Human Rights Study Project Reports on Egypt

May 4, 2010

Though it receives nearly $2 billion in aid from the United States each year, Egypt still faces a host of human rights issues, students in the Human Rights Study Project reported April 27.

Human Rights Study Project
The Human Rights Study Project met with former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali during their trip to Egypt. Pictured from left to right are Kristen Voorhees, Jennifer Nelson, Patrick Mott, Ghali (now president of the National Council for Human Rights), Daniel Perell, Lauren Willard, Robert Sherman and Emily Higgs.

"Like its neighbors, Egypt faces significant human rights challenges, ranging from the thousands of Africans fleeing poverty and war to enter Egypt every day, to ensuring its policies comport both with international human rights standards and with Muslim law," said HRSP President Daniel Perell.

The students who participate in HRSP, called Cowan Fellows, journey abroad to study human rights issues in foreign countries. Now in its eighth year, HRSP has sent past members to Cuba, China, Sierra Leone, Syria and Lebanon, India, Uganda and Cambodia. The final results of their work are compiled into research papers that may be submitted for publication.

This year's team traveled to Egypt for three weeks in late December and January, where they studied issues ranging from the right to water to corruption. With a population of 80 million people, Egypt is the largest Arab nation. In some ways, the fellows said, Egypt serves as a model for other Arab countries, which makes examining how they handle human rights all the more important.

Second-year law student Jennifer Nelson studied freedom of expression on the Internet.

"Blogging and political activism in Egypt have become nearly synonymous," Nelson said, with bloggers frequently being prosecuted for criticizing the government, military or religion."Egypt is one of the only countries in the world that still allows criminal penalties for published material."

Many of the country's domestic laws that protect human rights like freedom of expression have not been enforced since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek declared the country to be in a state of emergency in 1981. The ongoing state of emergency gives Mubarek and the government broad powers.

Egypt is a party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but those treaties provide exceptions for national security and public order.

"These exceptions are broad and allow countries much leeway in what speech can be regulated," Nelson said.

For example, anyone who is arrested can be detained for up to a month without charges, and can then be rearrested upon release. Several bloggers have spent months in this loop, she said.

Despite the challenges bloggers face, Nelson said those she met with are determined to keep writing.

"Egyptian youth are extremely passionate about their speech," she said, and they see the Internet as offering hope that change can happen.

Though Egypt is known as a country where the United States allegedly sent suspected terrorists for interrogation involving torture, the more common and most discussed form of torture in the country is conducted by local police. Second-year law student Rob Sherman found that such torture happens on a regular basis, is underreported and almost never prosecuted.

Laws in the country appear to prohibit torture, but their wording is careful to pronounce torture illegal in eliciting confessions.

"If you're not formally accused and I torture you and you say something, this law doesn't apply. If I torture you for any purpose other than confession, this law doesn't apply," Sherman said.

Sherman said there was a lull in such torture from 2000 to 2003, possibly because the Supreme Constitutional Court became more active in enforcing human rights and President George W. Bush's administration and the international media cast light on the issue. But Mubarek got control of the court through the power to appoint judges.

"The court's been a lot more silent," since then, Sherman said. Still, now you can now read about police torture cases in newspapers."There is incremental change."

Kristen Voorhees, Emily Higgs, Lauren Willard, Jennifer Nelson, Patrick Mott and Robert Sherman enjoy fine Cairo cuisine their last night together in Egypt.

Egypt has been a party to the U.N. Convention Against Corruption since 1984, but the convention has little teeth, said third-year law student Pat Mott. The country is plagued by corruption, from major building projects that go nowhere to the widespread practice of bribing public officials for services, Mott said.

Egypt recently led an effort by a group of countries to block a United Nations measure to establish an external review of adherence to the Convention Against Corruption. Furthermore, as the Bush Administration left office, Mubarek rolled back some reforms. In contrast with his predecessor, President Barack Obama has taken a more realistic approach, Mott said, cutting democracy-in-Egypt programs by half.

"As long as we keep on doing that we shouldn't expect to see too much in the way of anticorruption efforts," Mott said.

With desert comprising 94 percent of its land, access to unpolluted water is a problem many Egyptians face, second-year law student Kristen Voorhees found.

Though the right to water is protected under the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Egyptians are also drawing 30 percent more water out of the Nile than the river can sustainably provide. Factories that dump waste into the river are required by law to clean what they pollute, but failure to enforce environmental regulations has allowed the polluted water to corrode famous Egyptian temples along the Nile.

"Any one of these problems could cost millions of dollars to … fix," Voorhees said. The United States has invested $3.4 billion in Egypt to try to improve the system, but problems are still rife, she said.

Water is also distributed inequitably: 65 percent of rural villages are disconnected from a treated water source and many Egyptian farmers drink directly from the irrigation canals. Tourist areas, however, offer safe water.

Voorhees saw some hope on the horizon through a new plan to manage water called integrated water resource management, which requires local water user associations to coordinate between water-use sectors.

"The government is empowering the farmers to help themselves," she said.

Second-year law student Lauren Willard examined the practice of underage marriage in Egypt.

"Child marriage has a long cultural tradition; however, it really is a human rights violation," she said.

In an area outside of Cairo, summer, or seasonal, marriages - in which older, wealthy men purchase a bride for as little as a week or a few months - are popular.

"It's a form of prostitution," Willard said."Egypt must have a support system in place to care for victims of this practice."

Two entities within the government, the Ministry for Family and Population and the National Coordination Committee on Human Trafficking, have been involved in legislation to stop child trafficking. New laws increased the legal age for marriage from 16 to 18, and allow the government to prosecute those notaries who make false birth certificates or marriage certificates. Willard also spoke to nonprofits trying to address the seasonal marriage problem.

"There's still a lot of work to be done," Willard said."It's a form of trafficking in children and it violates these young girls' human rights and it really should be stopped."

Daniel Perell meets with members of the Bahai community outside of Cairo.

Third-year law student Daniel Perell examined the rights of Bahai residents of Egypt. People of the Bahai faith prospered in Egypt until 1960, when the government dissolved the religion's institutions in the nation.

Bahais were not allowed to carry national identification cards, which give citizens access to health care, the right to marriage and even bank accounts. Only three religions were allowed to be listed on the card - Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In 2006, the Bahais took the matter to the courts, which ruled in 2009 that citizens could have a dash on the card where the religious affiliation was listed.

"This ruling in favor of the Bahais will not only permit them to start their lives, but it will also contribute to the betterment of Egypt as a whole," Perell said.

Egypt has a 60-year history outlining the rights of associations like nongovernmental groups, but in practice it tightly controls such organizations, said second-year law student Emily Higgs.

The vast majority of NGOs are consciously apolitical, focusing on issues like the environment, education and welfare, so "are generally left to operate without substantial government interference."

Laws create barriers for NGOs to form, hold activities and advocate, she said. Penalties for those who violate government control range from closing NGO-run conferences to shutting down the organization and prosecuting members.

"One area of hope is the judicial system," Higgs said.

When the government shut down the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services, the courts reopened it.

In response to government threats of closure, most NGOs comply with government demands for change. Those defying government demands have found that networking is their ally, Higgs learned.

"The successful ones I met with highlighted the importance of their relationships with international donors and other domestic NGOs that can support them and protect them in some instances of being bullied by the government," Higgs said.

A new proposed law has concerned many following the right to association in Egypt. It will require all NGOs to register with the General Federation of NGOs and Foundations, which likely will be another layer of bureaucracy through which to shut down NGOs the government disagrees with. Higgs met with the leader of the federation, who said that NGOs will need to show they are effective and adding value to society in order to avoid being shut down.

The reaction of NGOs to the proposed law was swift and vocal. Some called it fascism.

"The outlook for civil society in Egypt is quite dark," Higgs said.

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