The human rights strategy: A new trick by Sisi to mitigate international criticism

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The Egyptian regime is preparing to release “the national strategy for human rights” within days in a step, many Egyptians hope, will be a breakthrough in the freedoms and rights field, which suffers under the tight fist of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and his security organs.

Hand in hand with the preparation of the strategy, a propaganda campaign was released by the Egyptian authorities in 2020 to present the strategy to the world as a reflection of the national efforts to advance human rights, economically, socially, culturally, and politically, as an element of the comprehensive development plan of the state. With the escalation of international criticism of Sisi’s regime due to its blunt human rights violations, Egypt’s PM Moustafa Madbouly decided in November 2018 to establish “the permanent supreme committee for human rights” with the purpose of managing a mechanism to address human rights and respond to claims against Egypt in this field.

The role of the committee was to whiten the face of Sisi’s regime before the world, so the task was assigned to the foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, as the head of the committee, and many officials from the foreign ministry were appointed as members. The committee includes in membership the ministers of defence, social solidarity, interior, justice, and parliament, along with the heads of General Intelligence, the Administrative Control Authority, public prosecution, the State’s Information Service, and the national councils of women, motherhood and childhood, and people with special needs.

The committee was assigned to implement a national strategy for human rights, follow Egypt’s compliance with international human rights treaties, monitor and treat human rights problems in Egypt that have been raised by the international community, and prepare Egypt for the UN Human Rights Council. The committee remained ink on paper until July 2020, when it held its first meeting, which was followed by scheduled monthly meetings. In October 2020, with the US presidential elections approaching and rising stocks of the democratic candidate, Joe Biden, who declared over and over that he will not tolerate human rights violations in Egypt, the government announced it was preparing a national strategy for human rights to lay the foundations to address human rights issues in a balanced way.

Over the past nine months, the Permanent Supreme Committee for Human Rights held meetings and consultations with the state’s organs and some civil rights organisations to reach a draft of the strategy. The final version was supposed to be released on 20 July in a limited event inside the ministry of foreign affairs, but the presidency preferred to postpone the date to 26 July so it could be released by Sisi himself.

Although the draft is not disclosed yet, leaks pointed out that the strategy includes four axes: civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, women, children, elderly, people with special needs, and lastly education and capacity building in the human rights field. The draft text is expected to be loose, calling to reduce the number of crimes punished with freedom-depriving penalties, and urging the authorities to review crimes in which people are sentenced to capital punishment. Regarding pretrial detention, the strategy is supposed to silence while demanding the state’s organs find digital alternatives to avoid transporting prisoners to court.

Regarding detention conditions and dealing with prisoners, the strategy is to encourage developing “penal facilities” and constructing new prisons along with continuous visits from the National Council for Human Rights, combating torture and protection of victims’ rights. Several human rights defenders, such as the eminent ex-parliamentarian Mohamed Anwar Sadat, say that the release of the strategy is a real breakthrough in human rights and for political detainees’ freedom. They find evidence for their prediction in the recent release of several political detainees, including the prominent journalist and activist, Esraa Abdel Fattah, human rights lawyer Mahienour El-Masry, and the opponent journalist Gamal Al-Gaml.

On the other hand, facts including the recent detention of the former Al-Ahram daily’s editor-in-chief Abdel Nasser Salama, for an article in which he criticised Al-Sisi, raises doubts about the seriousness of the regime. Many human rights experts say that the strategy is a beauty tool for the regime before the international community with no on the ground changes.

Regarding the recent releases, Sisi’s regime releases several well-known detainees from time to time to mitigate international criticism and domestic congestion, but immediately authorities just arrest new activists and journalists. Even the released remain under the threat of detention as what happened with the prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, who was arrested after the September 2019 protests, while he was still under surveillance, which obliges him to spend half of his day in a police station.

According to the predictions, the strategy will not touch the real mechanisms used by the Egyptian regime to humiliate and assault opponents in a formally legal manner. Such mechanisms include the endless extension of pretrial detention and revolving the soon-to-be-released detainees in new cases with the same charges to renew their detention after finishing the maximum pretrial detention in a previous case.

There is no talk so far about the exceptional courts like the State Security Court, which is formed according to the state of emergency, and issues final sentences that cannot be appealed except by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi himself, who is the military ruler of the country according to the declared state of emergency. The strategy will not stop the insertion of politicians and activists on terrorism lists without evidence.