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A change of tune: Foreign Ministry issues mild response to US report on human rights in Egypt
 
 
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Sharply deviating from its usual insistence on Egypt’s domestic sovereignty and dismissal of accusations by pointing to other parties’ transgressions, the Foreign Ministry issued a toned-down response to the United States State Department’s annual report on Egypt’s human rights record.

“The US State Department has been preparing such periodic reports on the human rights situations in other countries,” the ministry asserted in its brief Sunday reply addressing the 2016 country report, the first to be released by US President Donald Trump’s administration, though collated by the previous government.

According to the Foreign Ministry, these reports “stem from domestic considerations reflecting the US’ point of view, and are not linked to any legal obligations to which Egypt is bound,” referring to the United Nations’ conventions to which it is a state party.

As in past years it indexes a long list of human rights violations attributed to the Egyptian government. However, while these reports typically elicit a heated reaction from Egyptian officials, the ministry’s Sunday statement was comparatively muted, possibly reflecting the shift in bilateral relations with the new Trump administration.

For the past 40 years, the US secretary of State has typically been present at the announcement of the annual human rights reports. This year, however, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was absent. Instead, a senior administration official spoke with reporters over the telephone on condition of anonymity, declining to appear on camera. This could be an attempt by the Trump administration to distance itself from the reports compiled by the administration of former President Barack Obama over the past year.

Tillerson’s absence illustrates the Trump administration’s indifference towards civil and political rights, freedoms and minorities around the world.

Since 1977, the US State Department has compiled country reports to survey the status of human rights situations in each UN member state, with a particular focus on those which receive US aid and assistance, so that their track records may be reviewed by state officials and policy makers. While this year’s annual country report, which the Secretary of State signed-off on, praised Egypt for conducting presidential elections in 2014, and parliamentary elections in 2015, it also contained an extensive list detailing human rights violations perpetrated by the state.

Nael Shama, a political scientist specializing in Egyptian foreign affairs, says that Tillerson’s notable absence from the press conference on the 2016 annual reports may be analyzed in light of the bureaucratic instability afflicting Trump’s administration. The State Department in particular has recently witnessed the resignation of several senior officials. Shama points to the recent resignation of Trump’s national security adviser in light of his personal and secretive communications with Russian state officials. Shama adds that Tillerson’s absence may also indicate the extent of chaos and confusion within the ranks of the new administration.

Political analyst specializing in US foreign affairs Mohamed Elmenshawy considers the Secretary of State’s non-attendance a significant change from the policies of previous years and former administrations, adding that Tillerson’s absence illustrates the Trump administration’s indifference towards civil and political rights, freedoms and minorities around the world.

Elmenshawy poses that it “may be linked to Trump’s vision for America’s general budget, in which he aims to reduce funding for the State Department’s foreign aid programs, to the tune of approximately 30 percent. This includes, of course, programs supporting the rule of law abroad and efforts to promote press freedoms and human rights.”

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s mildly worded response to the recent report on Egypt may also be seen as a reflection of the warmer relationship between the new US president and his Egyptian counterpart.

Egypt’s human rights violations

The 2016 country report on Egypt highlights the most serious human rights violations, foremost among which is the excessive use of force by security forces, extrajudicial killingstorture, negligence in upholding the rule of law and the suppression of civil liberties.

It highlights the problems stemming from the lack of a legal due process in Egypt. The report states that these include: Excessive use of preventative custody and pretrial detention, the referral of civilians to military courts, along with mass trials involving hundreds of defendants “in which authorities did not present evidence on an individual basis,” and “arrests were conducted without warrants or judicial orders.”

“It will become difficult to continue justifying the violations that occur in Egypt solely on the basis of its counter-terrorism efforts.”

The US State Department also cites violations of civil liberties in Egypt, including governmental restrictions on press freedoms and freedom of expression, combined with highly restrictive policies governing the right to freedom of assembly and association, both in law and in practice.

The practice of arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances and poor prison conditions are mentioned too, as is “a judiciary that in some cases appeared to arrive at outcomes not supported by publicly available evidence or that appeared to reflect political motivations.”

Criticism is also leveled at the presence of political prisoners in Egypt, the impunity of security forces and the ongoing harassment of civil society organizations, among a host of other human rights violations, which are outlined in seven separate sections.

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In response to the human rights infringements listed, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry commented that “the human rights situation in Egypt is tied to clear constitutional obligations.” It asserted that these are monitored by governmental and independent national institutions, including the state-appointed National Council for Human Rights and the Parliament, “which monitor and track the performance of the executive authority in all aspects of its work.”

Reflecting on the US State Department’s report, and Egypt’s response, Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies Mohamed Zaree tells Mada Masr that “it is hard to overlook human rights violations in Egypt, even for Egypt’s allies.” This is because, he adds, “ in the end, they will be held accountable domestically by the media and public opinion, and it will become difficult to continue justifying the violations that occur in Egypt solely on the basis of its counter-terrorism efforts.”

Why the muted response?

Zaree describes the Foreign Ministry’s response as being more contained than in previous years, adding that it refrained from making its typical comments about “interference in the country’s domestic affairs.”

Shama believes the muted response is understandable in the context of Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s visit to Washington DC last week. His trip was in preparation for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s upcoming trip to the US capital.

Elmenshawy also poses that Egyptian officials likely wish to avoid straining relations with the US, especially over issues which appear to be of marginal importance to either side. Namely, he says, the latest report on the human rights situation in Egypt.

During Shoukry’s recent visit he met with a number of the new administration’s officials, including Tillerson, who told him that “the United States sees Egypt as a real partner in the Middle East,” according to a statement published by the Foreign Ministry in late February. He also met with the US’ newly-appointed National Security Adviser Herbert McMaster. The ministry reported that this was McMaster’s first visit from a foreign dignitary.

During the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland at the start of March, Shoukry claimed Egypt has made progress in the field of human rights. He also cautioned the council about what he called the “selective targeting” of individual countries for human rights criticism, saying there is a “double standard.”

“There is a desire for a special relationship with Trump’s administration, and Cairo is aware that it is not concerned with issues of rights and freedoms around the world, especially not in allied states such as Egypt.”

Shama views the recent human rights report largely as a routine occurrence, adding that the induction of the Trump administration has signaled a new relationship with Egyptian state, eliciting the toned-down response from the Foreign Ministry.

Elmenshawy, however, believes that Egypt views the report as practically “useless given the current political realities, and areas of violent conflict across the map of the Middle East.” He adds that there is “a desire for a special relationship with Trump’s administration, and Cairo is aware that it is not concerned with issues of rights and freedoms around the world. Especially not in allied states such as Egypt.”

A history of heated responses to human rights criticisms

Although there are many similarities between this year’s report on Egypt and last year’s, the latter prompted former US Secretary of State John Kerry to personally express his concerns regarding the “deterioration” of the human rights situation. Kerry stated that it “comes within a wider context of the arrests and intimidation of journalists, activists and the political opposition.” In response Shoukry argued that Egypt rejects any sort of interference its affairs and the dictates of any foreign powers.

Previously, in 2015, the Foreign Ministry responded to the US State Department’s human rights report by claiming it was “full of fallacies and exaggerations regarding the human rights situation.” He added that the information in it was gathered by non-governmental organizations which lack credibility, are inaccurate and are biased against the Egyptian state. According to the ministry, the US “sought to distort the facts.”

The statement reiterated the ministry’s position on  non-intervention in the internal matters of other states, highlighting that while the annual country reports are presented before congressional hearings in the US, it believes they are of little to no utility for other countries. The ministry concluded by arguing that countries should focus on their domestic human rights situations, rather than judging other states.

The US State Department’s annual human rights reports are not the only human rights criticisms to have been met with hostility from Egypt. March 2016 witnessed a heated response from Egypt’s delegate to the UN in Geneva Ambassador Amr Ramadan, following comments made by former US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken during an address to the UN Human Rights Council regarding his concerns about Egypt’s track record. Blinken stated that Washington was worried about the growing allegations of violations committed by Egyptian security forces against citizens, particularly arbitrary arrests. Ramadan responded by saying that “the Human Rights Council does not need advice from a country that violates human rights without accountability.” He proceeded to lobby accusations at other nations, to divert attention from Egypt’s own human rights violations. Ramadan specifically mentioned Guantanamo Bay, “which President Obama had promised to shut down eight years ago.”

Ramadan added that not only had Obama pledged to close the detention center, “but also to hold accountable those responsible for the abuses that took place within it, without impunity.” He argued that human rights violations are systematically perpetrated in the US too, infringing upon the freedoms of US citizens, particularly African-American citizens, in addition to the excessive use of violence by police forces, racial profiling, racial discrimination, xenophobia, along with restrictions against migrants and refugees, and a rise in Islamophobia and hate-speech.

The ambassador expressed concern at the fact that the FBI arrested 23-year-old Egyptian student Emad Eddin al-Sayyed in California for expressing opinions regarding Trump, then Republican candidate in the US presidential election. Sayyed had written on his personal Facebook account that he wanted to kill Trump.

Translated by Jano Charbel

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Shady Zalat