Opposition leaders and advocacy groups give a grim assessment of human rights in Egypt and fear the situation could worsen in the coming months ahead of parliamentary elections due next November and a presidential poll expected in 2011.
“Elections are always a time when the opposition, dissidents and activists focus their activities and therefore there is a much more severe crackdown,” says Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch. “I think we’ve already started seeing that nervousness and a very heavy-handed security response.”
Egypt’s emergency law, in place since 1981, gives wide powers to the security services, allowing arbitrary arrests and prolonged detention without trial. Critics say it leads to systematic abuses of human rights in the name of national security.
Despite long-standing promises of new anti-terrorism legislation to replace it, there is concern the authorities will renew the state of emergency when the current term expires in May.
“They will need it next year precisely to control the political process – so they can round up candidates and their supporters and ban public gatherings,” says Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood remains the country’s largest opposition movement. Its activities are closely monitored and members routinely arrested. In November, it announced that 217 were in prison.
Officials were shocked when the Islamist group took one-fifth of parliamentary seats in the 2005 election, with its candidates running as independents. The Brotherhood believes they will try to prevent a repeat of its success.
“In the run-up to the next election we will suffer a lot. The campaign has already started – one year before,” says Essam El-Erian, a senior leader of the Brotherhood. “Many well-known figures who can organise our election campaign are now arrested frequently. They are arrested and released and arrested again.”
The leader of the Ghad party, Ayman Nour, was jailed for almost four years on forgery charges, widely thought to have been politically motivated, after he finished a distant second to President Hosni Mubarak in 2005. His followers accuse the authorities of sowing the seeds of internal division that weakened their party while he was behind bars. Since his release in February, Mr Nour has complained of harassment by state security, particularly after launching a campaign to prevent the president’s son and presumed heir, Gamal, from succeeding him in power.
While the government insists it would like to see secular parties perform better in the 2010 parliamentary vote, many activists question the claim. “They do not want a strong opposition,” says Mr Bahgat. “Once a political party comes to pose a real threat, they deal with it. Al-Ghad managed to reach out to the young and get them interested in politics. Now all of that is gone,” he says. “Ayman Nour had sort of an Obama moment in 2005 – and that’s gone. It’s completely deliberate.”
Ahead of the last presidential and parliamentary polls, there was unprecedented agitation for democratic reform, which built a sense of optimism. The international context helped because the US, which had recently invaded Iraq, was putting pressure on Arab leaders to liberalise politics.
But US pressure ended after the electoral gains of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Hamas victory in parliamentary polls in the Palestinian territories. The authorities in Egypt introduced constitutional amendments to abolish judiciary supervision of elections.
The opening up that preceded the 2005 poll brought greater freedom of expression and the launch of new independent media outlets that continue to raise thorny issues. Many taboo subjects that could not be mentioned several years ago are regularly discussed in the papers and on chat shows.
But still bloggers and activist journalists say they are viewed as a security risk. Wael Abbas, who runs a well-known blog, says his house has been raided and his laptop was recently confiscated at Cairo Airport after he was detained for several hours.
“Don’t forget elections are pretty soon and the regime does not want bloggers to be a headache,” he says. “Bloggers have played a very important role in showing rigging of elections, efforts to execute the succession of power scenario in Egypt, and the failure of Egyptian police to protect ordinary citizens.”
Mr Abbas has previously posted video footage on the internet showing police brutality.
Human rights groups charge that violence and torture are commonplace during police interrogations. Complaints include beatings, burning with cigarettes, electrical shocks and hanging from iron bars or a cell door.
The ministry of interior denies torture allegations. However, they are taken seriously by the government-appointed National Council on Human Rights chaired by Boutros Boutros Ghali, the former United Nations secretary-general. It has announced a project “to promote the culture of anti-torture”.
The council has also recommended ending the state of emergency and, with help from the UN, it has developed training for election monitors ahead of forthcoming polls.
International organisations and governments look set to refocus their attention on Egypt’s human rights and democracy record as elections approach.
However, Egyptian groups are sceptical about how much pressure will be brought to bear given the strategic importance that the west attaches to their country’s regional role and its fears about political Islam.
“The international community is hypocritical. I’m not convinced it respects human rights as a value,” says Dr El-Erian. “They will lose this item to press the regime on other files: the Palestinians and Iran. It is used politically.”