Vice president of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) Abd El-Ghaffar Shokr criticised the performance of the security apparatus in Egypt and said that they behaved as if society only consisted of them and President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. As long as Al-Sisi is satisfied with their performance, they do whatever they want with those who, according to their perspective, breach the law, Shokr stated
He believes that freedoms and human rights are going through a crisis. This crisis was brought to life due to the presence of violence, tension, and terrorism, giving the security apparatus the ability to expand and abandon the state’s commitments to human rights. This opened the door to arbitrary arrest, the use of violence, and the mistreatment of those arrested, in addition to lengthening the period of suspects’ detention to two and three years. As a result of that situation, the youth withdrew from political work, protesting the situation and the regime’s behaviour.
Shokr said that there are powers working against efforts to adopt human rights, and that the media is used by these powers to kill all attempts to abide by human rights agreements.
He also said that the NCHR strongly opposed the Protest Law and has submitted its remarks and concerns about it.
Is the regime the reason behind the deterioration of human rights in Egypt?
In my opinion, the major responsibility falls on the atmosphere that roamed Egypt after 3 July 2013. The tension that prevailed in society and the intensification of confrontation between the regime and its supporters on one side and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other side contributed to that. Moreover, these confrontations were tainted with violence, justifying the human rights crisis in Egypt.
Yes, I believe that there is a crisis and that it should be attributed to the presence of violence, tension, and terrorism which gave the security apparatus the ability to expand and abandon the state’s commitments to human rights.
But we believed that after two revolutions, there would be no justification for killing the citizens’ freedoms and that the regime will not abandon the freedoms that had brought it to power.
The issue is not that the regime abandoned rights and freedoms. It is, as I said, that you are facing a reality in which security personnel die every day. Consequently, the security apparatus want to set their hands free to face that. This has already happened; the security apparatus gained a space that allowed them not to abide by the protection of human rights. The issue here is not that there are two revolutions, but that there is a confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies on one side and the powers of the regime and their supporters on the other.
Of course, this opened the door to arbitrary arrest, the use of violence, the maltreatment of those arrested, and lengthening the period of suspects’ detention to two and three years.
All of these are manifestations of disrespecting human rights. These are justified by the violent confrontation between the police and some groups belonging to the Brotherhood and other currents.
But that has led to hostility between the regime and the revolutionary youth.
The first result of this situation is the withdrawal of the youth from political work in protest of the situation and the regime’s behaviour.
Will the youth’s withdrawal lead to a new explosion against the regime?
I believe that the youth’s first reaction was the withdrawal from political activity and public work, as well as taking a negative stance towards the regime. However, if that situation lasts for a long time, the sentiment of the youth will change from anger to taking a stance, and it is possible that we go back to a point in time when Egyptians had actually surpassed after the 25 January Revolution, namely the establishment of secret organisations instead of being a positive effective entity in society.
What role do the NCHR and remaining effective parties in the human rights field play in that issue?
The NCHR has been submitting remarks, including the rejection of the Protest Law, since the era of former prime minister Hazem El-Beblawy. He sent us the draft law and we submitted 13 remarks regarding our concerns with it. Later, our remarks became a reference to those rejecting the law, and when the law was adopted without responding to our remarks, we said that it is unconstitutional and will not solve the crisis.
The NCHR is accused of being one of the government’s tools to promote some laws the latter wants to pass.
The reason behind this—for those who do not know the reality of things—is that we have a school [of thought] inside the NCHR that does not believe in issuing statements with the aim of exerting pressure. The followers of that school also believe that when the council should silently resolve matters with the concerned bodies without advertising its activities or announcing the result. They believe that if the results were announced, the council would gain popularity at the expense of the cause. On the other hand, there is another school that says the council has to update the public on its activities and causes, in order to be able to mobilise pressure and solve the crisis. However, the first school won, and that comes at the expense of the NCHR and the people’s perception of it, as well as its relationship with the state.
The fact that youth are being arrested arbitrarily has led to a conflict between the government and civil society. What have you done regarding this issue?
We held a meeting with Adly Mansour while he was interim president, and the then minister of interior. We discussed how youth are being arbitrarily arrested and stated that they must be released. In some cases, the detention of suspects is used as a precautionary measure so that the accused does not tamper with evidence or put pressure on witnesses in a case. However, these cases must not exceed six months. We said that in early 2014 to Mansour who replied that he has no authority over the prosecution and promised us that he will appeal to the general prosecutor to release those youth in his forthcoming public speech, which took place on the anniversary of the 25 January Revolution. The next day, the general prosecutor issued a statement saying that the investigations are conducted in a legal manner and that no one should be released and all should remain under arrest under the order of the prosecution.
Some political figures do not think that the pardon lists are satisfactory. Do you agree?
The situation is very complicated. When the National Youth Conference was held in Sharm El-Sheikh, the youth talked about detainees and those sentenced to over 10 years. There are powers inside and outside the authority opposing the move to set those youth free. The list of 82 includes a large number of those sentenced to over 10 years in prison. There are powers that are moving against this direction. By reviewing the media, you will find that there are powers inside the regime working on co-opting the authorities to not make this move. Nevertheless, 82 detainees were released and more are expected to be released based on Al-Sisi’s promise. We are waiting to see the final results.
Has the NCHR assisted in selecting the names in that pardon list?
The NCHR had a 500-name list and the Interior Ministry reviewed it prior to the National Youth Conference. The ministry said that some of those listed were sentenced to different prison terms, while others were still under investigation and others left to Syria or Libya—some of whom left the country without informing their families of their place of residence.
It was our first intervention in this regard before the youth conference was held. The NCHR is now responsible for preparing these lists. The council has received more than 1,000 reports about imprisoned youth, and we submitted all of them.
Do you think a breakthrough was achieved following the court’s ruling that Article 10 of the Protest Law was unconstitutional?
There are several items in the Protest Law that should be amended. These items have negatively affected Egypt’s reputation abroad. The law stipulates that protesters without a licence or permit should be sentenced to 10 years in prison and pay a fine of EGP 500,000. Some of the law’s items are already listed under the Penal Code, such as the use of violence, disrupting transportation, cutting off roads, and assaulting facilities. All these crimes were listed in the Penal Code, so there is no need to list them again in the Protest Law. Therefore, we presented a list of our suggested amendments.
We also want to change the name of the law to be the organisation of peaceful demonstrations law. In this case, the offenses would be simple, such as unintentional disruption of traffic.
The Protest Law stipulates that protesters should stand 500 metres away from the buildings, which they are demonstrating against. We believe that 50 metres is a sufficient distance.
In the case that security agencies receive reports of potentially violent acts in a certain demonstration, security should resort to justice and protesters would appeal the ruling in courts. The Interior Ministry chose the opposite and violated the Constitution, which guarantees peaceful demonstration and gathering.
For sanctions, we should abolish long prison sentences and large fines, rather maintaining reasonable fines. This trend is opposed by a group of people in the government who use the media to promote their position and defame human rights organisations. We have to wait to see the final situation.
What is your opinion on the prison sentences handed to leaders of the Press Syndicate?
The Interior Ministry worked professionally in this case. It is known that there is an agreement of abolishing prison sentences in publication cases, so the security authorities accused the head of the Press Syndicate of harbouring journalists wanted by the authorities. We rejected the verdict and stand in solidarity with the syndicate. We call upon the security agencies to respect the institutions and deal with them with dignity because they represent an important part of society. The head of the Press Syndicate, the head of the Freedoms Committee, and the syndicate’s secretary could not refuse to protect journalists. Moreover, there were ongoing negotiations over the wanted journalists with the police department to ensure the protection of the journalists.
Did this case intend to assault the prestige of the Press Syndicate?
We care about the reality of the situation given that security acted as if there were no authority in society other than the Interior Ministry and the president. I do not rule out that the image of the syndicate has been affected because of what happened.
What are your views on Egyptian leftists?
Egyptian leftists face many problems and they are divided; thus, no one will pay attention to them. There were several attempts to unite the leftists, but so far they have not worked out. The return of young people to political life will contribute to the recovery of the leftists’ influence.
Do you think that security agencies are involved in dividing the leftists?
We are the only ones responsible for this division. When many splits and problems arise within a certain party or entity, the members separate and form other entities, like what happened with the Socialist Alliance party, as the internal disagreement was aggravated and many members left the party and failed to form another party.
How do you evaluate Al-Sisi’s performance after nearly two and a half years in office?
He has lost his popularity gradually because of the performance of the executive authority; his consultants have no political experience.
How do you view his performance?
There is nothing to prevent him from seeing the situation as it is. Everything happens in accordance with his instructions and evaluation.
Does it mean that he believes himself to be on the right path?
He acts based on that belief and his limited political experience. This situation also applies to his consultants who lack enough political experience to offer good advice for him.
Do you think he will win the upcoming presidential election?
He will succeed only if the opposition forces fail to unite or fail to select a popular figure to run the election. If this happened, we would see a harsh battle and the opposition’s candidate should not necessarily win the election, but at least we would have strong competition, unlike the previous election when Al-Sisi obtained 98% of the vote. The Socialist Alliance party had supported Hamdeen Sabahy and gave its members the freedom to vote for any candidate. A lot of people admired his way of administration, but his popularity has decreased gradually now, and if this situation continues, the upcoming election would be difficult for him.
Do you think that the security agencies have contributed to the decline of the opposition?
They play a significant role. Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Waly drafted the NGO Law, which was discussed in the NCHR and we had some comments on it. The minister approved our comments, but the law and our observations were abruptly cancelled. MP Abdel Hady El-Kasaby submitted another draft law which seemed to be written by a security expert. The security agencies now have a stronger influence than they had before January 2011. So we say that security is very important for the community, but it should not interfere in political affairs.
What about parliament, which approves all of the government’s demands?
The current parliament is worse than the 2010 parliament. It is actually a part of the game. There are some community forces who want revolution and democracy, but other forces oppose them. The young people will return to political life only if the freedoms stipulated in the Constitution are actually imposed.
The electoral system, which brought about the current parliament, was established by Hosni Mubarak’s experts. The authorities helped certain people to succeed in that election. Most of parliament’s members have nothing to do with politics. Moreover, the parliamentary speaker prevented the publication or broadcast of its sessions and meetings. He prevented the people from knowing the vision and effectiveness of their representatives. So this council is not related to regular life on the street and the people’s interests.
What about the role of the 25-30 Alliance within the parliament?
This coalition’s role is important as it represents the 25 January Revolution; however, its members support the events of 30 June, which ended the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.