Egypt must release journalists and protect freedom of expression (Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed)
LATEST NEWS: Three years on, Egypt is still in turmoil. At least 64 people were killed and hundreds injured during protests on January 25, 2014. Read Amnesty's third anniversary feature (4 February 2014)
A brewing rebellion
At the start of 2011, Egypt was a country weighed down by 30 years of oppressive emergency rule, ruthless repression of dissent, high levels of official corruption and endemic poverty. The security forces, their commanders and political leaders, enjoyed almost total impunity for widespread human rights violations including arbitrary arrests, torture and grossly unfair trials.
From January 25, 2011 onwards, however, the fear seemed to evaporate as thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand change. In 18 days, the country-wide mass demonstrations and the courage and determination of protesters succeeded in ousting Hosni Mubarak, President for 30 years. His resignation on February 11 was greeted with cheers of joy by millions of Egyptians, including the thousands camped out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the place that had come to symbolize the “25 January Revolution” worldwide.
Those history-making 18 days were also marked by mass human rights violations. At least 840 people were killed and more than 6,000 were injured, mostly by the security forces and “thugs” hired by the authorities. Thousands of activists were detained; many were tortured. Some were subjected to enforced disappearance for weeks; some remain missing and unaccounted. Those targeted included human rights defenders, online activists, journalists, volunteers bringing supplies to protesters and doctors treating the injured.
Military rule and new repression
On February 11, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) headed by former Defence Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi assumed power amid popular jubilation at the downfall of President Mubarak and the army’s decision not to join with President Mubarak’s police to shoot at protesters. As if by default, Egypt came under military rule. On March 30, following a referendum over constitutional amendments, the SCAF adopted a new Constitutional Declaration setting out steps for the transfer of power to civilian government, starting with parliamentary elections and followed by writing a new Constitution.
In its early statements, the SCAF said that the armed forces would continue to protect “protesters regardless of their views”. It also warned against public disorder or attempts to create dissent or disrupt the functioning of Egyptian institutions, a warning that was all too soon translated into assaults on the very human rights that it said it aimed to protect.
The SCAF introduced changes with both positive and negative impacts on human rights. One of its first welcome steps was to disband State Security Investigations (SSI) – the security police agency notorious for human rights violations – and release hundreds of administrative detainees. It also amended the law on political parties, allowing many more political parties to legally register and put forward candidates in national elections. The new government also recognized independent trade unions and their right to form federations and join international federations. At the same time, however, the SCAF banned strikes.
The SCAF extended the state of emergency to criminalize acts such as blocking roads, broadcasting rumours and committing “assault on freedom to work”. Not only did these changes directly threatened freedom of expression and association, and the rights to assembly and to strike, they reversed reforms that the Mubarak government had felt obliged to make by public pressure in recent years.
The SCAF also further tightened restrictions on media freedom, warning newspaper editors and journalists against publishing anything critical of the armed forces without prior consultation and permission. Human rights NGOs were threatened with prosecution if they accepted funding from abroad without prior permission. Journalists, bloggers and judges were investigated by military prosecutors or imprisoned by military courts for criticizing the army's human rights violations during the uprising and the lack of reform. Some of the SCAF’s legal changes and policies targeting basic rights reinforced longstanding patterns of serious human rights violations, while others – such as subjecting women protesters to forced “virginity tests” – represented disturbing new forms of abuse.
No revolution for women
Women were at the forefront of the protests and demands for change during the heady days of the revolution, but since then there has been little improvement in their status and situation. They continue to be discriminated against in both law and practice, and nothing has been done to ensure their equitable participation in decision-making. In July 2011 the SCAF scrapped the quota system for women in the election law in favour of a requirement that each political party have at least one woman on its candidate list, though without requiring that they be included near the top of the list. Women’s representation in trade unions and other organizations also remains very low.
Elections and a difficult transition
Renewed protests in the run-up to the start of the elections in late November 2011 were met with a severe crackdown. At least 45 protesters were killed, including some shot dead with live ammunition, and hundreds injured.
At the end May 2012, the now 31-year-old state of emergency finally came to an end. Just weeks later, however, military police and intelligence officers were granted the powers to arrest and detain civilians suspected of offences related to national security and public order, raising fears that yet more civilians would face military trials. Shortly afterwards – and just in advance of the presidential election results – the SCAF amended the March 2001 Constitutional Declaration to give themselves control over all matters relating to the armed forces. The amendments effectively removed the army from civilian oversight.
President Mohamed Morsi assumed office on June 30, 2012 with a promise to establish the rule of law. He announced that he was overturning amendments to the Constitutional Declaration which limited presidential authority and gave the SCAF wide-ranging powers. In August he announced the retirement of Field Marshal Tantawi, the head of the SCAF. The balance of power remains unresolved.
At the beginning of June 2012 ex-president Hosni Mubarak and his Minister of Interior Habib Adly were sentenced to life imprisonment for the killing of protesters during the "25 January revolution", marking a significant step towards combating long-standing impunity in Egypt. However, the acquittal of all the other defendants, including senior security officials, left many still waiting for full justice.
Photo: Egyptian protesters gather in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2012, during a mass rally marking the first anniversary of the uprising. MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images