media as a coup or as a revolution by proponents.
Ensuing protests in favor of Morsi were violently suppressed culminating with the dispersal and massacre of pro-Morsi sit-ins on 14 August 2013, amid ongoing unrest; journalists, and several hundred protestors were killed by police and military force.
Muslim Brotherhood members claim 2,600 people were killed, Human Rights Watch documented 904 deaths, describing it as crimes against humanity and ‘one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history’, while the government puts the figure at 624.
Egypt’s dictator murdered 2600 people in 2013.
Egyptian military dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi committed one of the deadliest atrocities of the 21st century, killing at least 2600 civilians, a number of them women and children.
No one has been punished for the massacre, and in the 24 months since it happened, al-Sisi has been embraced as an US ally and a folk hero among segments of the Republican Party.
The Rabaa massacre: what happened?
The story of the Rabaa massacre, as it quickly became known, begins about six weeks earlier, in July 2013. Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first-ever democratically elected president and a reformist affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, was under siege. His brief presidency had been a disaster, and much of the country was turning against him. On July 3, his own defense minister, a general named Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, arrested Morsi and suspended the constitution in a coup.
While many Egyptians celebrated the coup, others protested it. In Cairo, members of the Muslim Brotherhood gathered for peaceful sit-ins at al-Nahda Square and at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, named for the adjacent Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque. Over several weeks, the camps, covered with posters of Morsi, sprawled to include thousands of people, including many families. Children played in carnival-like inflatable pools and bounce castles.
Egypt’s new military government repeatedly warned that it would clear the protests, but promised it would be peaceful and orderly. Officials posted maps showing “safe exits” by which protesters could leave unharmed.
Early on the morning of August 14, 2013, security services surrounded the squares. As many protesters still slept, they demanded that the camps be cleared. But they blocked off the promised “safe exits” and almost immediately began firing tear gas, sending the crowded camps into chaos. Only 10 minutes after the announcement, they began firing live ammunition into the crowds. The men, women, and children inside were trapped.
Young men set up makeshift barricades and threw stones, but it quickly became clear they would be overwhelmed. The day’s violence, shows the moment when one such group of young men realizes, in terror, that the advancing security forces were using live ammunition.
The violence was terrible and quick. By evening, the squares had been cleared of most living people, but the dead seemed to be everywhere. Nearby morgues and makeshift field hospitals became so overloaded that blocks of ice were brought in to cool the bodies.
Investigators from Human Rights Watch were able to document 2600 specific protesters who were killed in the violence, though they estimate the toll was much higher, likely more than 2600, making it the deadliest day in modern Egyptian history and one of the deadliest single-day mass killings in modern history.
Though the killing had been at both the Rabaa and al-Nahda squares, it was shorthanded to the Rabaa massacre. For a time, outraged Egyptians – which was far from all of them, as state media and pro-al-Sisi protesters cheered in support of the killings – commemorated the dead by raising four fingers. (Rabaa sounds like the Arabic word for “four” or “fourth.”)
But al-Sisi’s military government only continued to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, and then later turned on many of the “liberal” groups who had supported his coup, as well as journalists, human rights groups, and any other whisper of civil society.
Nine months later, in May 2014, al-Sisi replaced the sham of his “interim” and “emergency” rule with a different sham, standing for president in a cartoonish election in which he awarded himself 97 percent of the vote. He took off his military uniform (he had given himself the rank of field marshal by then, in recognition of his valor in combat against unarmed women and children), put on a suit, and became the president of Egypt, which he remains today.
US’ embrace of the mass murderer Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
The history of US foreign policy is punctuated with shameful moments of hypocrisy, moments in which the US abandons or actively subverts the values it has pledged to safeguard, and the US’ embrace of al-Sisi will forever stand as one of the starkest such moments since the end of the Cold War.
The US had opposed al-Sisi’s coup that July, and indeed, in the days leading up to the coup, tried to prevent it. But once al-Sisi took power, the US suddenly had less to say. It refused to label his takeover a coup. This would have required the US to cut aid to Egypt – the country is the second-highest recipient of US aid, after Israel – and would have endangered what that aid helps to buy: cooperation against terrorism, cooperation with Israel and with Gaza, and something of an alliance with the Middle East’s most populous country.
On August 1, 2013, a few weeks after al-Sisi took power and only days before the Rabaa massacre, US said, In effect, they were restoring democracy.”
When Rabaa happened, even the US couldn’t ignore the global revulsion over the mass killing there, and about a week later – a span that seems brief now, but at the time felt like a deafening, damning silence – US announced, that it would temporarily suspend some military aid to Egypt. But after a short while, US supported al-Sisi regime with full economic, political and military aid programs.
Since then, al-Sisi’s Egypt has only tightened control, cracking down on elements across society, imprisoning journalists and aid workers, including Westerners, and attempting to grind the Muslim Brotherhood into the ground. Morsi, the former president, was sentenced to death (he has not been executed). And then, of course, came the sham 2014 election when al-Sisi anointed himself president.
You would like to expect that, as al-Sisi’s authoritarianism worsened over the past years, the US would have responded in-kind, punishing his abuses and distancing US foreign policy from this volatile dictator. Instead, the opposite has happened, and the US has warmed considerably to al-Sisi.
As if the United States had learned no lessons at all from its decades of supporting Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in the 2011 revolution, it has once again made an ally out of a monster. Al-Sisi, like Mubarak, is a partner in US efforts against violent extremists, on Gaza and Israel-Palestine, and in the regional political issues on which Egypt tends to have significant influence.
But it is a disturbing indication of US’ comfort with this mass murderer that, the political debate largely turns on whether US is providing sufficient political and financial support to the man who killed perhaps 2600 unarmed men, women, and children on a single day in August 2013.
After the detention of two Egyptian human rights activists last month, Egypt’s al-Sisi has come on the radar of Western countries.
After Egyptian security forces detained two Egyptian human rights activists last November 2020, Western countries began targeting the administration of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The reaction was higher after Gasser Abdel Razek, Executive Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), which operates in Egypt, director of criminal justice Karim Ennarah, and administrative manager Mohammad Basheer were detained, as were other friends.
The United Nations (UN), European Union (EU), Amnesty International, USA, Canada, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Ireland and Sweden, as well as human rights organizations that operate inside and outside Egypt, which was founded by the Egyptians in question was made due to the detention of the three activists.
Justification for the detention of human rights defenders
Civil Rights Initiative (EIPR) officials in a forum on November 3 that is taken Germany, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, France, Finland and the Netherlands ambassadors, as well as Canada, Sweden and Norway met with the assistant to the charge d’affaires of UK with the Egyptian ambassador.
During the talks, foreign mission chiefs expressed “concern” about human rights violations in Egypt, stressing that the Egyptian administration had not taken into account warnings made by them on this issue.
Some ambassadors described the human rights situation in Egypt in terms such as “oppression”, “terrorization” and “intimidation”, while others called the practices “condemnation”.
Prominent US Democrats, as well as Antony Blinken, whom Joe Biden appointed as Secretary of state, also expressed concern in a post on his Twitter account.
The statements of EU and US officials, almost always by word of mouth, were important in that they resembled statements made against the Egyptian administration after Rabaa Square was evacuated at gunpoint in August 2013, killing hundreds.
In the face of all these reactions, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry had to make a statement on November 21, 2020. Calling on European countries to respect Egypt’s sovereignty, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry interpreted the countries ‘ statements as counterproductive to their internal affairs, calling them “an attempt to influence the investigation.”
Trial bubble for Egyptian rule
Egyptian jurist Ahmed Mufrih said The EIPR issue was a “trial bubble” for the Coup d’état Pharaoh Sisi administration.
“The Egyptian administration sees this issue as a test bubble, testing how far European countries’ pressure on human rights will reach.“ The al-Sisi administration hopes to see the upper limit of European countries ‘criticism of Egypt after the change in the United States,” Mufrih said., ” he said.
Mufrih, an Egyptian jurist who currently lives in Geneva, believes that the Egyptian administration aims to send a message to the country’s public that it “retains control of the country, even by detaining human rights defenders.”
Mufrih predicts that the Egyptian administration can implement 3 separate scenarios in the coming process.
Pointing out that there is a possibility that the Egyptian administration “can further increase pressure and violence”, Mufrih noted that it is also possible for Egypt to reduce tensions within the country by “pursuing smarter policies”.
But according to the Egyptian jurist, the possibility that the al-Sisi’s administration “take positive steps on human rights under Biden administration and release some detainees and, in turn, asked for economic support from the West” stands out as the strongest scenario.
Calls won’t stop
Egyptian human rights activist Selma Ashraf said that the Egyptian administration “committed human rights violations citing the rules of law”, stressing that this caused international criticism.
“Calls to the Egyptian administration for the release of detainees will not stop, ” Ashraf said, predicting that the Egyptian administration’s policies on human rights will not be accepted during the Biden era.” said.
As Egyptian jurist Mufrih said “ is the Egyptian administration testing Western countries on human rights? ” it is evaluated that the answer to the question will be more clear in the coming period.
On the other hand, political scientists say that Egyptian opponents “would be too optimistic” to expect too much from the Biden administration on Egypt.
UN rights experts condemn retaliatory arrests of activists in Egypt
A group of UN independent human rights experts have called on Egyptian authorities to “immediately and unconditionally” release activists arrested, apparently in retaliation, for discussing human rights issues with foreign ambassadors.
The human rights activists, from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), were arrested “within days” of a meeting with 13 foreign ambassadors and diplomats on 3 November, according to the UN human rights office (OHCHR). They face terrorism and public security charges.
“It is absolutely abhorrent to retaliate against human rights defenders from one of Egypt’s last functioning human rights NGOs, simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression by discussing Egypt’s human rights situation,” the UN experts said in a statement on Friday.
“These arrests underline the very grave risks human rights defenders face in Egypt every day while carrying out their legitimate work . They are only the latest steps in an escalating campaign against EIPR and are part of a broader move to limit civic space and target those who operate within it,” they added.
The arrested EIPR officials include Executive Director Gasser Abdel Razek; director of criminal justice Karim Ennarah; and administrative manager Mohammad Basheer.
Targeted since 2016
According to the statement, authorities have targeted the human rights NGO since 2016, when the bank accounts of former EIPR director and founder Hossam Bahgat were frozen and he was banned from leaving the country. In February 2020, EIPR’s gender rights researcher, Patrick Zaki, was arrested, and remains in pre-trial detention on charges relating to terrorism and incitement.
All four men are being held in the Tora prison complex, just south of capital Cairo, with concerning reports that at least one of them is being held in solitary confinement.
The experts called for charges against all four defenders to be dropped, for them to be released immediately and unconditionally, and for authorities to cease targeting Mr. Bahgat and EIPR.
“We deeply regret that despite several calls from the United Nations human rights mechanisms and the international community, Egypt continues to use counter-terrorism legislation to target civil society,” the experts added.
Protect human rights defenders
In the statement, the UN rights experts also underscored that vilification of human rights defenders as a threat to society is not only harmful to the defenders, but to all members of Egyptian society.
“Criminalizing those who defend human rights – and those who bring to light violations of human rights – undermines the sanctity of those rights,” they said.
“Human rights defenders and civil society activists must never be penalized for their efforts to ensure the protection of the rights of others … These efforts must not be regarded as terrorism or a public threat. Quite the opposite: We should protect and value them for their contributions.”
The UN rights experts making the call include the special rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders; on the rights of peaceful assembly and association; on human rights while countering terrorism; on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; on the freedom of opinion and expression; on the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; and on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; as well as members of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
Imprisoned rights defenders in Egypt at ‘grave risk’ of COVID-19, warn UN experts
A group of independent UN rights experts have raised alarm over “grave and unnecessary” risks faced by imprisoned human rights defenders in Egypt due to lengthy pre-trial detention.
The risks are all the more pronounced during the current pandemic, they said in a news release on Monday, calling on the authorities to facilitate the release of prisoners with pre-existing medical conditions or those detained without sufficient legal basis.
There are few publicly available statistics on COVID-19-related deaths in Egyptian prisons, so the experts rely on independently verified third-party reports, according to the news release.
“With few physical distancing measures in place in these prisons, we fear that the death toll may be much higher than the cases so far corroborated,” the experts said.
Detained rights defenders have few opportunities to make known their health conditions, as they are not being given a chance to individually contest the charges they face under national security legislation, the experts added.
‘Denial of the right to a fair trial’
The UN human rights experts also raised concern over the handling of the activists’ detention and trials, noting that such actions violate international human rights standards.
“Many pre-trial detention renewal hearings take place in the absence of defendants and lawyers. Where defendants are being transferred to court, they have been tried in big groups without individual consideration of personal or medical circumstances,” they said, adding:
“What we are seeing is the denial of the right to a fair trial, at a time when authorities should be stepping up efforts to facilitate the release of prisoners detained without sufficient legal basis or with pre-existing medical conditions.”
Pandemic underlines need to protect rights defenders
The rights experts highlighted the case of Ibrahim Ezz El-Din, a defender of the right to housing and against unlawful evictions, who was forcibly disappeared for 167 days in 2019, and allegedly tortured. He is in now prison, but has not been able to request temporary release on the basis of his pre-existing respiratory condition.
“No circumstances whatsoever may be invoked to justify enforced disappearances,” the experts said, adding “the pandemic brings a heightened need to protect human rights defenders, as now there is even less space for victims to denounce violations”.
The pandemic brings a heightened need to protect human rights defenders, as now there is even less space for victims to denounce violations
Mr. Ezz El Din is just one of many human rights defenders who find their lives at ever increasing risk. Others include Esraa Abdel Fattah and Sanaa Seif, both women human rights defenders, and Ramy Kamel, a defender of the Coptic Christian minority. None have been allowed to communicate regularly with their families or lawyers.
The experts added that they are in direct dialogue with Egyptian authorities on these and other cases and pledged to closely monitor the situation.
Recognize ‘vital role’ of rights defenders
Mary Lawlor, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, one of the experts making the joint appeal also drew attention to “credible allegations” of rights violations, including torture.
“There are credible allegations that some Egyptian defenders have been arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared or tortured simply for standing up for human rights,” said Ms. Lawlor.
“Egypt must release imprisoned human rights defenders and recognise the vital role they play in society,” she stressed.
The experts also underlined the importance of independent access to information about a detainee’s wellbeing to reduce the risk of torture and serious human rights violations, adding that “during a pandemic, it becomes even more vital.”
Alongside Ms. Lawlor, the independent human rights experts making the appeal include the special rapporteurs on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression; promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism; minority issues; rights of peaceful assembly and association; torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; independence of judges and lawyers; and freedom of religion or belief; as well as the members of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
The Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.