“The Egyptian Front for Human Rights launches a series of follow-ups and papers that shed light on the performance of the national dialogue, with a greater focus on the work of the Human Rights and Public Freedoms Committee. This evaluative commentary is the first in this series, addressing the first stage of the committee’s discussions, which have already concluded with the submission of recommendations to the presidency.
The report comments on the three sessions held by the Human Rights Committee – as of its date – and the topics and discussions covered in these sessions. It also highlights what has been clearly excluded from the discussions, representing red lines, and the subjects that will be revisited in the near future. This is done by reviewing the agenda of the Human Rights and Public Freedoms Committee, the progress made thus far, and the clarity of international human rights commitments in the discussions and speeches of the participants in what has been accomplished so far.”
In April 2022, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi called for a national dialogue with all political forces during a family iftar event. Preparations for this national dialogue had been ongoing for an entire year since the president’s announcement. Despite some criticism from the opposition national movement regarding the formation of the National Dialogue Trustees Council, the dialogue administration announced on June 26, 2022, the formation of a Trustees Council consisting of 19 members.
The Human Rights and Public Freedoms Committee was included as part of the political axis of the dialogue. Dr. Nevine Masoud, a professor at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science and a member of the National Council for Human Rights, was appointed as the chair of the committee, while Mr. Ahmed Ragab, a lawyer, was appointed as the deputy chair. The committee’s work topics were announced and included seven subjects as follows:
- Torture (definition, filing criminal suits, extent of harm).
- Prison and detention centers (judicial supervision, regulations).
- Amending provisions on pretrial detention, restriction of freedom, compensation rules, asset freezing, travel bans, criminal appeals, and protection of witnesses and informants.
- Freedom of expression and opinion (media freedom, press independence, and penalties for freedom violations in publishing and publicizing, as well as the law on the freedom of information).
- Rules and provisions to encourage interaction between the Egyptian academic community and its counterparts abroad, academic research freedom, and its requirements.
- Penalties for freedom violations in publishing and publicizing, creativity, and freedom of opinion.
- The state commits to taking necessary measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination. The law regulates the establishment of an independent commission for this purpose, the Discrimination Elimination Commission.
Completed Discussion Topics
The committee has so far discussed only three topics: the elimination of all forms of discrimination, the issuance of a law on freedom of information, and rules for promoting interaction between the Egyptian academic community and its counterparts abroad. These topics were partially addressed with a focus on some aspects over others in a summarized manner.
- Combatting Discrimination
The Human Rights Committee initiated its first session on May 14, 2023, to discuss combatting discrimination in a single session. The statement from the national dialogue session contained most of the discussion topics covered during the session. It emphasized the state’s commitment to all agreements that combat discrimination and promote citizen equality. It also highlighted citizens’ rights to healthcare, housing, and protection from physical harm. There were calls for establishing a National Commission to eliminate all forms of discrimination and for the Ministry of Justice to work on the draft law. The statement also stressed the importance of gender equality and combating gender-based discrimination, the need to amend specific legislations, and finding solutions to gaps in some laws, such as personal status laws.
Participants in the discussion presented diverse concepts of discrimination, including discrimination against refugees, migrants, rural and urban areas, and individuals with disabilities. They also discussed the concept of bullying, with most participants attributing the sources of discrimination to societal practices and cultural norms. They highlighted the necessity of revising the educational curriculum.
Despite some recommendations addressing discrimination against women, the definition of discrimination in the final recommendations was solely based on discrimination due to gender. However, the first session of the national dialogue and its final outcomes completely lacked any reference, reviews, or evaluations of Egypt’s long-standing record of discrimination against women in various areas, whether through explicit legislation or administrative decisions that tolerated societal practices opposed to women’s rights. The session also failed to address any obstacles hindering full gender equality. The discussion and final recommendations mainly emphasized the importance of the state’s role and awareness of human rights as a fundamental issue. Participants agreed that Egypt, following the 2014 constitution, has made significant progress towards achieving equality and equal opportunities.
The discussion on combatting discrimination also did not include the issue of the low representation of women in the judiciary system. There was no review of the current or targeted future situation through a sustainable policy aimed at increasing the number of women in judicial institutions. This would reinforce the significance of appointing female judges to the State Council for the first time in 2022, not as an exception but as an intentional institutional strategy to address the gap between the number of male and female judges.
Although the statement mentioned the need to find solutions to gaps in some laws, such as personal status and labor laws, the discussion in the session did not address these topics. The final recommendations sent to the President did not indicate any intention to amend discriminatory laws against women that have been the subject of deep societal and political debate. These issues were expected to be discussed to find solutions that accommodate all political forces and ensure women’s rights.
Furthermore, the discussion did not touch upon the issue of several recent laws that have a bad reputation, including “moral” accusations used as a pretext to prosecute women and launch campaigns against them, claiming violations of traditional Egyptian family values. These problematic legal texts omitted from the discussion include Article 278 of the Penal Code on “committing an obscene act in public,” Article 178 of the same law, known as “public modesty violation,” and Law No. 10/ 1961, Law No. 175/2018 on Information Technology.
Overall, it appears that the committee chose to avoid contentious issues related to personal status laws, inheritance laws, and the Penal Code, which contain various forms of discrimination against women. The discussion also omitted controversial issues like Egypt’s reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted in 1979. Egypt had ratified CEDAW with reservations based on the claim of their conflict with Islamic Sharia. There was a missed opportunity for negotiation and dialogue among all political and civil forces on dealing with these reservations to improve women’s conditions genuinely.
- Freedom of Information
The second session of the Human Rights Committee was held on June 11, 2023, with the topic being the issuance of a law on freedom of information. While some participants shared a complete draft of the information exchange law, others discussed limited concepts of freedom of information exchange. Many participants linked the concept of freedom of information to combating rumors. Nevine Massad, the committee’s rapporteur, stated that the right to access information is a universal right guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with the condition that it does not endanger public security.
The right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an absolute and exclusive right not subject to limitations related to public security, nor is it tied to the elimination of rumors. Even the restrictions outlined in Article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which deal with public order and general security, should be exceptional and narrowly interpreted.
It’s worth noting that in the Egyptian context, the state is considered the primary and exclusive owner of all official documents. This places an obligation on the state to proactively disclose information and establish rules for safeguarding information, treating it as public property for citizens. However, the participants did not address several crucial questions necessary for issuing an information exchange law, such as the concept of national security. There was also no discussion about whether intelligence agencies and the armed forces would be subject to this law and what the minimum and maximum thresholds for information exchange by these entities would be.
Najad Al-Borei, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Dialogue, attempted to engage with such questions when he asked participants to answer questions related to the concept of national security and the minimum and maximum limits for accessing information. The discussion did not address previous attempts to issue an information law in the past decade. Some of these attempts included the “Information Freedom Law Working Group” in the summer of 2011, which involved the Cabinet Information and Decision Support Center collaborating with civil society organizations and public figures. Another attempt included a draft information exchange law proposed by the Ministry of Justice after discussions with civil society organizations and public figures. Still, the ministry issued the draft in May 2013 without considering the civil society’s input. One of the criticisms from civil society organizations was the absence of a clear definition of national security and the exemption of intelligence and military agencies from the law’s jurisdiction.
The last of these attempts was when the Supreme Council for Media Regulation announced the completion of a draft information law in 2017, which has not been issued so far, often referred to under the pretext of national security protection. The performance of the national dialogue did not differ from previous unsuccessful attempts to issue the law. The final recommendations submitted to the President did not reference the law’s issuance. However, sources indicated that discussions on the law’s content may continue through additional committee meetings involving specialists.
- Scientific Research
The third session of the Human Rights and Public Liberties Committee focused on the topic of “Promoting Interaction between the Egyptian Academic Community and its Counterparts Abroad and the Requirements of Academic Research Freedom.” The recommendations presented to the President, totaling eight, included: Facilitating travel procedures for professors abroad, Facilitating the entry and exit procedures for professors and students from Arab universities, and Encouraging joint research projects between Egyptian and foreign research centers and universities.
However, the participants’ final recommendations and discussions during the session did not emphasize the control of security agencies over Egyptian universities, scientific research, and academic activities. This control is shown through the security clearance requirement before faculty members can travel or academic conferences can be held. It’s worth noting that some participants pointed out the interference of the executive authority in promoting/ hiring university leaders.
These recommendations were made without a clear and transparent discussion of the current situation and its evaluation, which contradicts the practice of controlling faculties members’ travel. Article 62 of the Egyptian Constitution guarantees freedom of movement and the principle that no citizen shall be prevented from leaving the country except by a judicial order and is consistent with Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which emphasizes that freedom of movement should be prescribed by national law and that any restrictions should be consistent with other rights guaranteed by the covenant, as well as with basic principles of equality and non-discrimination.
Furthermore, the discussion did not address practices that impact academic freedom and, ultimately, scientific research freedom, such as direct security involvement in the promoting/ hiring of university leadership, arbitrary dismissal of dissenting faculties members, unwritten bans on research in certain sensitive areas, and the arrest of dissenting students, preventing them from engaging in any political activities within the university campus.
Red Lines in the Work of the Human Rights Committee
Despite the importance of the agenda topics of the National Dialogue’s Human Rights Committee, several urgent and critical human rights issues were excluded in its first round. These issues require legislative intervention and swift political will due to their impact on the lives of thousands of Egyptians. Some of these issues were intentionally ignored, while others faced delay and procrastination in response to the demands of committee participants. In some cases, there was outright denial of their existence or explicit rejection of any consideration, whether currently or in the future. In the best-case scenario, they were deferred to future rounds of the dialogue.
Among the issues that were completely ignored is the significant expansion by the Egyptian government in implementing the death penalty, reaching unprecedented levels in the country’s history. In 2020 Egypt ranked third globally in executions, following China and Iran. Furthermore, there has been an expansion in the use of anti-terrorism laws to include citizens on terrorist lists, with over 8,000 individuals listed under the Law on Terrorist Entities. Additionally, there has been an expansion in the definitions of terrorism and terrorist acts in the Terrorism Law, leading to the imprisonment of thousands of Egyptians for long periods.
Among the issues that witnessed silence or exclusion through denial of their crisis or existence or by ignoring their demands are as follows:
Complete Closure of the File of Political Prisoners
So far, there has been no discussion of several important issues, including resolving the political prisoners’ cases in Egypt. This issue was a subject of comments and discussions during the opening session of the National Dialogue, and it was one of the conditions agreed upon by all parties for their participation in the dialogue from the beginning. Civil society expressed its frustration multiple times regarding the slow closure of the political prisoners’ file
Despite the reactivation of the Presidential Pardon Committee alongside the call for the National Dialogue, its work has been marked by extreme delay and lack of seriousness. After a year of the committee’s work, from April 2022 to June 2023, 1151 individuals detained in cases related to political opinions were released, either through bail or presidential pardons. In contrast, 3666 individuals faced investigations by the Supreme State Security Prosecution during the same period on various charges.
Recent developments related to political prisoners, such as the sentencing of researcher Patrick George to three years in prison, the enforced disappearance and ongoing detention of former student leader Maaz El-Sharkawy for 23 days, and reports of surveillance and possible arrest of relatives of potential presidential candidate Ahmed Tantawi, have further highlighted the lack of a clear strategy or will to address this issue systematically within the framework of the dialogue.
These developments have led some participants to withdraw from the National Dialogue, including Negad Al-Borai, a National Dialogue’s Board of Trustees member, and Khaled Dawoud, the assistant rapporteur of the Political Parties Committee. This withdrawal signals a growing perception of the National Dialogue as being undermined, with the dialogue taking a different path from that of justice and security institutions. The practices of arresting political prisoners have not seen any temporary suspension, even until the conclusion of the dialogue and the attainment of clear agreements on addressing this issue.
Paradoxically, there have been recent releases of well-known political prisoners who have received media attention, such as Ziad Al-Eliemy, lawyer Mohamed Al-Baker, researcher Patrick George, and economist Omar El-Shennawy, and most recently, political activist Ahmed Douma after spending ten years in prison. There has also been a reversal of the prosecution’s decision to arrest Ahmed Tantawi’s relatives. This reflects the lack of clarity in the criteria for releases and arrests.
Conversely, since the beginning of the National Dialogue, there has been a neglect of demands for the release of other political prisoners, including Dr. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the head of the Strong Egypt Party, his deputy Mohamed Al-Qassas, and political activist Alaa Abdel Fattah.
The issue of political prisoners seems beyond the scope of discussion, with a lack of political will and a strategic decision to fully resolve this issue. A related case, pretrial detention, which is closely linked to the political prisoners’ file, has garnered significant interest from committee members. Still, it has not been discussed in this stage of the dialogue. There have been criticisms regarding the final recommendations of the first round, not including the repeal of the 2013 decision amending Article 143 of the Criminal Procedure Law and the unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience, whether in pretrial detention or serving sentences. In response to these criticisms, some National Dialogue participants have hinted after the National Dialogue in its next phase about pretrial detention.
For several years, Egypt’s human rights record in international forums has consistently highlighted the crime of enforced disappearances and the necessity of holding perpetrators accountable. In 2019, during its review before the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Egyptian government received five recommendations focused on the importance of Egypt ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, conducting investigations into allegations of enforced disappearances by security forces, disclosing the results of these investigations, prosecuting those responsible, and addressing impunity. Additionally, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances referred 173 cases of enforced disappearances to the Egyptian government for responses in 2018, expressing concerns about these cases and noting the systemic nature of enforced disappearances.
The practice of enforced disappearances has increased systematically and persistently over the past decade, becoming routine for Egyptian security agencies. The “Stop Enforced Disappearance” campaign documented 4,000 cases of enforced disappearances inside National Security Agency facilities and other locations over the past eight years, with some individuals disappearing for extended periods, including years. According to the campaign, there are still 300 people subject to enforced disappearance.
Similarly, the issue of enforced disappearances was absent from the agenda of the Human Rights and Public Freedoms Committee in the National Dialogue, and there was no mention of it in the committee’s preparatory sessions. Participants in the committee did not discuss this issue or use the term “enforced disappearance” in their discussions. This aligns with the longstanding denials by Egyptian authorities, including the Ministry of Interior and state media, of the practice of enforced disappearances in Egypt. Some officials even went so far as to claim that enforced disappearances were a “manufactured” phenomenon by the Muslim Brotherhood, preemptively dismissing the need for investigations, evidence, or allegations.
Furthermore, the issue of discrimination based on sexual orientation was completely ignored within the committee’s work. Despite the existence of rights for individuals with diverse sexual orientations in international conventions and their intersection with anti-discrimination efforts, some committee participants expressed strong opposition to discussing the conditions of LGBTQ+ individuals in Egypt or ensuring their rights.
For example, writer Nagih Ibrahim took a clear stance against granting any rights to LGBTQ+ individuals in the new anti-discrimination law, stating that it would undermine Egyptian society’s fundamental values and equating the struggle against discrimination with the destruction of human civilization.
Similarly, Ahmed Mohsen Qasim, representing the Egypt Girl Party (Masr El-Fatah), mentioned that the party had submitted a draft law to establish the Egyptian Commission for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination but deliberately excluded references to “sexual orientation” and “homosexuality” because they contradict international human rights conventions and the statements derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the end, the final recommendations submitted to the President made no mention of ending discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals or leaving the door open to addressing any forms of discrimination they may face in the future, at the very least. This raises concerns about accepting and committing to universal human rights principles against discrimination and the need for open, transparent, and genuine discussions and actions to address actual demands. It also highlights the issue of accepting and engaging with global human rights standards that unequivocally oppose all forms of discrimination, including expanding interpretations of Articles 1 and 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to include LGBTQ+ individuals under the principles of equality and non-discrimination.
The recommendations put forth by the committee
During the first phase of the national dialogue, they were presented directly to the President for consideration. The final recommendations from the Committee for Human Rights and Public Freedoms addressed two main issues: eliminating all forms of discrimination and academic freedoms and scientific research. Notably absent from these recommendations was any mention of a Freedom of Information Law issuance.
Recommendations Against Discrimination:
- The recommendations began by acknowledging the clear commitment of the Egyptian state to equality, equal opportunities, and fair geographic development, highlighting the “Decent Life” project as a cornerstone of these efforts.
- The recommendations then shifted to establishing a Commission Against Discrimination following Article 53 of the Egyptian Constitution. It was emphasized that the constitutional basis for legislation is the Egyptian Constitution, along with relevant ratified international agreements, and that the Commission should carry out its work without compromising national security, public morals, or public order.
- The recommendations also touched upon the financial and administrative independence of the Commission, its structure, and its powers, including receiving complaints and reports and developing capacity-building plans for public institutions, law enforcement agencies, and media training.
- However, the recommendations did not reference changing existing legislation that enforces discriminatory practices against certain groups, particularly women. The Commission, in the end, is an independent body without legislative or executive authority to address discrimination or the power to change current legislative realities. Additionally, the recommendations lacked clear definitions for the terms “national security,” “public morals,” and “public order,” which have often been used as reasons for the increased detention of citizens.
Recommendations for Academic Freedom and Scientific Research:
- These recommendations encompassed eight points, including simplifying travel procedures for professors abroad for work-related purposes, shortening the required approval times for inviting visiting professors and researchers, facilitating the entry of students and professors from Arab universities, simplifying the organization of seminars and discussions, and conferences, and encouraging joint research projects between Egyptian universities, research centers, and their foreign counterparts.
- The recommendations, however, completely omitted any mention of the restrictions imposed by security agencies on the academic community and freedom of scientific research. They merely referred to “simplifying the required approvals,” which could reinforce an exceptional and unconstitutional situation.
- Lastly, the final recommendations did not indicate the issuance of a Freedom of Information Law, despite prior agreement among participants in the session on its necessity. This absence could result from disagreements among participants regarding its final form or objections from sovereign authorities despite experts’ continued discussions on the topic.
How the Human Rights and Public Freedoms Committee sessions proceeded is not precisely known. Whether the discussions mentioned were included in just three sessions or further discussions took place in smaller and more intensive sub-working committees, as suggested by some participants in the dialogue, is unclear. Similarly, it is unknown if the topics discussed will lead to further discussions in the next round of the national dialogue, especially as some issues remain open or were addressed only in general, such as the Freedom of Information Law. Additionally, as some participants have indicated, it is not sure whether the final recommendations presented are the complete committee recommendations or if they underwent filtering and revision before being submitted to the presidency. Consequently, it is unclear what has been excluded and the reasons for such exclusions.