As we near the 10-year anniversary of the revolution of 2011, the great hopes of reform that were carried by Egyptians almost a decade ago have been destroyed by years of brutal dictatorship.
The latest crackdown against the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) is the most recent example of how wrong things have gone for human rights in Egypt, despite courageous work done by human rights defenders in untenable conditions. Patrick Zaki, a researcher at EIPR, remains in pre-trial detention on baseless charges since February, when he was disappeared and reportedly tortured. In November, three senior staff members of EIPR were arrested and charged with terrorism, seemingly in retaliation for a meeting held with Western diplomats. After much international intervention, and even pleas by celebrities, they were released on bail on 3 December, but their assets have been frozen, and the charges remain.
Bar the Hollywood intervention, this story is sadly fairly routine for human rights defenders in Egypt, where its once vibrant civil society was decimated by a brutal repression. Thousands are arbitrarily detained in pre-trial detention, often lasting for years, prisons are overcrowded and unsanitary, and torture is systematic. Doctors are jailed for criticising the handling of the pandemic, women are imprisoned for posting TikTok videos, and those who come forward to defend victims of rape are jailed.
Meanwhile, the EU and its Member States (with the notable exception of the European Parliament), are still trying to appease their Egyptian counterpart. The French President spelled it out clearly on 7 December: “I will not condition matters of defence and economic cooperation on these disagreements” before awarding the Légion d’Honneur to President Sisi.
Selling a French fighter jet is now worth more than a few thousand people rotting or dying in jail.
The EU is fuelling a critical instability generated by the absence of space for expression and dissent: this is a disaster waiting to happen. It should abandon its purely declarative human rights policy and act on its desire to foster human rights in Egypt, as NGOs have recommended for a long time. Otherwise, it will repeat the mistakes of pre-2011 and face a sobering wake-up call.