Egypt prisons report: Did human rights council curry favor with govt?

Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) has been suffering from internal divisions following a report it published into the high-security al-Aqrab prison, which houses scores of political prisoners and forms part of the Tora complex in southern Cairo.

The report was the result of a visit by a NCHR delegation in response to complaints from inmates about the prison administration’s practices, which they said violated their rights. There were allegations of abuse, a reduction in visit times, lack of medical care, the denial of access to food and clothes brought by visitors, cancelling of sports activities, and the closure of canteens in which visitors deposit money for prisoners.

Disputes started when several NCHR members deemed the report – which refuted most of the prisoners’ claims, and commended the living conditions of the prison – biased and inaccurate.

ElBaradei tweet

In a tweet that angered several NCHR members, former Vice President Mohammad ElBaradei wrote that national human rights councils “do not protect regimes as much as they expose their members.”

But NCHR deputy director Abdel Ghaffar Shokr argued that ElBaradei is not in a position to evaluate the report issued by the council. “ElBaradei has been away for a long time and is not aware of the situation in Egypt now,” he said in an interview with the Egyptian daily independent al-Youm al-Sabea. “Plus, this is purely his personal point of view.”

‘Muslim Brotherhood lies’

In his article “When would ElBaradei go away?” published in al-Youm al-Sabea, journalist Abdel Fattah Abdel Moneim accused ElBaradei of supporting Muslim Brotherhood members who, he argued, falsified facts about the prison. “The delegation uncovered the Brotherhood’s lies and that is why their members inside and outside the prison slammed the report and ElBaradei is helping them,” he said.

For NCHR member Salah Salam, ElBaradei did not mean to criticize the members. “This was just a way to criticize the current regime rather than the council and its members,” he told the Egyptian newspaper al-Wafd.

Hafez Abu Saada, NCHR member and director of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, argued that the council did all it could to investigate prisoners’ complaints.

“The only way to do this was the prison’s official records and prisoners’ testimonies, but members of the Muslim Brotherhood refused to meet us and sent a representative to tell us they do not recognize a council that works for an illegitimate regime,” he told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. “We did not claim that the prison is a five-star hotel, though.”

According to Abu Saada, the records prove that prisoners are getting the medical care they need inside and outside the prison and field visits show that places frequented by prisoners – kitchen, cafeteria, library, and clinic – are in a good shape.


Several NCHR members slammed both the visit and the report. Mohamed Abdel Qodous, who was part of the delegation, said that the prison administration knew of the visit beforehand and prepared the place accordingly.

“The food in the kitchen is only offered in hotels. I was in jail before and I know what the food is really like,” he said in the statement he issued following the report.

Abdel Qodous accused the prison administration of fabricating visit schedules in the logs. “For example, the prisoner’s family would obtain a visit permit and the administration registers it in the logs then prevents the family from entering the prison.”

He also questioned the authenticity of prisoners’ medical reports, especially those of former Muslim Brotherhood deputy supreme guide Khairat al-Shater. “We were told he underwent a scan that cost LE 35,000. There is an unbelievable figure,” he said. Abdel Qudous also cited examples of prisoners who died in al-Aqrab prison due to an alleged lack of medical care, such as Muslim Brotherhood member Farid Ismail and head of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya consultative council Essam Derbala.

Excluded members

Ragia Omran is another NCHR member who slammed the report and, together with Abdel Qodous, withdrew from the meeting held to discuss it. “Not all NCHR members were notified of the visit. I was one of the excluded members. I took part neither in the visit nor in the report.”

Omran issued a joint statement with another two excluded members – George Ishaq and Kamal Abbas.

“The council allowed the Interior Ministry to film the visit and this is against the regulations. On the same day, the ministry broadcast the film to give a false image of prison conditions,” the statement said, adding that by doing this, the council is taking part in the ministry’s propaganda.

The statement also objected to the council’s decision to hold a press conference to reveal the results of the visit. “This is totally unprecedented,” it said.

The statement criticized the council for issuing such a report instead of pressuring the ministry to give prisoners the rights granted to them by the Internal Regulation for Prison Administration. “This means that visits should be 60 minutes, prisoners should have access to newspapers and books, sports time should be two hours daily, and proper medical care should be available to all inmates.”

For NCHR member Yasser Abdel Aziz, criticism of reports issued by the council is not new and is never restricted to one faction. In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat, he particularly referred to the council’s report on the dispersal of Islamist sit-ins that followed the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Mursi and which accused Egyptian security of using excessive force. “At the time, regime loyalists attacked us. Now the Muslim Brotherhood is attacking us. This only proves that we are on the right track.”

Will Egypt’s religious parties be banned before the elections?

As Egypt braces for the upcoming parliamentary elections, which begin in phases starting in mid-October, the debate about the participation of religious parties is making a powerful comeback.

According to Article 74 of the 2014 constitution, drafted after the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood government, political parties cannot be established on religious, ethnic, sectarian, or geographical basis.

This article, together with concerns about another Islamist-dominated parliament, triggered the launch of a campaign called “No to Religious Parties”, which has the ultimate aim is getting those parties banned, and thus unable to compete in the elections.

“No to Religious Parties” follows the strategy used earlier by Tamarod, the campaign against former Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, which was based on collecting signatures from anti-Brotherhood Egyptians all over the country.

The latest campaign, which is also available electronically, includes a form entitled “No religion in politics and no politics in religion” and features the logos of parties against which the campaign was launched, a total of nine. While the campaign seems to be gaining momentum among Egyptians, it remains to be seen whether its objective can actually be achieved in such a short time and given the support such parties still enjoy among the Egyptian public.

Legal basis

Dalia Ziada, director of the Egyptian Center for Free Democratic Studies and a co-founder of the campaign, said that religious parties aim to repeat the history seen with the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government.

“The Muslim Brotherhood used democracy to come to power and once they did, they violated all democratic principles,” she said in an interview with the Egyptian satellite channel al-Hayat.

Ziada explained that signatures, which she said have so far exceeded 750,000, are a means of helping the campaign in the legal action it plans to take. “Parties cannot be disbanded without a court ruling so those signatures give us the right to file a request with the elections committee so it can take the matter to court and we already did that,” she explained.

Salah Abdel Maaboud, member of the higher committee of the Salafi al-Nour Party, one of the parties targeted by the campaign, argued that since only the court can disband a party, the campaign is pointless. “Is the judiciary expected to be influenced by the number of signatures?” he said in the same interview. “If the campaign is using signatures to prove that people don’t want us, why don’t we wait till elections prove that? Isn’t this what democracy is about?”

But according to Ziada, elections constitute the last phase in the democratic process. “Before elections, it is the state’s duty to make proper options available to the people and that this why parties need to meet a set of criteria. For this reason, the state should not allow a party that violates the constitution to run in the first place.”

Constitutional violation?

Salah Fawzy, professor of constitutional law and member of the High Legislative Reform Committee, argued that the campaign will not succeed since al-Nour and similar parties do not violate the constitution. “Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution states that Islam is the religion of the state and Islamic law [is] the main source of legislation,” he told the Egyptian news website DotMasr. “Therefore, parties based on Islamic principles are constitutional.”

According to Fawzi, Article 74 of the constitution does not apply to religious parties. “This article did not ban parties with a religious background, but rather [bans] using religion for political gains.”

While supporting the campaign, Hesham Ouf, co-founder of the Egyptian Secular Party, underlined the problem of Article 2, which he believes is the main obstacle to disbanding religious parties. “This article is always used by religious parties to legitimatize their existence and it is because of this article that the court might rule in favor of those parties,” he said in an interview with the Egyptian daily independent al-Youm al-Sabea.

That is why Ouf argued that the campaign cannot bear fruit just through collecting signatures. “We need to engage in thorough discussions with constitutional experts to examine the possibility of disbanding political parties in the presence of Article 2,” he explained. “If this proves futile then we will have to go for the more radical solution: demanding the removal of Article 2 from the constitution.”

Secular parties unconstitutional?

Based on Article 2, calls to disband “non-Islamic” parties have started on the other side. Sameh Abdel Hamid, leading member of the Salafist Call, from which al-Nour Party originated, argued that liberal and secular parties are unconstitutional.

“Religious parties are formed based on Article 2 while this is not the case with secular parties that do not recognize Egypt as an Islamic state and call for separating religion and politics,” he said in a statement. Abdel Hamid added that secular parties support values that violate Islamic principles, therefore violate the constitution again. “Those parties promote a Western lifestyle in which homosexuality and other vices are allowed,” he said, adding that all parties should have an Islamic background in order to be constitutional.

Former jihadist Amal Abdel Wahab noted that the campaign against religious parties made a grave mistake. “They offered religious parties, especially al-Nour, a golden opportunity to abort their attempts through using Article 2 and even started a counter-campaign,” he told the Egyptian news website al-Bawaba News. Abdel Wahab argued that the campaign should not have used the argument that those parties are religious. “They should have rather focused on the history of those parties, their thirst for power, their hidden agendas, and their former alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Analyzing Egypt’s long relationship with underage marriage

Images of a party to mark the engagement of a 10-year old girl and her teenage cousin prompted angry reactions among activists and rights organizations – but was just the latest in a long line of cases of underage unions in Egypt.

The cousins, Wagih and Noha al-Banna, are not yet married – the main reason given for their families not have faced legal action, local media reported.

But the fact that the party, at the couple’s hometown in the province of al-Gharbia in northern Egypt, was attended by hundreds of guests left some with the impression that the issue of underage marriage – unions between those under the legal age of 18 – is not being taken seriously by the public or state institutions.

Mervat al-Tellawi, director of Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW), condemned the union, which she said proves that the phenomenon is far from being eliminated, especially in rural areas.

“There are many reasons for parents allowing their minor children to get married, on top of which are poverty, illiteracy, religion, and lack of awareness,” she said in an interview with the Egyptian daily independent al-Masry al-Youm.

“Many parents marry their children without official documents because they are under the legal marrying age, and this is a crime.”

Psychological disorders

Tellawi added that underage marriages usually fail, with the mother and any children often left without any support, contributing to the number of children on the streets.

“Even if the marriage continues the wife and children always suffer from severe psychological disorders,” she said.

According to Tellawi, underage marriages are the main reason behind girls dropping out of school, noting that the dropout rate in the Delta region, in which al-Gharbia is located, has reached 60%.

She added that after the latest engagement, NCW will start an initiative in coordination with the Ministry of Justice. “This initiative will raise awareness among teenagers about the dangers of underage marriages and will offer legal support to minor girls who are being forced to marry.”

Legal action

While admitting that the recent engagement party is disturbing proof that underage marriages are not receding, Hani Helal, secretary general of the Egyptian Coalition for Children’s Rights, pointed out that no legal action can be taken against the parents.

“So far, this is only an engagement and there are no official records of the marriage,” he said in a statement. “We can take the parents to court when the marriage contract is signed, yet what we can do now is charging them with endangering the lives of their children.”

To solve the engagement issue, which is seen as a way of going around the law, the Union for Egyptian women issued a statement calling for a legislation that penalizes any step taken towards the marriage of minors.

“Anybody who proves to have taken part in facilitating a marriage between minors has to be prosecuted,” said the statement, adding that the engagement of the couple in al-Gharbia showed how this phenomenon is deeply rooted in a large segment of the Egyptian society, and how stricter laws are required to prevent any attempts at marrying minors. “These laws should protect both boys and girls who are subjected to this experience.”

Against Islamic principles

According to Taher Abdel Hakim, professor of jurisprudence at al-Azhar University, engagement is a marriage promise, which makes it invalid if it happens between children. “People cannot get engaged until they reach the age when they are capable of making choices and knowing what is in their best interest,” he said in an interview with the Egyptian daily independent al-Watan. “Therefore, engagement between minors is against Islamic principles.”

When asked why he decided to become engaged, teenager Wagih al-Banna – whose age has been given variously as 14 and 16 – said that his 10-year-old cousin had too many suitors and he had to “reserve” her, as he put it, and denied that she had no choice.

“Of course she approved our engagement. I would never marry her against her will,” he said in an interview with the Egyptian satellite channel Dream TV. In the same interview, the bride-to-be Noha al-Banna, who said that she still plays hide-and-seek with her friends, said the marriage will not stop her from getting an education: “I want to be a doctor,” she said.

Noha’s uncle Moustafa al-Shal refused to call this a marriage of minors. “This was just an engagement and they still have seven years to go,” he said on the same Dream TV episode. “We did this now so we can make sure she doesn’t marry outside the family.” Shal added that Noha will still live her full childhood despite the engagement. “Everything will be normal and the marriage will not be consummated until the right time comes.”

Gaining acceptance

Psychologist Alaa Ragab saw the celebration as a dangerous development which presents the practice as desirable. “When girls see the photos and the video, they would start conceiving the idea as fun and might even ask to be brides like Noha,” he said in a phone interview with the same program. “The idea will gradually become more acceptable than it already is. The same would happen with boys.”

Ragab argued that neither Noha nor Wagih are actually aware of what marriage is about. “If you ask them now about the duties marriage entails, none of them would know. Those are children and this is a crime against childhood.”

Journalist Sylvia al-Nakkadi criticized the way the story was presented in the media. “The story was run as a piece of interesting news that provides entertainment for readers but it lacked serious analysis of such a flagrant violation of children’s rights,” she wrote in Al-Masry al-Youm, arguing that the media had not done its proper job.

“News of the celebration should have been accompanied by a thorough explanation of the physical and psychological damages such a practice entails and different ways of eliminating it.”

Killing of Mexican tourists in Egypt: How did the tragedy happen?

The killing of 12 people, eight of whom were Mexican nationals, in Egypt’s Western Desert is an incident like no other for several reasons.

Egypt has seen cases of terrorists killing tourists, and security forces killing terrorists. But this time it was security forces killing tourists.

The reason for the attack, which also injured six other Mexicans, and four Egyptians, is that security forces mistook the tourists, their guides and drivers for militants.

The controversy was taken to another level when victims were said to have ventured into a restricted area. Each relevant state authority absolved itself of contributing to the “misunderstanding” and, more importantly, where the army’s strategy in tackling the war on terror was called into question.

Western Desert

In his article “Fire in the Oasis”, published in the Egyptian daily independent newspaper al-Shorouk, journalist Abdullah al-Sinawi blamed Egypt’s security institutions for the presence of tourists in an area as volatile as the Western Desert.

“How are the tourists and their guides supposed to know that a specific zone is restricted if they are not notified in advance?” he asked. “And if this zone is really restricted, how come the convoy passed through all the checkpoints on the way to the Western Desert?”

While acknowledging that, two days before, the same area was the scene of clashes between militants and security forces, Sinawi expressed his indignation at the fact that trips to this area were still allowed.

“Why wasn’t this area closed completely until all operations are over?” he asked. Sinawi also criticized analyses that focused on the blow dealt to tourism following the incident. “This is not about tourism. This incident was politically detrimental. The attack came from the army, not terrorists and this is a factor that cannot be overlooked.”

Where were the warning shots?

Security expert General Mohamed Nour al-Din, a former assistant to the minister of the interior, called the attack “impulsive” and argued that even if the victims looked suspicious, there were wiser ways of responding.

“The army could have started firing warning shots instead of bombing the cars with heavy weaponry right away,” he said in an interview with al-Shorouk. “Whoever gave the orders to fire miscalculated the entire situation.”

According to Nour al-Din, the attack took place because only a week before, militants in four-wheel drives similar to the ones used by the convoy fired at security forces in the same area.

“So, when a similar situation happened, they fired preemptively before being fired at,” he said.

Nour el-Din argued that the Egyptian state will be in a difficult position if investigations prove that the travel agency did obtain all the required permits to visit this area, and that the convoy did not stray from the pre-planned route.

“In this case, an official apology would not be enough and compensations have to be paid to the injured and to families of the deceased,” he said.

Impact on terror war?

Hafez Abu Saada, member of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights, argued that the incident would have a negative impact on the effectiveness of the war on terror.

“This war against terrorism has to be managed very delicately so that innocent people are not killed in the process,” he wrote on Twitter. “Such incidents would give a chance to many to question the validity of this war.”

Hassan al-Nahla, head of Egypt’s Tourist Guides’ Syndicates, argued that the army is not to be blamed for such a quick response to suspicious activity in an area that is already infested with terrorists.

“I rather blame the ministries of interior and tourism for absolute lack of coordination,” he explained, in a statement he issued following the killings. “The Ministry of Interior should have submitted a list of restricted areas to the Ministry of Tourism which, in turn, should have distributed it to all travel agencies.”

Nahla stressed that the tourism policeman at the hotel where the tourists stayed knew where they were heading and did not warn them – a claim not officially confirmed by Egyptian authorities. “Also how come there are no signs along the road that show where restricted areas are?,” he asked.

‘Terrorist hotbed’ risk

In his article “The complete picture in the Oasis accident,” published in the daily independent Al-Youm al-Sabea, journalist Mohamed al-Desouki Rushdi agrees that it is not the army’s fault. “This is a huge desert that risks turning into a terrorist hotbed if not properly controlled,” he said.

“Plus, it is a very critical location since it borders areas with Libya from which both terrorists and weapons are smuggled.”

Ahmed al-Mestekawi, the owner of a travel agency that specializes in desert safaris, refuted claims that four-wheel drives are not allowed in the area.

“This area is full of oil companies and quarries and four-wheel drives are all over the place,” he said in an interview with the Egyptian satellite channel Dream TV, adding that a policeman accompanied the convoy, as reported in some other news media.

“Why then didn’t he tell the drivers that this was a restricted area? They would have definitely not gone there.”

According to Mestekawi, the helicopters that fired at the convoy had a full view of what was happening on the ground. “This area is open. It has no mountains and no tourist facilities, so it was easy to see what the suspects were up to.”

Mestekawi also noted that an official decree from last year states that the road from Cairo to the Bahariya Oasis, to which the convoy was heading, is not a restricted area.

Mutiny in the Egyptian police: Pent-up anger and the protest law

The division of the Egyptian police commonly called “lower-ranking policemen” has always been as source of controversy.

While regular policemen graduate from the Police Academy, lower-ranking ones study at the Institute of Assistant Policemen, and can only be promoted to lieutenant – the rank regular policemen obtain when they graduate – after 24 years of service.

Assistant policemen help policemen in several duties – such as organizing traffic, guarding facilities and handling complaints at police stations – and sometimes work as informants.

The disgruntlement of assistant policemen is not new, but showing it is. Hundreds of assistant policemen in the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya, the third most populous governorate in Egypt, recently held protests against low salaries and deteriorating working conditions.

They demanded the ouster of the interior minister, and started a strike that saw the closure of several police stations. Though not the first of its kind, this protest has become the most alarming, not only because it shed light on disputes inside the Interior Ministry, but also since it called into question the state’s commitment to the much-debated Protest Law.

Pent-up anger

Journalist Maged Atef attributed the recent protests to the years-long accumulation of bad feelings on the part of assistant policemen, who “realized that people look down on them and only respect regular policemen. They felt this was unfair since they believed that they do all the work in the streets and get no credit.” Assistant policemen, Atef added, also came to be associated with corruption and bribery, which made them even more marginalized.

Writer Hamdi Rizq described them as “time bombs at the heart of the Interior Ministry,” since their position below regular policemen makes them constantly angry. Rizq added that being an indispensible part of the police force, assistant policemen are able to twist the ministry’s arm with impunity. “This is a real challenge for the ministry, especially at a time when it is fighting terrorism.”

Former MP Moustafa al-Naggar said the recent protests are more foreboding than they seem, citing violent clashes between protesters and riot police upon the former’s storming of the security directorate headquarters. “Confrontation between two armed factions in the state apparatus is extremely alarming, especially if the protesting party feels inferior and discriminated against.”

Protest Law

Following the protests, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) demanded the release of all activists sentenced to jail for violating the Protest Law.

“Through applying the law to hundreds of pro-democracy activists and not applying it to members of the police force, the state is exhibiting a clear case of double standards,” said an ANHR statement.

“We are against the Protest Law, but if it is there anyway then it better be applied to everyone or be annulled altogether. Otherwise, let’s just simply declare Egypt a police state.”

Journalist Abdel Rahman Badr noted how assistant policemen protests were treated differently. “They did not have prior permission as required by the Protest Law, yet the protest was not dispersed by force, and none of the protestors were arrested. On the contrary, the Ministry of Interior listened to their demands,” he wrote. “All this despite the fact that protesting policemen did get violent when they stormed the headquarters of the Sharqiya Security Directorate.”

Criminal sciences and crime scene expert General Refaat Abdel Hamid was of the same view: “So storming the directorate and closing police stations do not constitute a threat to security and an obstruction of vital services?”

Major General Abu Bakr Abdel Karim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, responded by saying assistant policemen organized a “rally,” not a “protest,” so the articles of the Protest Law do not apply to them.

“They did not use violence, and they peacefully ended the sit-in after the ministry promised to look into their demands,” he said.

“The ministry also has priorities, and containing the situation so that security services can resume was a must. The protestors also prioritized national interests when they agreed to go back to work.”

Abdel Karim had earlier slammed the protest and called its organizers “a conspiring minority” that “is violating the working regulations of the Interior Ministry and police discipline.”

In response to a question about whether the protests were instigated by the Muslim Brotherhood, he said: “I don’t find this unlikely at all.”

Following Abdel Karim’s statement, journalist Mohamed al-Desouki Rushdi published an article in which he included the definition of a “protest” under the Protest Law. Rushdi said according to Article 4 of the law, a protest is “any gathering of more than 10 people, whether marching or stationary, that aims at expressing grievances or political demands.” Article 7, he adds, says it is illegal for a protest to disrupt public order or impede public services.

“For 48 hours, assistant policemen closed the headquarters of the security directorate and several police stations, left their positions, and stopped organizing traffic,” he wrote. “Playing around terminology will only make things worse. The Interior Ministry better admit the gravity of the situation.”