Egypt: A Return to Martial LawMonday 16/10/2017

In the last decade, Egypt has experienced some of the most monumental political shifts in the modern history of the Middle East. In 2011, after 30 years of authoritarian rule under President Hosni Mubarak, the revolutionary sentiments of the Arab Spring gained a foothold among the Egyptian people. A combination of mass demonstrations, civil disobedience and strikes resulted in the overthrow of the Mubarak regime on 11 February, 2011.

Following the overthrow, Egypt was governed by a military junta until it appointed Mohammed Morsi as its first democratically-elected president on 24 June 2012. Morsi, of the Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood, affirmed that the Egyptian people were the true source of power in their country. “You grant it, and you withdraw it”, he declared to the public when he took a symbolic oath of office in Tahrir Square. Although incidences of police brutality and government overreach were reduced under Morsi’s presidency, he drew international condemnation for polarizing relations between Egypt’s majority Muslim community and its sizeable Coptic minority community, as well as his inability to prevent violence directed at the Coptic community.

In July 2013, just over a year into his presidency, Morsi was overthrown by the military in a coup d’état. Following the coup, the constitution was suspended and in May 2014 army chief General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi was elected President by an overwhelming majority of 93%.

Since that time, his presidency has been characterized by authoritarian rule and the systematic curtailing of human rights and civil liberties in the Middle East’s most populous nation.

Freedom of Expression/Freedom of the Media

The suppression of media freedom by Egyptian authorities is perhaps the most internationally-recognized issue pertaining to Egypt’s human rights record. The most noteworthy case involves the three Al Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed. The trio were arrested in December 2013 on charges of news reporting that was ‘damaging to national security’, and were held in solitary confinement for a month before any formal charges were made.  In late December 2013, they were given multi-year prison sentences after a trial in which prosecutors failed to present any credible evidence of criminal wrongdoing, although all three men have now been freed because of immense pressure from the international community.

In a more recent case, Misr 25 journalist Khaled Abdel Wahab Radwan was sentenced to 15 years in prison. It followed his arrest in March 2014 on espionage charges, although it is widely believed to be an attempt to silence criticism of President el-Sisi – as Misr 25 was owned by the Muslim Brotherhood[1]. Three of Radwan’s colleagues, who were tried in absentia, were sentenced to death for sending documents to their broadcaster’s headquarters in Doha for journalistic purposes[2].

Wider non-journalistic expression is similarly suppressed by the Egyptian government. A Human Rights Watch report published in 2015 stated:

‘Authorities detained dozens of people for such offences as possessing flyers with anti-military slogans, rapping in public against the police, or displaying signs commemorating victims of the Rab’a [the violent dispersal of sit-in protestors by Egyptian military and police personnel that resulted in the deaths of at least 817 people] dispersal. Journalists, academics, former lawmakers and human rights defenders were among those charged with crimes or banned from travel outside Egypt[3.’

Although Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, authorities have prosecuted writers and activists on charges of ‘contempt of religion’ and ‘blasphemy. Such was the case with author Karam Saber, who was sentenced in absentia to five years in prison in 2013 for ‘contempt of religion’[4].

Capital Punishment

Contrary to the majority of UN member states and key provisions of international customary and treaty law, Egypt retains the use of the death penalty. A wide variety of crimes – including non-violent crimes such as drug possession, treason, and desertion – can carry a death penalty. Under the presidency of el-Sisi, the number of executions has increased significantly. No executions were performed in 2012 and 2013 (before el-Sisi ascended to the presidency), while 15, 22, and 44 executions were carried out in the years 2014, 2015 and 2016 respectively (el-Sisi became president in 2014).

For countries that do retain the death penalty, international law mandates effective safeguards and protections for those on trial for capital offences. Regrettably, Egypt has not met many of these requirements. For example, in March and April of 2014, a criminal court handed down the death penalty to more than 1,200 people allegedly involved in a terrorist attack. The judge did not allow the defendants the right to mount a meaningful defence or ensure that all had access to counsel[5]. The first trial, which resulted in 529 death sentences, lasted less than an hour, and only 74 defendants were present. The court also barred some defence lawyers from attending. In the second trial, which yielded 683 death sentences, none of the defendants attended.

As recently as April 2017, Human Rights Watch reported and published a video of Egyptian security forces carrying out summary executions in the Sinai Peninsula. In the video, two unarmed detainees are shot in the head. According to Joe Stork, of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East section, testimony had been collected suggesting security forces have been removing prisoners from detention centres and executing them.

Ambiguous Criminal Offences

The Egyptian government’s authoritarian proclivities have seen a reintroduction of crimes that, although intended to maintain national security and enforce the rule of law, carry vague meaning and questionable legal validity. Under the presidency of el-Sisi, people have been convicted on charges of receiving foreign funding to damage Egypt’s ‘national interests’, ‘peace’, ‘unity’ or ‘security’; as well as ‘insulting the president’ and ‘misusing social media platforms’. In addition, a law passed in 2013 allowed the Interior Ministry to ban and forcefully disperse protests and arrest participants on ambiguous grounds such as ‘imped[ing] citizens’ interests’. By having such vague criminal offences enshrined in the Egyptian legal system, it imparts a substantial degree of subjectivity onto cases where people are accused of such crimes. Hence, should the Egyptian government decide to silence or incarcerate their critics, there is legal recourse to invoke a charge as dubious as ‘working to disrupt unity’ to arbitrarily punish them.

Torture and Ill-Treatment

In recent years, Egypt has displayed an alarmingly high number of incidences of torture and ill-treatment within their correctional facilities. Prisons are notoriously overcrowded, with those accused of more severe crimes consigned to sections of facilities that are more dangerous and derelict. For example, in the aforementioned case of the Al Jazeera journalists, Peter Greste was held in the main section of the notorious Tora prison complex, whilst his two colleagues accused of more serious crimes were held in the far more draconian Scorpion prison built for convicted terrorists. Although the main section of the complex is cramped, severely overcrowded and poorly ventilated, the Scorpion section inmates had to sleep on the floor in mosquito-infested cells in solitary confinement.

According to an investigation by the Egyptian newspaper Al Watan, at least 90 people died in 2014 in local police stations and security directorates in the governorates of Cairo and Giza alone[5]. Furthermore, there is also widespread reports of severe beatings during arrests, arrival at police stations and transfers between prisons. Many complaints have been made of torture, including through the use of electric shocks, to coerce confessions[6].

Women’s Rights

Egyptian women remain particularly vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse due to antiquated cultural attitudes, legal loopholes, and systemic impunity granted to perpetrators by judicial and police authorities. Although el-Sisi’s government has pledged his commitment to combat domestic and sexual violence against women, the alarmingly high rates of abuse suggest either an inability or unwillingness to tackle the problem. For example, a ministerial committee formed by the President on the issue of harassment has not even proposed a law on violence against women. To date, no such law exists that criminalizes domestic violence[7].

Egypt also has some of the highest rates of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the world. A 2013 report by UNICEF revealed 91% of Egyptian girls and women have undergone some form of FGM[26]. Egypt also had the highest number of incidents (27.2 million) of the countries examined in the report. Such an endemic occurrence of FGM stands in strong contrast to the prohibitions set out in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women of 1993.


As the most populous nation in the Middle East, Egypt plays an important role both regionally and internationally. Given its sovereignty over the Suez Canal and its strategic location between Africa, Europe and the Middle East, its security and stability is a significant priority for the international community. It has portrayed itself as the key bulwark against terrorism and religious extremism. However, in doing so, it has eschewed the hallmarks of democracy and the rule of law in favour of authoritarianism. The fundamental human rights of free speech, freedom of assembly and the right to a fair trial have been systemically eroded. Egypt is party to core treaties of international law such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1981) and the Convention Against Torture (1987). As such, any authority exercised toward Egyptian citizenry should be exercised in a manner that holds human rights as sacrosanct and corresponds with their international legal obligations.

[1] Tadros, M. 2013, ‘The Brothers and the Copts’, Middle East Institute, August 12, viewed 5 June 2017,

[2] Committee to Protect Journalists, op. cit.

[3] Human Rights Watch 2015, op. cit.

[4] Ibid.

[5 Human Rights Watch 2015, op. cit.


[5] Human Rights Watch 2015, op. cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.


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