On Human Rights, Egypt Taking a Page From Israel's Book

The way al-Sissi’s regime is dealing with human rights groups should seem familiar to Israelis.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Egyptian President Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, in January, last year. “The West cannot control events in Egypt, but it can nudge the country in the right direction,” wrote David Keyes, Netanyahu's candidate for foreign media spokesman.
Egypt's Gen. al-Sissi. Netanyahu's candidate for foreign media spokesman, David Keyes, is a harsh opponent of the regime in Cairo.Credit: Bloomberg
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The homepage of the El Nadeem Center, which offers psychological assistance to victims of violence, lists telephone numbers where people can give information or file complaints about torture. In its more than 23 years of existence, the Egyptian group has collected thousands of testimonies about the authorities’ use of violence against prisoners, women and children, provided psychological assistance and issued detailed reports that were cited by the United Nations and human rights organizations worldwide.

El Nadeem managed to survive even under President Hosni Mubarak’s government, whose love for human rights organizations was comparable only to Israel’s. But last month, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s government shut the center down due to alleged financial irregularities.

This month, other human rights groups found themselves on the firing line when a court reopened hearings into suspicions that they had received money from overseas institutions or organizations “in violation of the law.”

These aren’t new accusations. Back in December 2011, almost a year after the Egyptian revolution, the transitional military government – which was criticized both at home and abroad for violating human rights – indicted 43 human rights activists on charges of accepting $1.5 million from abroad. The activists received jail sentences.

Since then, the harassment of human rights groups has continued. Last week, the heads of two such organizations – Gamal Eid of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information and Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights – were told they may not leave the country. They join dozens of other activists, some of whom have been arrested or summoned for questioning without knowing exactly what they’re suspected of.

Al-Sissi’s regime didn’t invent such harassment. Nor is the tepid response of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who said last week that Washington was “deeply concerned by the deterioration in the human rights situation in Egypt,” including the decision “to reopen an investigation of Egyptian non-governmental organizations,” likely to alter its policies.

The real tidings came from the European Parliament, which passed a (nonbinding) resolution, by a vote of 588-10, deeming Egypt a systematic violator of human rights and accusing it, inter alia, of torturing and disappearing people. Al-Sissi’s government, as usual, protested loudly, condemned the resolution and denied that Egypt, which is fighting terror, violates human rights.

But it now seems Egypt has learned a thing or two from its Jewish neighbor. “Where is the European Parliament when they’re suppressing demonstrations in Europe?” demanded Egyptian parliamentarian El-Sayed El-Sherif. “There are human rights violations everywhere; why are they dealing specifically with Egypt?”

Egypt also claimed that the resolution relied on “baseless information.” And its third argument, which sounds very familiar as well, was that the resolution undermined Egyptian sovereignty.

As in Israel, most of the media happily collaborate in the persecution of human rights groups and parrot the government’s positions.

The government’s responses to the European Parliament resolution outraged Prof. Mohamed Nour Farahat, an expert in constitutional law who has advised the United Nations on human rights issues and helped draft constitutions. In a scathing article in the daily Al-Masry al-Youm, he said that even though the resolution was nonbinding, it “represents the conscience of the European nations and the new language that the world speaks, which the Egyptian regime doesn’t know.”

Egypt, he wrote, believes that if it just says it’s fighting terror, it will receive global legitimacy for violating human rights. And in response to the claim that other countries also violate human rights, Farahat asked whether Egypt was trying to justify its own injustices on the grounds that similar things were done elsewhere.

Farahat isn’t one of the regime’s vocal critics. He’s a liberal member of a social democratic party who says Egypt’s system of government should have secular foundations. Nor is Al-Masry al-Youm exactly an opponent of the government; one of its owners, businessman Naguib Sawiris, is an al-Sissi supporter.

But the paper has proven in the past that its support for al-Sissi doesn’t mean blind acceptance of his policies. Its publication of Farahat’s article, which included a warning that such European protests are liable to damage Egypt’s ties with Europe, ought to set off alarm bells in the corridors of the administration and tone down its arrogant attitude toward international protests that “undermine national sovereignty.”

As in Israel, however, it’s doubtful this criticism will affect the government’s conduct. NGOs will continue to be shut down and their activists arrested and tried. Thus anyone who wants to see Israel’s image in the mirror can simply glance out the window at its neighbor.

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