Egypt has been sharply criticized by international organizations such as Amnesty International (AI) and HRW for its poor state of human rights before, during and after the 2011 revolution. Protestors demanded the overthrow of Mubarak for grievances related to police brutality, state of emergency laws, lack of free elections, freedom of speech and corruption. Many of the human rights abuses stemmed from Egypt’s state of emergency laws. The laws gave the government and security services the authority to censor the media, arrest and detain anyone deemed a threat to state security, ban demonstrations and try civilians in military courts.
Human rights organizations and Egyptian citizens accused the Egyptian government of responding to the country’s revolutionary protests with the imprisonment of activists without trials and illegal detentions. Moreover, human rights organizations estimate that at least 840 people were killed and more than 6,000 were injured during the protests.
Even before the revolution began, there were numerous accounts of police brutality. The death of Khaled Mohamed Saeed, who died under disputed circumstances on June 6, 2010, sparked widespread protests across the country. Saeed reportedly released a video of police in possession of illicit drugs obtained in a drug deal. Though the police claimed Saeed died of asphyxiation from swallowing a bag filled with marijuana, numerous witnesses claim he was beaten to death by police. Saeed’s death highlighted the frustrations that many Egyptians felt regarding corruption, repression and the use of the emergency laws.
Social media played an active role in the planning and organizing of the demonstrations. JURIST Forum Guest Columnist Kevin Govern commented on this phenomenon:
Since January , these protests have challenged the legitimacy of leaders in the Middle East and North Africa. US allies and adversaries have experienced intense public unrest challenging their rule and legal systems. That has taken place due to a twenty-first century manifesto of small changes, enabled by technology, to mobilize those nations’ youth against dictatorial regimes. This was not entirely anticipated.
In response to the rapidly growing social media movement and in an attempt to control the increasingly numerous protests, Mubarak ordered internet and mobile phone services shut down. In May 2011, an Egyptian court fined Mubarak $90 million for this act of repression.
Though the majority of protesters advocated peaceful means of protesting, both sides of the conflict contributed to violence. In addition to reports of protesters burning police posts, there were also eyewitness accounts of looting and vigilante groups. To control the demonstrations, police used rubber-coated bullets, water cannons and tear gas manufactured in the US, which further strained international relations.
On Feburary 1, 2011, just days after the beginning of the protests, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay voiced concerns over the casualties and injuries that resulted from the protests, citing Article 21 of the of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
The authorities have a clear responsibility to protect civilians, including their right to life, and to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. People must not be arbitrarily detained, simply for protesting or for expressing their political opinions — however unwelcome those opinions may be to those in power.
Later that week, Pillay called for the release of detained lawyers, journalists and human rights activists. Within weeks following the detentions of journalists and activists, HRW released a report asserting that the Egyptian military was torturing and abusing improperly detained protesters. Soon after, AI released a similar report, asserting new evidence that the SMC had been detaining and torturing protesters.
On June 2, 2012, an Egyptian court found Mubarak guilty of complicity in killing protesters during the protests and sentenced him to life in prison. The court also found former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli guilty of the same charge and sentenced him to a term of life imprisonment. Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal, along with six security officials, were acquitted of charges of corruption. In addition, nearly 200 police officers and other government officials were charged in connection with the deaths of at least 846 protesters, though many have since been acquitted.
On January 16, 2012, HRW called on Egypt’s newly elected parliament to pursue an agenda to reform nine areas of Egyptian law that impede freedom and restrict rights. In the report, HRW said:
Over the past year, Egyptians have experienced many of the same human rights abuses that characterized Mubarak’s police state. Under the leadership of the SCAF, excessive use of force, torture, attacks on peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrests of peaceful protesters, bloggers, and journalists have become commonplace and illustrate how little has changed. Ending these abuses will only occur when there is political will to break with the past and truly reform the country’s oppressive machinery.
Although Egypt’s state of emergency officially ended on May 31, 2012, individuals who had already been sentenced or detained under the less-restrictive requirements of the emergency law would not be released, and trials in Egypt’s Emergency State Security Court (ESSC) were permitted to continue.
Despite Egypt’s transition, controversy regarding the state of human rights continues. After the peaceful election of President Morsi and the end of the emergency laws, the Egyptian military continues to wield broad powers that allow the military to arrest civilians for non-military offenses. JURIST Forum Guest Columnist Chibli Mallat discussed the ongoing challenges, arguing:
After enjoying brief universal popularity when they finally decided to give up on Mubarak, SCAF turned itself, with no popular mandate and no active role in the revolution, into a dictatorship. Military trials of freedom fighters, including women subjected to vile humiliations, ad hoc constitutional declarations issued with no consultation, open support for pre-revolutionary Mubarak cronies like Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri, and wanton killings of nonviolent demonstrators on several occasions — the list of offenses is long. It is time to retire SCAF from the political scene, and it might be useful for the revolution to start considering bringing some of them to trial.
On July 5, 2012, President Morsi issued a decree appointing a fact-finding committee to investigate the deaths of protesters during the demonstrations. On December 26, 2012, President Morsi signed Egypt’s new constitution into law.