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10 years later: Why are Egyptian human rights ignored?

July 3, 2023

Egyptian activists complain the international community often talks about Egypt's crisis-ridden economy, but says far less about its dreadful human rights situation. Why is one seen as more important than the other?

Activists with signs and candles during the sit-in by Amnesty International Italia and Egypt HD for the prisoner of conscience Alaa Abd El Fattah in front of the UK Embassy in Rome.
Egypt has jailed between 60,000 and 65,000 political prisoners since the current government took power in 2013Image: Riccardo Antimiani/ANSA/picture alliance

This week marks a decade since the coup that installed Egypt's current government. On July 3, 2013, Egypt's military removed the country's first democratically-elected president from power and set up an interim government.

At that time, with Egypt's politics and economy in turmoil, a senior general in Egypt's all-powerful military, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, told his fellow citizens that the military had ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi because he failed to create "a national consensus." But, el-Sissi promised, the military had no interest in retaining political power and would facilitate a return to democratic civilian rule.

A decade later, el-Sissi is still in power. And in many aspects, the situation for ordinary Egyptians is worse than ever. The economy is in crisis, saddled with foreign debt, surging inflation and a currency that has depreciated by nearly half. An estimated third of Egypt's 105 million people live in poverty, and the most populous Arab nation is currently selling off or leasing government-owned assets, like Telecom Egypt, public transport or ports, in order to finance its foreign debt obligations.

New residential buildings line a freshly paved street surrounded by piles of dirt
The el-Sissi government has promoted national 'mega-projects' critics say are unnecessary, like a whole new capital city outside CairoImage: Friedrich Stark/IMAGO

At the same time, el-Sissi has tightened his grip on power. Independent journalists and anti-government activists have been harassed or arrested. One formerly jailed Egyptian activist told the investigative journalism website, Coda Story, that they had seen military officers stop people on the street, check their phones and then arrest them after finding they had posted, liked or joked about the Egyptian government or military on social media.

Freedom House, the US-based democracy monitor, has classified Egypt as "not free" and the country's freedom rating with the watchdog, already meager, has slowly eroded over the past five years, going from 26 out of 100 in 2018, to 18 out of 100 this year.

For comparison, Morocco scores 37 out of 100, while Germany gets 94.

Egypt has become a world leader in capital punishment and new laws, including one that forces nongovernmental organizations to register with the state, have seen space for civil society or activism shrink even further.

A balanced approach needed

Observers say Egypt's regional neighbors and Western allies take an unbalanced approach to these issues. Egypt's economic issues are regularly mentioned while the country's rapidly worsening human rights record gets far less attention, they say.

In early 2022, over 170 members of various European parliaments wrote an open letter to their own top diplomats and ambassadors to the United Nations' Human Rights Council, asking that a special body be established to monitor the deteriorating human rights situation in Egypt. The letter came just before the annual meeting of the council.

"We are extremely concerned about the international community's persistent failure to take any meaningful action to address Egypt's human rights crisis," the politicians wrote. "This failure, along with continued support to the Egyptian government and reluctance to even speak up against pervasive abuses has only deepened the Egyptian authorities' sense of impunity."

But a year later, shortly before the next annual meeting of the council, seven human rights NGOs published another open letter, which found that there had been "no consequential follow-up [...] despite the fact the human rights situation in Egypt has further deteriorated," said the letter, signed by seven organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders. 

 Sanaa Seif, sister of Egypt's leading pro-democracy activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, stages a sit-in protest outside the Foreign Office in London.
Sanaa Seif has campaigned tirelessly for her brother's release — he's just one of hundreds of thousands of political prisonersImage: Kin Cheung/AP/picture alliance

Visiting Germany last summer, Sanaa Seif made similar complaints. The sister of Egyptian dissident, Abdel-Fattah, one of the most high-profile political prisoners in the Arab world, Seif met politicians in Berlin while advocating for his release. She wasn't allowed to disclose who she met, though.

"It doesn't make sense to me when I see German politicians shy away from talking about human rights," Seif told DW at the time. "It's like they don't want to rock the boat."

How does Egypt get away with it?

There are a number of factors, said Timothy Kaldas, deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

Located at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe, Egypt is in a very strategically significant location and, with its large population and big military, has long been considered an important regional power. As such, Egypt also has a long tradition of playing different international allies off against one another.

"So when Egypt is pressured by the Gulf states, they could turn to the US, and when pressure came from there, they could turn to France," Kaldas noted. "This often comes up in meetings. If you go to meetings at foreign ministries or at international financial institutions and talk about conditionality [on human rights] somebody will say, 'Well, what if they just go to that other place instead and we lose access?'"

The frigate Al Aziz in Kiel, Germany.
An Egyptian frigate made in Germany: Arms sales to Egypt boosted Germany's weapons exports to record levels in 2021Image: Joerg Waterstraat/picture alliance

Egypt has also been proficient at building bilateral ties by doing huge arms deals, explained Kaldas. An annual French report on weapons sales published in late 2022 shows that Egypt has been the top importer of arms from France since 2012.

Egypt is also one of Germany's biggest buyers of arms. The volume of weapons exports to Egypt has increased under el-Sissi and made the country into the third-largest arms importer in the world.

Threat of mass, irregular migration

There are also other reasons, Kaldas said. Despite el-Sissi's authoritarian ways, Egypt has been a comparatively stable country in the Middle East, especially when compared to places like Syria or Yemen — and its neighbors like it that way.

"That makes it easier to justify injecting cash into the Egyptian state in the hope that it will maintain that stability," he said. "Additionally, the other big factor is this: Egypt is a 100 million people on the Mediterranean."

For Europe, unremittingly haunted by the specter of irregular migration and the potential populist political reaction to it, "that is a very big deal," Kaldas said.

But none of those reasons are actually a good enough excuse not to say anything about human rights in Egypt, Kaldas and others have argued. What is often missing in these debates is the existential connection between human rights, political stability and economic circumstances.

A poster in Berlin showing Egyptian President el-Sissi.
At the same activist Sanaa Seif was meeting German politicians behind closed doors in 2022, the Egyptian president was being feted in BerlinImage: Michael Kuenne/ZUMA/picture alliance

"The problem is that, fundamentally, Western states often fail to appreciate the shortsightedness of their approach," said Kaldas. "It's not so much that they're getting stability in exchange for looking the other way on human rights violations. The human rights violations are actually contributing directly to Egypt's economic instability. Egypt's economic crisis is because [el-Sissi's] strategy of the last decade has been to leverage the Egyptian state recklessly to finance his consolidation of power and his patronage network."

"Available funds do not flow into productive investments for the future, but seep into economically ques­tionable infrastructure projects and serve, at least indirectly, to finance police-state repression," Stephan Roll, head of research into Africa and the Middle East at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, wrote in a December 2022 paper called "Loans for the President."

The Egyptian military has benefited most from this money, much of it from foreign lending, and has in fact grown larger and richer under el-Sissi. "This was a decisive factor in President Sisi's consolidation of power," Roll noted. "For him, the loyalty of the armed forces has been the most important pre­requisite for enforcing wide-ranging police-state repres­sion […] Tens of thousands of political pris­oners and a dramatic number of death sentences and executions even by Egyptian standards are an expres­sion of this development."

Both Roll and Kaldas suggest a similar solution: Recognize the links between the money going into Egypt and the state's human rights abuses. "It's not the role of an external power to force Egypt to become a democracy," said Kaldas. "But the task is to just stop subsidizing the autocracy and making it easier for Egypt to be a dictatorship."

Edited by: Ben Knight

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.