Egypt’s human rights move dismissed as ploy to win back US aid

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Christians worship during a church service in a town in central Ethiopia. (Photo: World Watch Monitor, 2016)

Efforts by the Egyptian government to improve its record on human rights are aimed primarily at persuading the US government to reinstate its generous aid package, Coptic activists have said.

Last month Egypt announced it would set up 60 human-rights departments across the country to record complaints from citizens of rights violations.

At least ten people were killed in late December when a terrorist attack on a church in a Cairo suburb was foiled

The move follows a decision by the US in August to deny Egypt US$95.7 million in aid and to delay a further $195 million. According to US officials quoted by Reuters, the decision was taken because of Egypt’s failure to make progress on respecting human rights and democratic norms.

Egypt’s Coptic Christians have long complained that they are discriminated against, both officially by state structures and laws, and unofficially in the workplace and at a social level. Shia Muslims, women, homosexuals, atheists, journalists, government critics and the poor also say their rights are ignored or violated by the state.

The 2018 World Watch List, published by the charity Open Doors, has classified Egypt as the 17th most difficult country in which to live as a Christian, after 128 Egyptian Christians were killed in religiously motivated attacks last year.

A new report into Egypt’s human-rights record, written by a government minister and distributed at a conference hosted by the State Information Service last month, announced the establishment of a committee to develop a national human-rights strategy. Updates on Egypt’s human-rights record will be published annually, the news website Al-Monitor reported.

The report made little mention of rights abuses suffered by Copts, except to mention the promulgation of a 2016 law on the construction and restoration of churches. Although the law aims to regulate church-building in a way that does not antagonise Christians’ Muslim neighbours, critics say it maintains restrictions over the construction and renovation of churches and discriminates against Copts.

At the December conference, the Minister of the House of Representatives Affairs, Omar Marwan, who wrote the report, dismissed findings by US-based Human Rights Watch of the systematic use of torture in Egypt. “There are no forced disappearances or detentions in Egypt. People are detained only by a judicial decision,” he said. Users in Egypt found access to the HRW website blocked the day after its report was published in September.

‘Lost rights’

Copts have long complained that they are vulnerable to imprisonment on false charges, kidnappings for ransom, or in the case of young women, abducted for forced conversions and forced marriages. One Christian resident in Minya said: “In some cases the police connive with the kidnappers and share ransoms with them.”

He added that Coptic Christians’ rights “are lost” because they were often still unable to build or repair churches, and when permissions were granted, Muslim neighbours could still attack Copts or their properties without fear of prosecution.

Coptic activists interviewed by World Watch Monitor had little expectation that the flurry of activity would lead to any reduction to the rights violations experienced by Egyptian Christians.

Pope Tawadros is careful to publicly praise President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, despite protestations from Copts wearied by the threat of unpunished violence. Tawadros’ predecessor criticised then-President Sadat and was placed under house arrest

A senior Coptic human-rights activist in Minya, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said the government was trying to create an impression that it is concerned about human rights, rather than trying to address the violations taking place. “The Egyptian government wants to show to the US Congress and the international media that there aren’t any human-rights abuses in Egypt – because Congress blocked part of the American aid allocation last August and then the Human Rights Watch report mentioned a lot of human rights abuses,” the activist said.

A second Coptic human-rights activist in the eastern city of Sohag, who also asked not to be named, said the human-rights situation in Egypt was “deteriorating” for all Egyptians, and was marked by “indiscriminate detentions and disproportionate sentencing”. The government had so far produced “words without action”, while giving police and national security officers “a green light to use torture with impunity”, the activist said.

According to the Al-Monitor website, the committee announced at last month’s conference will complement “the state’s efforts to promote human rights, while adhering to the provisions of the Egyptian Constitution”. The constitution upholds freedom of religion, while naming Islam as the state religion. The government minister’s report distributed at the conference argued that human rights were not absolute, and that their implementation varied from one society to another, according to customs and traditions.

Islamists blamed

The Egyptian Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee is preparing a report to respond to allegations in a bipartisan resolution in the US Congress last month of chronic discrimination against Egypt’s Copts, the committee’s deputy chairman Tarek el-Khouli said last week.

In a statement the committee blamed violence against Copts on the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt Today reported. The Coptic Church also issued a statement, praising the church-building record of the government, on which it depends for its protection.

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