The Egyptian government has often been criticized for human rights abuses. These abuses remain especially significant considering the uniqueness of Article 93 of the 2014 Egyptian Constitution. The article, regarding international conventions and treaties, bucks constitutional convention with regard to these treaties. As such, this essay will analyze the actions of the government in terms of relevant international law ratified by Egypt, which the Egyptian government has explicitly agreed to hold itself accountable to through its recent Constitution. This analysis will center upon recent, documented cases that have garnered concern for their potential disregard for basic human rights, including the freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and rejection of torture.
On the evening of September 30, six Egyptians unfurled a rainbow flag amidst a sold-out crowd for the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Laila in Cairo. The flag, a symbol for tolerance and support for lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender individuals, quickly circulated around the social media accounts of individuals attending the concert. Upon exiting the concert doors, the six individuals were detained by Egyptian security forces, imprisoned, and given a trial date on charges of “sexual deviancy” and “debauchery.” These individuals, despite the outcries of prominent Egyptian and international NGOs, as well as criticism from United Nation Human Rights Committees , remain imprisoned and await trial. Mashrou’ Laila, whose lead singer, Hamed Sinno, is openly gay, was banned from performing in Egypt again in the future.
This case is not an isolated incident; since former Defense Minister Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s ascension to the presidency in Egypt following the 2013 military coup that ousted democratically-elected president Mohammed Morsi, his regime has been consistently criticized by the international community for blatant violations of human rights, including the August 2013 mass shooting of civilians in Rabaa al-Adawiya square during anti-government protests, a crackdown on news and media outlets, and the imposition of strict limits on civil society groups and NGOs. Indeed, the arrests following the Mashrou’ Laila concert merely constitute one part of the larger constellation of human rights abuses and flouting of international law that have long been a part of Egyptian public life, but have continued unchecked under Sisi’s regime.
These violations are especially significant from an international law perspective due to a unique article of the 2014 Egyptian Constitution adopted following Sisi’s assumption of the presidency. This article, Article 93, regarding international conventions and treaties, bucks constitutional convention with regard to these treaties, by explicitly stating: “The state is committed to the agreements, covenants, and international conventions of human rights that were ratified by Egypt. They have the force of law after publication in accordance with the specified circumstances”. In effect, rather than requiring legislation for such conventions to take effect, Article 93 unambiguously grants international conventions and treaties the explicit force of Egyptian domestic law.
As such, we can analyze the actions of the Sisi regime in terms of relevant international law ratified by Egypt, which the Egyptian government has explicitly agreed to hold itself accountable to through its recent Constitution. This analysis will center upon recent, documented cases that have garnered concern for their potential disregard for basic human rights, including the freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and rejection of torture.
First, it is important to explore how these dynamics have played out with respect to recent regime action in the digital space, which has garnered disapproval from major international bodies. This repressive approach is particularly significant considering the growing importance of digital format news media throughout the Arab world, including Egypt; in large part due to the ubiquity of social networks allowing for rapid dissemination of information, which repressive regimes such as Egypt’s have become increasingly wary of. Specifically, the UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression and on human rights and counterterrorism, which issued a joint statement in August 2017, criticizing the recent large-scale blocking of news websites that the Sisi regime considered to be “spreading lies.” Such international action has been fruitless in altering the regime’s stance on digital privacy. Since the publication of the UN report, over 121 news websites had been blocked, including the websites of respected news organizations such as MadaMasr and HuffPost Arabi and websites of international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders. This media censorship is hardly surprising considering the regime’s repressive attitude towards journalists and NGOs, who are frequently muzzled and prosecuted for disseminating anti-regime content. In addition, Egypt’s security apparatus is technically sophisticated and competent, due to its extensive experience in counterterrorism and cooperation with foreign militaries. While these tools were originally intended to help the regime in its battle against terrorism, they can easily be deployed less discriminately against lawful opponents of the regime through digital media, thereby amplifying the government’s repressive policies.
With regard to relevant international conventions and treaties, Egypt’s actions have run directly counter to its signed commitments, including specifically the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, ratified by Egypt in 1981. This Charter, specifically in Article 9, states that: “Every individual shall have the right to receive information. Every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law”. This commitment, which Egypt has agreed to hold itself subject to, would ostensibly prevent the Egyptian government from depriving lawful media outlets from disseminating opinions, however damaging those opinions may be to the regime. Indeed, the UN Special Rapporteurs affirmed that such blocking of news media constitutes an unlawful deprivation of basic information in the public interest, complementing the broader trend in Egypt of journalistic repression under Sisi.
A second front meriting investigation on legality with regard to international conventions is the recent regime actions with regard to “sexual deviancy” and “debauchery”, commonly understood and employed in the Egyptian government to be a euphemism for homosexuality. Most recently, this has played out in the context of the detentions of six individuals suspected of unfurling a rainbow flag at a pop concert in Cairo. Their actions led all six to undergo forced anal exams, and to stand trial for “sexual deviancy” and “debauchery”. While homosexuality is not explicitly illegal in Egyptian law, much of Egyptian society is deeply conservative, and crackdowns on individuals suspected of homosexuality have longstanding precedent in Egypt, with security forces under multiple Egyptian regimes conducting brutal crackdowns on the LGBTQ community. Indeed, the Sisi regime has brutally repressed public displays of tolerance or acceptance of the LGBTQ community, albeit with support by some constituencies in society, most notably the religious establishment, who expressed support for the detainment and prosecution of the individuals associated with the rainbow flag at the Mashrou’ Laila concert.
This worrying trend, again, runs directly counter to the covenants of human rights and civil liberties that Egypt has ratified and agreed to be subjected to, on a variety of fronts. Primarily, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed and ratified by Egypt in 1982, specifically protects individuals from persecution based on status: “Each State Party…undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized…without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. This provision explicitly protects individuals from discrimination based on “status”, which would include circumventing normal criminal procedure for the pursuit of individuals believed to be homosexual. Therefore, the Egyptian government’s campaign against homosexuality is explicitly illegal according to international law, and thus, through the Egyptian constitution, illegal according to Egyptian domestic law as well. In a similar manner, forcing detained individuals suspected of “sexual deviancy” or “debauchery” to undergo invasive anal exams by Egyptian authorities is illegal according to the same convention. Article 7 states that: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” These violate international treatises regarding the use of torture, as they cannot be fully consented to and have no medical justification.
One final component of Egypt’s policies to consider with regard to international law is the regime’s treatment of protesters, particularly with regard to the array of protests that occurred across Egypt in April 2016. At these protests, Egyptian police forces used tear gas and use of force to disperse peaceful protesters, and arrested over 380 protesters and journalists. Protesters were also subject to forced seizures of cell phone and inspections of social media accounts for any posts deemed to be anti-government. UN human rights experts, reporting on these events, called on Egyptian authorities to take active steps to encourage the right to freedom of expression and assembly, rather than curtailing public freedoms.
These actions again run directly counter to Egypt’s commitments as stipulated by Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly among ratifying states. “The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” While this article is couched in provisions regarding national security, United Nations human rights observers have repeatedly emphasized that attempts by the Egyptian government to characterize such curtailing of civil liberties in the name of national security or counterterrorism measures are not legitimate in the face of international law, particularly in cases where they override the freedom of expression and assembly. Further, the illegal search and seizure of social media accounts, and the muzzling of critical journalists, runs far beyond what would be prudent and necessary with respect to national security concerns.
However, these descriptions of the Sisi regime from United Nations committees and other international organizations have not discouraged the current United States administration from painting Egypt as an ally and bastion of stability in the Middle East. Official statements from the Trump White House have praised Sisi’s counterterrorism efforts. The current administration has praised Egypt as a voice for moderation, peace, and as a means for advocation of US interests in various international and regional bodies—with particular attention paid to Egypt’s relatively friendly relations with US-allied Israel. This discourse, however is not merely a question of harmless rhetoric. As Egypt’s most important international partner, and the arbiter of many areas of Egyptian domestic and foreign policy, the United States possesses an outsized ability to influence regime’s actions. Indeed, the United States has the ability to pressure the regime to accept more democratic measures, respect human rights of its citizens to a greater extent, and facilitate the lifting of sanctions on a severely restricted press. Thus, such a significant alliance warrants an examination of the relationship between the two nations, and the prospects for this relationship to improve the Sisi regime’s respect for human rights.
The reason for America’s seemingly-dissonant discourse can be traced back via the extensive history of US-Egypt cooperation, on a variety of fronts, since the establishment of the modern Egyptian nation-state in the mid-20th century. Thus, before analyzing contemporary trends in the Egyptian relationship with the US, it is first necessary to orient this discussion in the larger historical context of the longstanding relationship between the two nations.
Since Egypt’s 1952 military coup, which ousted British-supported King Farouk and replaced him with Egypt’s first president, the outspoken Arab-nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt has played an important role in advancing US foreign policy interests in the Middle East. This role is primarily due to Egypt’s position as an economic and cultural hub in the region, as well as its status as the region’s most significant Arab military power. Cairo has also long been an intellectual capital of the Arab world, with universities such as Al-Azhar and Cairo University historically drawing students from across the Arab world, as well as the majority of popular Arab films and music being produced in Cairo. As a result, Egypt has historically carried outsize influence in regional bodies, with respect to its ability to influence the positions of its Arab counterparts on economic, political, social, and cultural levels.
It is during this period under Nasser that the United States began to exert its influence on the course of Egyptian history, and where the historical trajectories of the two nations become intertwined. It started when Nasser nationalized the British-controlled Suez Canal, a critical trade route for European powers, which spurred a surprise invasion by the British, French, and Israeli militaries in 1956. This invasion, however, was only stopped by immense economic and diplomatic pressure exerted by the United States. While the US primarily took this action with an eye towards Cold War concerns, US protection of the extremely popular Nasser was important in defining the position of the US as a future partner of Egypt.
These events laid the foundation for Egypt’s eventual role as a singularly significant conduit of US foreign policy interests in the Middle East under Nasser’s more pro-Western and US-friendly successor, President Anwar Sadat, who was elected following Nasser’s death in 1969. Following the resumption of normal diplomatic relations between the two states in 1974 under Sadat, Egypt played a crucial role in the US-brokered 1979 landmark peace deal between Egypt and Israel, called the Camp David Accords, which made Egypt the first Arab nation to agree to recognize the Israeli state, and took the largest and most influential Arab state out of the equation of peace negotiations between the Arab states and Israel. This agreement was preceded by such landmark events as the Egyptian president visiting holy landmarks in Israel, as well as making an impassioned speech to the Israeli Knesset on the importance of cooperation and peace between the two countries, which left behind a legacy of cooperation between the two nations for the subsequent decades. Thus, Egypt played a significant role in solidifying Israel’s position as a legitimate and recognized state in the region, thereby furthering the regional interests of the United States.
This relationship continued to be beneficial to United States interests, particularly from a military perspective, throughout the reign of Hosni Mubarak, Sadat’s successor. Egypt’s role as the most significant Arab military power, and second-largest military in the Middle East behind Israel, made it the focus of US military collaborations in the region. This close military relationship played an important role in President George H.W. Bush’s Operation Desert Storm, which liberated Kuwait from an Iraqi invasion and occupation in 1990-91. In this US-led effort, the Egyptian military comprised a significant contingent of US-allied forces in the mission, and Egypt facilitated strategic support for US actions in the region. The United States and Egyptian militaries have also collaborated closely on matters of counterterrorism and security, due to Egypt’s strategic location and relatively well-developed security apparatus. This relationship has remained strong, particularly following the terrorist attacks on US soil in 9/11, which has led to a blossoming of counterterrorism cooperation and close military collaboration throughout the 2000s.
Given this historical consideration of US influence and involvement in Egyptian affairs, and analysis of trends in the current regime’s respect for the human rights of its citizens, what are the prospects for such conduct to continue? Further, what role, if any, will the US play in this process as an historic ally of Egypt with a rhetorical interest in promoting democracy and improving civil liberties throughout the world? In order to address this question, I will analyze the contemporary trajectories of the US-Egypt relationship, in order to predict the prospects for continued human rights violations in Egypt.
The United States plays an important role in influencing Egyptian policy decisions and international action, primarily post-1979, because Egyptian presidents have largely taken cues from their American counterparts in determining major policy decisions. The two countries are closely linked, through economics, military cooperation, and diplomatic relations. Thus, an analysis of contemporary trends in the US-Egypt relationship can be fruitful in determining the trajectory of Egyptian actions in the future.
First, the US and Egypt have a longstanding economic relationship, which Egypt relies on for the development of its security apparatus, as well as significant trade considerations between the two countries. Economically, Egypt and the United States have a well-established trade relationship, with the US being responsible for about 5% of Egypt’s imports and exports. Moreover, Egypt has been the largest recipient of US aid in the Middle East, behind Israel, with Egypt receiving approximately 1.5 billion dollars annually in aid from the United States. This economic support from the US has remained prominent since Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel in the 1977 Camp David Accords, despite regime change. The US has also been influential in securing World Bank loans for Egypt, largely under the Sadat and Mubarak regimes, which allowed the country to develop its infrastructure and move from a poor nation to a lower middle class nation. These economic considerations are significant when analyzed in conjunction with military considerations in the country, given the symbiotic relationship between the nation’s security concerns and its receipt of aid from the United States.
Thus, a second factor to consider in analyzing the potential ramifications of a closer relationship between Egypt and the US is the close collaborative military relationship between the two nations, which has historically secured US foreign policy interests in the Middle East. As the Council of Foreign Relations reported in 2002, Egypt is a powerful stabilizing force for US interests in the Middle East, and has secured support among Arab states for US operations in the region. For example, the Egyptian military contingent in Operation Desert Storm formed a substantial part of the successful US-led coalition; the Egyptian military’s cooperation with the US’ objectives of peace with Israel since 1979 has also allowed for the perpetuation of US security objectives in the region. In addition, the joint US-Egyptian military biennial exercise held in Egypt, Operation Bright Star (the last one held in 2009 due to political strife in Egypt), underscores the degree to which the Egyptian military and United States demonstrate their foreign policy cooperation to other regional powers, showcasing US dominance through deterrence.
In addition, cooperation has continued to snowball as the Egyptian security apparatus ruthlessly engages in the pursuit of Islamic insurgents, which only furthers US counterterrorism objectives in the Middle East. In recent years, Egypt has been battling a terrorist insurgency in its North Sinai region, with a state of emergency declared and hundreds of Egyptian military casualties as a result of insurgent attacks. However, the efficacy of the Egyptian military in this conflict is far from certain. With the Islamic State-affiliated Sinai Province organization conducting regular deadly attacks on police bases and checkpoints, and a recent Congressional Report questioning the efficacy of the Egyptian military in the conflict, US defense experts agree that the Egyptian military needs significant updates to its equipment in order to properly combat the Sinai insurgency. Finally, since 1979, Egypt has played an important role in maintaining peace with Israel along with close communication between the two countries’ militaries to discuss issues regarding defense and security. While diplomatic relations can be decidedly cold between the two countries, their strategic interests are largely analogous in terms of military cooperation, and large US foreign aid to both countries serves to uphold the regional balance of power with these two countries at the forefront of military powers in the region. In terms of the Trump administration, their preoccupation with the Arab-Israeli conflict could make this military relationship with Egypt even more pivotal to their foreign policy goals.
Finally, it is important to consider the Trump administration’s decision thus far to signal a decline in the consideration of human rights abuses in determining US support for foreign regimes. Despite his documented human rights abuses, Sisi enjoyed a public show of support from President Trump during his visit to the White House on April 3, 2017, with Trump lauding Sisi’s counterterrorism efforts and role as an American partner for stability in the region. Already, the Trump administration has cozied up to President Sisi with a flurry of diplomatic exchanges occurring in the months since President Trump’s election—largely ignoring the grave human rights abuses. This commitment under military grounds was further demonstrated by the statements made by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander General Joseph L. Votel during his February 2017 visit to Egypt, where he committed to restarting Operation Bright Star and strengthening the military bond between the two countries.
However, this political showmanship has not translated into tangible improvements for Egypt in the US-Egypt relationship, with funding for Egypt being left out of Trump’s proposed 2018 budget, despite a 3.1 billion dollar commitment outlined for the US’ other partner, Israel. In addition, the Trump administration has made no indication thus far that it will modify or lift the Obama-era military aid limitations, which make it difficult for Egypt to make large-scale military purchases and eliminate purchasing military equipment on credit. These trends do not neatly fit into a narrative of cultivating a position of regional prominence for Egypt, and appear as if Trump’s rhetoric may not square with his actions in practice. Finally, Rex Tillerson’s State Department has still left vacant the majority of its senior posts, with the Trump administration not even submitting a nominee for a number of the positions, and with an unprecedented exodus of diplomats leaving the US State Department. This could have myriad ramifications on the ability for the US to manage a relationship with Egypt, particularly due to the complexities of cooperating with a significant regional power and contending with Obama-era policies that have caused some tensions with the Sisi regime. In addition, the growing prominence of North Korea in the national and international discourse illustrates the changing complexion of the global landscape, with the Middle East perhaps losing some of its previous importance in global affairs due to the existential threats posed by nuclear powers such as North Korea and Iran, who Trump has focused on throughout the campaign trail and early days of his administration.
These factors indicate that human rights abuses will likely continue in Egypt, barring a significant change in the domestic and international conditions permitting this behavior. Sisi has not, thus far, been deterred from his repressive actions by the prospect of violating international law, and has been able to continue unpunished by the international community, while maintaining the support of American leaders. In addition, US interests do not appear to align with a strong shift in policy towards effecting major changes in the Sisi regime’s attitude towards the human rights of its citizens. Instead, given the current trajectory of this relationship, the Trump administration is likely to favor the stability in Egypt offered by Sisi’s repressive policies, rather than arguing for a potentially dangerous opening of the Egyptian public sphere. For the protesters detained following the Mashrou’ Leila concert, this trajectory means a likely jail sentence and further legal action, with prospects for change in the regime’s ability to police such activities unlikely in the foreseeable future. Indeed, while Sisi’s regime pays lip service to democratic values and a respect for international codes of law, the regime’s actions lag significantly behind such lofty rhetoric. However, it appears that for the United States, it’s better to have an ally that oppresses than no ally at all.
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