By Tarek Chatila, Montreal-area activist and writer for Amnesty Canada’s Isr/OT/PA co-group
“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” wrote French critic Alphonse Karr in 1849. Turbulent change, he observed, has a counterproductive tendency to reinforce the status quo.
A truism which precisely reflects the state of human rights in Egypt today.
Four years after electrifying scenes beamed around the world from Tahrir Square – a vast ocean of people congregating and chanting defiantly for democratic reform – the aspirations of the Egyptian people and the ‘January 25 Revolution’ have yet to be realized.
And while the Egyptian popular uprising succeeded in deposing long-serving President Hosni Mubarak, successive administrations have failed to adequately address the endemic human rights violations which continue to plague the country.
The faces have changed, but the policies remain much the same.
One of the main protagonists from the outset of the revolution have been student protesters. This movement has seen its actions increasingly targeted by government legislation. Since 2013, Amnesty has documented hundreds of cases of arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill-treatment. Excessive use of force by state security forces is rife, with perpetrators enjoying near total impunity. Meanwhile, restrictions on freedom of expression and association are tightly imposed and institutional discrimination against women and minorities continue unabated.
In response, and in commemoration of the 4th Anniversary of the January 25 Revolution, Amnesty International Canada and the Egyptian Canadian Coalition for Democracy (ECCD) are asking Canadian students and universities to stand in solidarity with their Egyptian counterparts.
New Laws Target Students and Demonstrations
In 2013, a controversial new protest law signed by interim-president Adly Mansour granted security forces greater discretion to use force to halt protests and disperse demonstrators.
The 2014 academic school year began amid heightened tension in light of additional measures imposed across universities permitting security to stop and search students on campus at will.
Students gathered across Egypt to voice their disapproval with the new measures. One such demonstration at Alexandria University quickly descended into violence with security forces firing tear gas canisters and shotgun pellets “randomly against students when it was not necessary,” even as some fled indoors. The melee resulted in at least 150 arrests and 35 injuries, some critical.
Amnesty International immediately criticized the law, calling it “a serious setback that poses a grave threat to freedom of assembly and gives security forces a free rein to use excessive force, including lethal force, against demonstrators.”
In Solidarity with Egyptian Students
In response to the heavy-handed crackdown on university demonstrators, Amnesty International Canada and the Egyptian Canadian Coalition for Democracy released a joint statement calling on Canadian students and universities to stand in solidarity with Egyptian university students, defending their right to safely assemble and express themselves freely on school campuses without fear of police intimidation.
Supported by a growing number of student groups from across Canada, it calls on the Canadian government, civil society and human rights groups to pressure Egyptian officials for the immediate and unconditional release of all peaceful protesters.
It also voices concern over the “violation of the basic human rights of Egyptian students,” citing the use of excessive force by security forces in their attempt to “stifle and crush” debate and dissent.
This joint action of solidarity follows the release of a report by Egyptian monitoring groups entitled “Violation of Academic Freedom in Egyptian Universities”, which states that this draconian protest law has resulted in the deaths of 176 students and the arrests of 1347 others by mid-march. Figures which have since climbed to more than two hundred deaths and two thousand arrests.
Amnesty Issues Urgent Actions on Behalf of Student Protestors
Amnesty International has released several urgent actions in relation to the student protests in 2014.
In April, Amnesty International launched an urgent action on behalf of Mansoura University students Abrar Al-Anany and Menatalla Moustafa, and teacher Yousra Elkhateeb, urging Egyptian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the three women and grant Moustafa access to medical attention she may require.
In May, Al-Anany and Mustafa were sentenced to two years each for their involvement in a protest while Elkhateeb received a six year sentence. The Court of Cassation has since agreed to review the cases of the Mansoura women in April 2015.
In November, an urgent action was launched on behalf of Mahmoud Hussein, an 18 year-old student who has been held in police detention without trial for nearly a year. Hussein was detained by security forces at a checkpoint after leaving a protest and taken to a police station.
During interrogation, Mahmoud was subjected to torture with electric shocks and coerced into a confession. The following day he appeared before the prosecutor without his lawyer present and recanted his “confession.” The prosecutor failed to investigate the claims, and ordered him held.
Amnesty International calls on Egyptian authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release Mahmoud Hussein and drop any pending charges against him,” to protect him from “further torture and other ill-treatment” and for an “impartial investigation into reports of torture in custody.”
A Pattern of Abuse
Sadly, stories like Mahmoud Hussein’s are not uncommon. In fact, the year following President Morsi’s overthrow saw a deterioration in human rights conditions with a surge in arbitrary arrests, incidents of torture and extra-judicial killings by security forces.
Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui stated: “Despite repeated promises by current and former presidents to respect the rule of law, over the past year flagrant violations have continued at an astonishing rate, with security forces effectively granted a free rein to commit human rights violations with impunity.”
Amnesty International has documented numerous examples of torture and other ill-treatment perpetrated by security forces against students.
A particularly shocking case was that of 23-year-old student M.R.S. Arrested near Nasr City in Cairo, he reported being held in detention for 47 days where he was tortured and raped:
“The officer caught my testicle and started to squeeze it… I was screaming from the pain and bent my legs to protect my testicles then he inserted his fingers in my anus… he was wearing something plastic on his fingers… he repeated this five times,” he said. He also reported being “beaten on the penis with a stick” and “raped repeatedly by one or more security guards.”
And while he survived to recount his harrowing story, others were less fortunate.
Ahmed Ibrahim was among four people who have died in Mattereya police station since April 2014. In a phone call to his father he pleaded for help saying: “I am dying, father.” A post-mortem examination found bruises and cuts on his body suggesting he may have been tortured.
Monitoring group Wikithawra has recorded at least 80 deaths in custody over the past year.
Egyptian Human Rights Record Questioned at the United Nations
A recent United Nations ‘Universal Periodic Review’ of Egypt introduced eight recommendations aimed at addressing the human rights crisis engulfing the country including a stop to torture and other ill-treatment, and the revision or repeal of the contentious new Protest Law.
The measure was largely dismissed by the Egyptian delegation in Geneva in a “cynical” move Amnesty International says leaves “its human rights record lay[ing] in tatters.”
Marking the 4th Anniversary of the January 25 Revolution Amnesty and the ECCD Ask Canadian Students to Stand in Solidarity
Your university student union, association or club can show support for Egyptian university students as they struggle for their right to demonstrate in support of basic human rights. To read the joint statement issued by Amnesty International and the Egyptian Canadian Coalition for Democracy, and to add your group’s name to the petition, please use the following link.
To date, more than a dozen Canadian university students unions, associations and clubs have signed on in support of the statement. Please consult the full supporter list below and consider adding yours:
University of Regina Student Union (URSU)
University of Victoria Students’ Society (UVSS)
Ryerson University Students’ Union (RSU)
University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSA)
McMaster University Department of Sociology Graduate Student Caucus
McGill University Post Graduate Student Society
McGill University – The McGill Daily
Queen’s University – Students for Liberty
University of Toronto Muslim Students’ Association
Queen’s University Muslim Students’ Association
University of Regina Muslim Students’ Association
University of Manitoba Muslim Students’ Association
Simon Fraser University Muslim Students’ Association
University of Calgary – Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR)
Queen’s University – Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR)
Concordia University – Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR)
Western University – Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR)
For more information, read the joint Amnesty Canada & ECCD press release: Canadian Student Unions stand behind Egyptian Students in their Struggle for Human Rights
Tarek Chatila is a MENA specialist and writer for Amnesty Canada’s Isr/OT/PA co-group. After leaving Beirut in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War, he moved to Montreal and gained his Master’s in Public Policy and Administration from Concordia University. Tarek was head researcher for the Social Media Monitoring Project on Syria at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies.