Egypt’s human rights record is dismal. A nationwide state of emergency was in force between 2017-2021, and the security apparatus has effectively taken control of the public sphere in the name of “countering terrorism”. The numbers of disappearances have been rising since 2015, while torture and other ill-treatment in detention remain rife. The arbitrary arrest of peaceful dissenters is a regular, almost seasonal, government undertaking. Human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, politicians, artists, and members of minority groups, including sexual minorities, are among those targeted. Detention for prolonged periods without trial on the grounds of “belonging to a terror group” and “spreading false information undermining national security” is the norm. Estimates suggest that there are more than 60,000 political prisoners. And it is not just politically active Egyptians who suffer from these practices – members of the general population accused of administrative offences such as violating building regulations have faced unfair prosecutions and trials by both emergency courts and military courts.
Improving Egypt’s human rights record requires an active independent civil society supported by strong international solidarity. This has been largely absent, not least as Europeans have largely turned their backs on helping ensure there is a meaningful human rights agenda in Egypt.
European governments have made two key assumptions that guide their approach to human rights in the country. The first is that Egypt will only be stable and capable of controlling its borders (to prevent irregular migration) when ruled with an iron fist – and that, moreover, if given a free choice, citizens will elect a government that is belligerent to Western interests. The second assumption is that securing short-term economic and political gains by maintaining a privileged relationship with Cairo outweighs the long-term gains of southern Mediterranean societies being free, especially factoring in the tumultuous process of getting there.
The result has been a weak European focus on human rights in Egypt, with Europeans more concerned with strengthening ties with the Sisi regime. To be sure, some limited efforts are taking place to address human rights abuses. For example, many EU member states joined a statement at the UN Human Rights Council in March 2021 condemning Egypt’s use of counter-terrorism legislation and measures to limit freedoms and prosecute human rights defenders. European diplomats in Cairo have sought to observe trials and court hearings for human rights defenders in detention, though they are often blocked by the authorities. High-level European visitors also occasionally bring up cases of political prisoners with their interlocutors.
But the fact of the matter is that European governments continue to prioritise their relationship with the Egyptian government and have been unwilling to make a serious effort to address the country’s appalling human rights situation. This applies both to European states that are sometimes active on human rights in Egypt, generally from northern Europe, and to those that more regularly turn a blind eye to such issues, including states in eastern and southern Europe. They all ultimately argue that the need for a stable Egypt – and for stability in the region – means that they must nurture positive links with the government. France is perhaps the clearest example of this. It maintains significant arms sales to Cairo and openly states that it will not condition the wider relationship and associated French interests on an improvement in human rights in Egypt.
But Europeans ought to recognise by now that this is a flawed approach. For decades they have tolerated repressive governments across the Middle East and North Africa in the hope these regimes will protect Europe from terrorism. But oppression and the closure of the public sphere is a fertile ground for radicalisation. European politicians should now admit that supporting freedom of expression and a strong civil society to create a free marketplace of ideas is necessary to eradicate extremism and secure stability. This acknowledgment would also better reflect Europe’s own history and values, particularly the notion that all humans are born equal regardless of where they live.
If Europeans truly want to be more effective in improving the human rights situation, the message that they need to convey to Egyptian authorities is that they cannot commit grave human rights violations with impunity. Europeans need to make clear that there will be reputational and material consequences for such behaviour. Egypt cannot be allowed to keep getting away with its human rights abuses without experiencing repercussions other than the occasional short-lived international embarrassment. Policymakers in Europe should recognise that the Egyptian government also wants European support and legitimation. They must not allow Cairo to use Europe’s fears over migration and terrorism to wholly shape the agenda.
Towards this end, Europeans should take more active steps to assist Egyptian human rights organisations that are calling for immediately enforceable actions by the government of Egypt. These actions include: releasing political prisoners, ceasing to harass NGOs, and introducing a moratorium on the death penalty. This agenda could feature the creation of an independent EU human rights evaluation mechanism that reports to the EU’s Council of Ministers. Where Egypt falls short of the standards set by this mechanism, and where there are clear breaches of human rights, Europeans should be willing to act. Europe could also support international calls to create a reporting and monitoring system for Egypt’s human rights record at the level of the United Nations – this could create wider reputational concerns for Cairo. More broadly, European states need to be louder and more consistent in calling issues out. They should also work to release imprisoned human rights defenders, activists, members of political groups, media professionals, lawyers, and intellectuals. This approach has yielded success in the past; European governments should more actively embrace it.
Mohamed Lotfy is executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, a leading Egyptian human rights organisation that works on a range of issues such as enforced disappearances, freedom of expression, minorities, and refugee rights. He was awarded the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and Rule of Law in 2018. Lotfy was previously Amnesty International’s Egypt researcher, and prior to that worked at the World Organization against Torture and the International Commission of Jurists.