Q&A – Egypt and human rights ahead of Obama’s visit

Q&A – Egypt and human rights ahead of Obama’s visit

Reuters – U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech to the Muslim world from U.S. ally Egypt on June 4 aimed at repairing ties hurt under his predecessor George W. Bush.

Below are some questions and answers about the rights situation in Egypt:

U.S. President Barack Obama looks over at Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano during a meeting on hurricane preparedness at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington in this May 29, 2009 file photo. (REUTERS/Jim Young)


Egyptian rights activists worry that Obama, by choosing to give his speech in Cairo, will lend undue credibility to an autocratic ally that uses harsh tactics to stifle opposition and whose progress toward democracy has been slow.

Many hope the Obama administration will press Egypt quietly for democratic reforms but doubt he will directly address the human rights situation in Egypt in his speech to the Muslim world.

Some activists had previously welcomed a push by the Bush administration for democratisation in the region, but became disillusioned when Washington appeared to become more preoccupied with ensuring stability of friendly states. Their expectations for U.S. support on rights issues remain low.


A pro-democracy protest movement gathered steam in Egypt in the run-up to the country”s first multi-candidate presidential election in 2005, with protests demanding change sometimes drawing many hundreds to the streets.

The movement fizzled as the U.S. push for democracy faded and Egypt escalated a crackdown on dissent, strategically targeting bloggers who used the Internet to rally support.

Analysts say Egypt wanted to quell shows of discontent so President Hosni Mubarak”s politician son, Gamal, can take over from his father, who has ruled for 27 years. Both deny this.

After the 2005 vote, Egypt jailed Mubarak”s main challenger Ayman Nour on forgery charges he says were fabricated. Nour was freed in February, a move seen as a gesture to Obama but which has not heralded bigger changes.

Efforts to revive the democracy movement in Egypt have largely foundered.


The crackdown on dissent has netted leftists and Islamists but the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, a non-violent Islamist movement with broad popular support, has been hardest hit.

The Brotherhood, which is officially banned, holds about a fifth of the seats in parliament through members elected as independents. The group says it aims to establish an Islamic state in Egypt through the ballot box.

The government sees the Brotherhood as its biggest political threat and has sought to block the group from mounting a serious challenge to Mubarak, often detaining members without charges.

In an escalation, an Egyptian military court handed jail terms last year to 25 members of the Brotherhood including its third-in-command in a trial Amnesty International called a “perversion of justice”. It was the first time since 2001 that Egypt had used a military court to try Brotherhood members.

Egypt has also worked hard to prevent the group expanding its electoral foothold, blocking thousands of potential candidates from running in local council elections last year.


Egypt crushed an insurgency by Islamists seeking to set up a purist Islamic state in the 1990s using brute force and relying on an emergency law in force since Islamist militants assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

The situation has calmed since the 1990s, although a series of bomb attacks in Sinai peninsula tourist areas killed scores of people between 2004 and 2006.

The government periodically renews the emergency law, which allows detentions without charges, saying it is needed to combat the threat of terrorism. Rights groups complain the government uses emergency law to quash non-violent political dissent.


Rights groups say torture is rife in jails and police stations where officials operate with impunity. Detainees have been subject to electric shocks, beatings and sexual abuse, rights groups say.

Police abuse in Egypt gained widespread attention in 2007 after a video circulated on the Internet showing a man being sodomised with a stick in a Cairo police station.

The government denies torture is widespread and says it prosecutes any officer who mistreats detainees. In the sodomy case, two police officers were ultimately sentenced to three years in prison for torture.


The Egyptian Coptic lobby in the United States has made frequent complaints about persecution of Egypt”s Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the 76 million people.

Relations between Christians and Muslims in Egypt are usually harmonious but Copts sometimes say their numbers are underestimated and that they can face discrimination. Sectarian disputes over land or women sometimes lead to violence. The state does not recognise conversions from Islam to Christianity.

Other minorities face a tougher time in conservative Egypt. Rights activists say the country”s tiny Baha”i minority, whose faith is not recognised by the government, faces systemic discrimination. The faith is viewed as a heresy by many Muslims.


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