The exceptional penetration of the Egypt’s security apparatus into the state administration is one of the most significant outcomes of the 1952 revolution. Egypt’s transformation from a monarchy to a republic after the revolution was accompanied by another, more important change: the elimination of the relative independence of the legislative and judicial branches of government under the rising control of the executive. This change paved the way for a system of autocratic rule. Under the republican system of the Free Officers’ regime, the president enjoyed more power than the king under the monarchy.
The July revolution did not only overturn the liberal constitution of 1923; subsequent constitutions entrenched the hegemony of the executive power. The president enjoys absolute authority and is unaccountable to anyone. This central fact has not changed, despite the adoption of several constitutions and the passing of many amendments since the revolution.
Main sources of Egypt’s human rights abuse system
This structural flaw in the edifice of governance since July 1952 is not only the primary source of assaults on human rights but also the source of unaccountability for violators, a direct result of a weak legislature and judiciary. In this context, it was impossible to hold accountable the senior officials responsible for the catastrophe of June 1967.
The second source of human rights violations in Egypt is the Emergency Law, which in effect has been virtually uninterrupted from 1952 until the present. The Emergency Law gives the security apparatus exceptional powers to arrest, detain, and search citizens and restrict public liberties, particularly the freedoms of expression and assembly. The law enables authorities to refer civilians to emergency and military courts which do not meet the minimum standards of justice.
The ongoing state of emergency in Egypt has led UN experts to believe that the Emergency Law is Egypt’s de facto constitution. Under the state of emergency, the police has powers far beyond maintaining security and the rule of law. Its role in every area of social life has grown, giving it an authority that is unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history.
The third source is the twisted relationship between the constitution and legislation. Legal theory views the constitution as a reference point for making laws. But the opposite is true in Egypt, particularly in the area of public liberties and human rights, where the power of the law stands above the principles of the constitution.
The most recent constitution, drafted in 1971 under Former President Anwar Sadat’s rule, is the best of the military regime’s constitutions, particularly in its third section upholding civil rights and public liberties. Yet many of the articles in this section are undermined by laws which erode or restrict the rights guaranteed by the constitution.The majority of laws relating to liberties violate to varying degrees the spirit of the constitution and human rights standards.
The fourth source is the executive authority’s systematic assault on the independence of the judiciary, which began in the first weeks of the 1952 revolution. These encroachments include the establishment of parallel, exceptional courts, control over the Office of the General Attorney, daily government interference in the affairs of the judiciary, and a lack of respect for court ruling, particularly those that contradict the executive’s wishes. This state of affairs has weakened legal accountability for human rights violations, which in turn has encouraged such breaches.
The fifth source is the lack of parliamentary oversight. The parliament cannot hold the president to account; instead it is a tool for granting him absolute and unchecked prerogatives. The parliament cannot seriously monitor cabinet ministers, but the president can dissolve parliament. The executive has the tools–legal and illegal–to control parliamentary elections, ensuring that opposition MPs never have more than an ineffectual third of all seats. In terms of legislation, the parliament enforces the executive’s will, passing legislation that has already been cooked up in the government “kitchen”.
The sixth source is the weakness of civil society. The first months after the 1952 revolution witnessed an attack on all civil society institutions: political parties were banned, while trade unions, NGOs, and the press were all placed under heavy restrictions. Some of these institutions eventually became incorporated into the state. This pattern did not change much under Sadat, as legal and security assaults on civil society remained common.
The seventh source is the security creed adopted after the revolution, which views others who are politically, religiously, or even ethnically different–Christians, Bahais, Leftists, Nubians–with suspicion. This has inevitably lead to the erosion of citizenship rights for many.
The eighth source is the spread of a conservative religious discourse that consecrates interpretations of Islam that are inconsistent with human rights, including prescriptions of absolute obedience to the ruler. This discourse is adopted by the state’s official religious establishments, al-Azhar and Dar el-Ifta, and the government supports it in the face of alternative discourses that support human rights principles.
Human Rights and Regime Preservation
Systematic human rights violations in Egypt help secure the continuity of the 1952 regime–that is, they serve to further entrench individual rule, the hegemony of the executive authority, and the lack of independence for the legislative and judicial authorities, and they keep civil society weak and unable to effect positive change.
At the same time, the regime uses legislative and media tools and to preserve these central parameters of authority in the midst of changing circumstances. It always ensures that the space it allows for political critique is kept below the threshold that encourages broader public participation. The regime only respects human rights when they do not threaten the stability of the existing system.
When legislative tools and the media fail to the silence political opponents, the task is left to the security establishment who employ harsher methods like imprisonment and torture.
Victims of human rights abuses also include ordinary citizens who are not engaged in politics. Criminal suspects, detainees, wanted persons, and sometimes even their families have been tortured with the objective of extracting confessions or sometimes without any clear justification at all. Once again, this is a consequence of the unchecked power of the security apparatus whose members are increasingly counted among the governing elite.
Egypt’s poor human rights record since 1952 is not the result of individual misconduct, but rather institutional policies. Making any substantive improvements require serious reforms to the structure of the regime that has been in place since July 1952.
*This article consists of revised excerpts from the author’s chapter in Islam and Human Rights,edited by Hatem Elliesie. It is the second in a two-part series on political freedom and human rights in Egypt since the 1952 revolution. To read the first part click here.
Bahey el-din Hassan is the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.