Al-Sisi’s Egypt: which stability without human rights protection?

“The issue of human rights and freedoms in Egypt should not be approached from a ‘Western perspective’ due to differences in challenges and domestic and regional conditions”[1]. With this remark, Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has recently replied to accusations and critics coming from part of the international community that, after the killing of the Italian student Giulio Regeni, has intensified its pressure on the Egyptian authorities. This statement reflects the leitmotiv that has characterized al-Sisi’s regime since the beginning, that is, stability and economic recovery are primary objectives and they should be achieved with every mean.

The path followed by the Egyptian regime, however, implies a tough crackdown on every form of opposition. First of all, the massacre of Rabaa al-Adawiya in August 2013, when the Army killed several hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters[2], opened the way for a major repression on Islamists. In the last two years, the regime has shut down NGOs and associations on the base of alleged links with the Brotherhood[3], dozens of students have been detained with the charge of belonging to the organization[4] while also several judges have been forced into early retirement due to their alleged support of the Muslim Brotherhood[5]. Furthermore, hundreds of Brothers have been sentenced to death, including the Supreme Guide Muhammad Badie and the former president Muhammad Mursi[6].

            In the last months, the repression has been extended to every form of political opposition, be it real or alleged. Of particular concern is the increase of forced disappearances of youths and students, who are picked up from the streets or their same houses. In most cases, those people never reappear; sometimes they are found in prison with signs of torture or dead. The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms has established that there have been 550 cases of forced disappearance between August 2015 and February 2016, among those only two hundreds people being found. Furthermore, the El-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture has revealed that, in February, March and April 2016, there have been respectively 155, 105 and 87 cases of forced disappearances[7].

The same El-Nadeem and the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression have documented the huge number of violations committed inside prisons, in particular al-Aqrab (“The Scorpion”), which has been recently nicknamed “The Cemetery” because of the inhuman detention conditions and the high number of people that have died inside[8]. For these reasons, on February 2016 a group of youngsters have begun a hunger strike to protest against abuses and the block of families’ visits. For these reasons, the Association of al-Aqrab Prisoners’ Families has launched a campaign on social media called “Shut Down Aqrab”, while some relatives has had clashes with the police[9]. Related to this, torture is a phenomenon that has characterized the whole history of Republican Egypt. From Nasser concentration camps to Mubarak police, the Egyptians, especially Muslim Brotherhood members, have undergone inhuman and degrading treatments. However, Aida Seif al-Dawla – head of El-Nadeem Center – states that she has not “seen anything more violent than what we are witnessing today”. Added to this, former detainees of the above-mentioned al-Aqrab prison have witnessed horrific scenes of individual and collective torture[10].

In order to silence voices of human rights defenders, the regime has intensified its repression on NGOs. Civil society associations have been severely targeted by security forces. In September 2014, Egypt has amended article 78 of the Penal Code, “stating that offenders who receive foreign or local funding or items to commit acts against the state's interests, shall be punished by life imprisonment and a fine no less than 500 thousand Egyptian pounds”[11]. In February 2016 the El-Nadeem Center, which has worked since 1993, has received an order of closure by the Minister of Health on the charge that it did not conduct the activities envisaged by its license – that is, medical activities [41]. Furthermore, freedom of press and freedom of expression have been severely targeted. In particular, at the beginning of May, the journalists’ syndicate has been raided by security forces and the president, Yahia Galash, has been arrested together with two board members, Khaled Elbalshy e Gamal Abd el-Reheem, with the charges of trying to oust the regime, inciting protests and belonging to the illegal 6th April Movement[12].

The circle of violations has been somehow officially legitimized by President al-Sisi and the Interior Ministry. The former, in a discourse at the Police Academy, stated that “some wrongful, individual practices, though we reject them, should not be generalized to the police service as a whole”[13], referring to accusations of systematic torture practices. Moreover, the latter has stated that “there are no forced disappearances in Egypt for any person, and whoever claims otherwise must provide evidence”[14]. President al-Sisi has also admitted that human rights violations, although “unaccepted”, will continue to occur because the country is facing an “exceptional” security situation. According to Mohammed Zarea, Program Director at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the president’s words were like a “green light” for the police to commit more abuse when, instead, injustice and the denial of human dignity are the main threats to Egypt’s national security[15].

In this perspective, the European Parliament has issued various motions (July 2014, January 2015 and March 2016) that have severely criticized the Egyptian regime. They mainly highlighted human rights violations committed by security forces and police, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and forced disappearances. Of particular importance has been the request to suspend any form of security cooperation and arms deals by EU Member States with Egypt and the call for a EU-wide ban on export of any form of security equipment and military aid to Egypt[16]. At the same time, critical reactions have come from the United States. An editorial of the New York Times has focused on the need to rethink US relations with Egypt, as the crackdown on human rights activists and the youth is reaching a tipping point. Also the Washington Post has demanded the Obama administration to stop funding Egypt unconditionally, as repression is neither useful for stabilizing the country, nor for fighting extremism and terrorism[17]. The same vice-president, John Kerry, has officially declared his concern about violations occurring in Egypt, underlining that “restrictions on the space for civil society activity will produce neither stability nor security[18].

The repression of fundamental rights and freedoms will hardly bring stability in the country. On the contrary, arbitrary arrests, torture and forced disappearances would likely contribute in increasing frustration among the youth and provoke public uproars that could bring even more instability in the country. As stated by an analyst at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Egyptian stabilization will not be realized until a political system encompassing all social groups is created[19]. Moreover, terrorist groups such as Daesh could benefit from this state of repression: as explained by Mohamed Soltan, former detainee in Egypt, “the regime is fostering an environment in their prisons that makes them a fertile ground for [extremist] ideology to flourish,” Soltan says. “The brutality and the overwhelming loss of hope is creating a situation which fits [the Islamic State’s] narrative, and they’re using it to try and recruit people and spread their message”[20]. Finally, the same Egyptian history teaches that, after the tough repression under Nasser, radicalism developed and created the ground for terrorist groups to emerge and carry out attacks, the most relevant one the assassination of president Sadat.

In conclusion, the path to stability cannot leave respect of human rights out of consideration, while the political and economic recovery could hardly be realized without the inclusion of young people and all the components of the Egyptian society; at the same time, the prevention of terrorism and extremist ideologies rests on the protection of fundamental freedoms and human dignity, therefore without a significant change of route Egypt stability would be full of obstacles.




[2] Human Rights Watch. All According to a Plan. 2014. Online: 2014/08/12/all-according-plan/raba-massacre-and-mass-killings-protesters-egypt.

[3] Daily News Egypt, Egypt dissolves 169 Muslim brotherhood-affiliated NGOs, 2015, 2015/02/23/egypt-dissolves-169-muslim-brotherhood-affiliated-ngos/; Mada Masr, With latest crackdown, state dissolves 380 NGOs in just two months, 2015,

[4] Daily News Egypt, 50 Fayoum University students arrested: Student groups, 2015, 2015/03/10/50-fayoum-university-students-arrested-student-groups/; Mada Masr, Update: 195 students arrested across Egypt in first 5 days of new semester, 2014,

[5] Mada Masr. Number of judges sent into forced retirement for Brotherhood ties rises to 47, 2016,

[6] Al-Jazeera, Egyptian court sentences 683 people to death, 2014, 2014/04/egyptian-court-sentences-683-people-death-201442875510336199.html; Washington Post, Ex-Egyptian leader Morsi sentenced to death for conspiring in jailbreak, 2015,

[7] Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedom. Taqarir: al-Ikhtifa’ al-qasry fi intizar ansaf al-‘adala (Report: forced disappearances waiting for justice), 2015,; Tahrir News, Hiwaran mahamy al-mukhtafiyn qasryan: rasd 550 hala mundhu agustus al-madi… wa zuhur 200 minha (Dialogue with an activist: 550 forced disappearances monitored from last August… 200 reappeared), 2016,;

El-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, Archive of Oppression: February 2016, 2016,; Ibidem, Archive of oppression: March 2016, 2016,; Ibidem, Archive of oppression: April 2016, 2016,

[8] Ibidem; Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, Aqrab Prison Becoming Mass Grave for Detainees: 90 days of abuses threaten life of Dr. Ahmed Said in Aqrab Prison rights groups say Said’s case exemplifies torture and ill treatment in prisons, 2016,

[9]See Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms’ Facebook page, photos/a.330734387093955.1073741830.328109634023097/552849904882401/?type=3&theater; Association of al-Aqrab Prisoners’ Families Facebok page, ADFAssosiation1/; Yanair, Quwwat al-amin tashalu ahaly mu‘taqali al-‘Aqrab (Security forces smooth families of Aqrab prisoners), 2016,

[10] L. Attalah. A Beast that took a break and came back. MERIP online, Vol. 45, 2015, mer275/beast-took-break-came-back; El-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture. Archive of Oppression: February 2016, 2016,

[11] Ahram online, Egypt amends penal code to stipulate harsher punishments on foreign funding, 2014,

[12] See El-Nadeem Center Facebook page,; Amnesty International. Egypt: Unprecedented Crackdown on NGOs, 2016,; Amnesty International, Comunicato Stampa CS87-2016, 2016.

[13] Egypt Independent, Torture is not systematic: Sisi during Police Academy visit, 2015,

[14] Ahram online, No forced disappearance cases in Egypt: Interior Ministry, 2015, NewsContent/1/64/155955/Egypt/Politics-/No-forced-disappearance-cases-in-EgyptInterior-Mi.aspx.

[15] Daily News Egypt, Police officers prosecuted for rape, torture leading to death, 2015,

[16] EU Parliament. European Parliament resolution on Egypt, notably the case of Giulio Regeni, B8-0338/2016, 2016. Online: NONSGML+MOTION+B8-2016-0338+0+DOC+PDF+V0//EN.

[17] New York Times, Time to rethink U.S. relations with Egypt, 2015, time-to-rethink-us-relationship-with-egypt.html?_r=0; Washington Post, Don’t reward Egypt for torturing innocents, 2016,

[18] US Department of State, Human rights situation in Egypt, 2016, 254845.htm.

[19] Adly, Amr, “Economic Recovery in Egypt Won’t Guarantee Political Stability”, Carnegie Endowment for

International Peace, 2015,

[20] Hussain, Murtaza, “ISIS recruitment thrives in brutal prisons run by US-backed Egypt”, The Intercept, 2015,

Mauro Saccol (2016-2017)

Mauro Saccol holds a PhD in Democracy and Human Rights at the Department of Political Sciences, University of Genoa, Italy. His project focused on the human rights situation during the Mubarak presidency in Egypt, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood theory on human rights and its activities in this field. Moreover, he holds an MA in Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa from the Department of Oriental Studies, University of Bologna, and a BA in Foreign Languages and Literatures from the University of Bologna. He carried out research at the University of Jordan, Amman, during the Fall semester 2014-2015 (Hermes-Mundus scholarship.) Moreover, he carried out fieldwork in Egypt in April-May 2014 while volunteering for AIESEC Cairo University on two projects focused on children’s rights. He is also a Board Member of FIMAM’s (Foro de Investigación sobre el Mundo Árabe-Musulman), a Spanish association of researchers and scholars on the Arab-Islamic world. He has worked as an Italian language teacher for Arabic-speaking students and a cultural linguistic mediator with asylum-seekers in Italy. His main research interests are democracy and human rights in Middle East, human rights in Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and in Europe, Islamic fundamentalism, Arabic literature, terrorism, migrants and refugees.