By William Fisher
Two years ago, with great fanfare, Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, set up a new organization called the Egyptian Supreme Council for Human Rights. The aging dictator named Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, as the Council’s chairman.
The government-backed body was greeted with widespread skepticism from the Egyptian and international human rights community. The Council had no independent authority to investigate allegations of human rights abuses committed by the government. Its role was strictly advisory. And it did not report to the president, rather to a body known as the Shura Council, which is roughly like Britain’s House of Lords.
While many non-governmental human rights organizations characterized the Council as a cosmetic sham and refused to cooperate with it, others were hopeful that the mere creation of such a council by a government with a long and sordid history of human rights abuses represented a dramatic 180-degree turn away from past policies.
Many observers viewed the Council’s creation as a direct result of pressure from the United States, which provides Egypt with some $2 billion a year in military and economic aid. The US had quietly and successfully used its leverage to press the Egyptians to re-try Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American sociology professor and human rights advocate, whose think-tank had been convicted of conspiring to influence the electoral process, using illegal contributions from the European Union. Dr. Ibrahim was sentenced to seven years in prison, but later cleared.
The Council’s birth also came at a time when human rights issues, along with more accountable, more transparent governance, were rapidly being incorporated into the lexicon of Middle East political dialogue. This phenomenon was hastened by the publication of the Arab Development Report. Written by a group of Arab scholars under the aegis of the World Bank, the report exposed a wide array of freedom deficits across the Middle East and North Africa.
So the thinking among the more hopeful Egyptian human rights non-governmental advocates was that perhaps the Mubarak regime had concluded it could no longer navigate the rising tide. And their view appeared to be vindicated when the Council issued its first annual report a year later.
That report gave credence to widespread allegations of torture by Egyptian police and security forces. It called for an end to the state of emergency, which has been in force since 1981, saying it provided a loophole by which the authorities prevented Egyptians from enjoying their right to personal security. It charged that 2,000 people were being detained without charge. It alleged torture of detainees. It said that thousands of members of Islamist groups had been in jail since the 1990s, even after they completed their sentences. It described in detail the deaths in detention of nine Egyptians during the year and called them "regrettable violations of the right to life." It also corroborated reports that the authorities detained large numbers of people in north Sinai, and tortured many of them, after the bombings in Sinai resorts.
And it said that in Egyptian police stations suspects were given electric shocks, hung by their arms or legs from the ceiling or from doors, sprayed with cold water, made to stand naked in cold weather for many hours, or beaten with sticks, belts, electric cables, whips or rifle butts. It reported that it was normal investigative practice to arrest everyone around the scene of a crime and torture them to obtain information.
The report added that it spent the year asking government departments to respond to citizens' complaints, but that the response was patchy: The Interior Ministry, which runs the police force and the prisons, answered only 27 of the 242 requests it received from the council; on torture allegations, it answered only three out of 75.
Perhaps predictably, the government rejected the first draft of the report. But it finally capitulated. So?
Since that report was completed human rights in Egypt are arguably in worse shape than they were before it was written – or the Council was created. The Great God Mubarak caved to US and international pressure to hold the first multi-party presidential elections in the country’s history, then rigged the process so that only a limited number of political parties could participate. He threw his principal opponent, Ayman Nour, in jail for five years on trumped-up charges of forging signatures on petitions to register his party to run.
The subsequent Parliamentary elections were arguably worse. Heavily armed police intimidated prospective voters, closed polling places, and attacked peaceful demonstrators. When judges demanded they be allowed to examine the election results, two were stripped of their judicial immunity and charged. But in spite of widespread abuses, the banned Muslim Brotherhood won a record number of seats in Parliament.
Then there were the terrorist bombings in Sinai, which set off a mass round-up of “suspects” – most of them affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Protest demonstrations were disrupted by police, hundreds were beaten, and thousands arrested – most of them still in jail.
And the country’s 25-year-old Emergency Law – adopted in 1981 after an Islamic extremist assassinated then President Anwar Sadat – has just been extended despite repeated pledges by Mubarak during his presidential campaign to repeal it and enact anti-terrorist legislation in its place.
So what has changed in Egypt is exactly nothing. Journalists, peaceful demonstrators, bloggers, and human rights advocates are still being rounded-up, arrested, and sentenced to prison terms. Or, all too often, not charged with anything, but simply detained indefinitely.
And, during all this upheaval, where has the courageous Egyptian Supreme Council for Human Rights been? A.W.O.L. Silent. Waiting, no doubt, to include these more recent outrages in its next annual report, which will be read by many, but acted on by none.
Meanwhile, the world’s former premiere diplomat has hunkered down while his country’s non-governmental human rights community risks its very existence to bring public attention to the outrageous transgressions of the Mubarak regime. One has to wonder whether the effete Dr. Boutros-Ghali is so hard-up that he is forced to accept even a job that is so demonstrably a sham.
But, these days, organizing government-sponsored human rights organizations appears to be the fig leaf de jour. Other governments in the Middle East and North Africa have done likewise – and with results much like that in Egypt.
Latest to join the pack is Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Human Rights Commission – which the government characterizes as an independent rights watchdog -- came into existence last October, but has just gotten around to naming its chairman. He is Turki Ibn Khaled Al-Sudairi, who previously worked as a state minister and Cabinet member.
The new commission operates under the supervision of the prime minister (read “the king”), and has been directed to "protect human rights and create awareness about them ... in keeping with the provisions of Islamic law." The commission's board will include at least 18 full-time members and six part-time members. The king will name the board members.
Lest we think this new body is about to create a revolution in our close oil ally, Minister Al-Sudairi reassures us there will be no women on the commission’s board of directors. Addressing a group of academics in Riyadh, he said a board member should possess vast experience and knowledge about the rights and problems of the people in various walks of life, as well as a personality suited to the nature of his task.
Which presumably excludes women.
Well, I suppose one has to have a certain sympathy for Minister Al-Sudairi. He has been handed a virtually impossible job. Maybe a little bit like Karen Hughes’s predicament.
The new chief reported that his group has so far received 400 petitions from the public on various alleged rights violations. We will have to wait to see what becomes of these petitions.
Lamenting the negligence of many Muslims in upholding the principles of human rights, the Minister reportedly said, “I have found that 85 percent of the rights outlined by human rights organizations are advocated by Islam.”
But the most recent Human Rights report on Saudi Arabia from the US State Department was a lot less positive. It declared, “ The government's human rights record remained poor overall with continuing serious problems, despite some progress.”
It reported human rights violations including “no right to change the government, infliction of severe pain by judicially sanctioned corporal punishments, beatings and other abuses, arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, denial of fair public trials, exemption from the rule of law for some individuals and lack of judicial independence, political prisoners, infringement of privacy rights, significant restriction of civil liberties -- freedoms of speech and press, assembly, association, and movement, no religious freedom, widespread perception of corruption, lack of government transparency, legal and societal discrimination against women, religious and other minorities, and strict limitations on worker rights. “
And Human Rights Watch added in a memorandum to the Saudi Government, “The absence of legal guarantees is one of the main causes of Saudi Arabia’s serious human rights problems. Without specific legal protections, neither the government nor judges, not to mention ordinary citizens, can know with certainty what is permissible and what is forbidden. As a result, government practices often violate basic rights, the judiciary often acts unfairly, and citizens and residents are unable to seek redress for violations they suffer.”
To cite just a few of hundreds of specific abuses provided by Human Rights Watch:
Last month, secret police arrested a liberal journalist and Al-Qa’ida critic for ‘Destructive Thoughts’. He is still in prison.
Some 126 children are reportedly on Death Row. Saudi Arabia has not publicly committed to ending the execution of juvenile offenders, as recommended by the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child.
A Saudi court orders the eye of an Indian migrant worker to be gouged out.
A Saudi court sentences a high school chemistry teacher to more than three years in prison and 750 lashes for talking to his pupils about his views on a number of current topics, such as Christianity, Judaism and the causes of terrorism.
An Egyptian boy, resident in Dammam, is convicted for a crime committed when he was thirteen years, and sentenced to death.
A court in Riyadh sentences three reformers to lengthy prison terms for circulating a petition calling for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia.
More than 100 men are sentenced to imprisonment and flogging after unfair trials for reported homosexual conduct.
The Saudi government sentences 15 anti-government protestors to flogging.
Minister Al-Sudairi recently pointed out the similarity between the first article of the UN Charter of Human Rights of 1948, which states, “All men are born free,” and a famous statement by Caliph Omar that “You enslave people though they are born free.”
We should all be hopeful that the Minister will keep the words of the Caliph front-and-center. But if past is prologue, we shouldn’t be holding our breath.