CIVICUS interview with Amal Elmohandes, Director of the Women Human Rights Defenders Program at Nasra for Feminist Studies

Amal ElmohandesIn light of the ongoing threats faced by civil society activists, journalists and ordinary citizens in Egypt from state and non-state actors, CIVICUS interviews Amal Elmohandes, Director of the Women Human Rights Defenders Program at Nasra for Feminist Studies, to get a better understanding on the current situation.

1) What is the current state of human rights and particularly Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) in Egypt?

The current human rights situation in Egypt is pretty dismal. However, violations targeting WHRDs and women in the public space have been systematic and uniform throughout the different governments in the past three and a half years. These atrocities have been prevalent during the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), during President Mohammad Morsi’s tenure, and during the reign of the interim government that preceded the election of the new Egyptian president in May 2014. Sexual violence has been carried out by both state and non-state actors, including threats of rape, sexual assault and physical beating. In December 2013 a case of oral rape was well documented and other cases of sexual assaults and gang rapes took place in Tahrir Square and its vicinity. 3 cases of sexual assault were reported in June 2012, 19 in November 2012 and 24 in January 2013.  Between 28 June and 7 July 2013 186 cases of sexual violence against women were reported and 3 cases documented on 25 January 2014.  One of these was broadcast live on television.  In addition, tens of mob-sexual assaults and gang rapes took place during the June 3-8 celebrations marking the election of Egypt’s new president.

Nazra for Feminist Studies, and other feminist organizations and groups have been calling for thorough investigations into all crimes of sexual violence that target women in the public space. A set of recommendations were made to the National Independent Fact Finding Committee, to investigate incidents related to June 30, 2014. The recommendations called for the setting up of a sub-committee specialized in investigating mob-sexual assaults and gang rapes. Feminist groups and organizations have been calling for the design and implementation of a holistic national strategy to combat sexual violence against women, including the ministries of Health, Justice, Education, restructuring of the Ministry of Interior, and the Forensic Medicine Authority. Moreover, women’s basic right to bodily integrity is compromised on a daily basis, due to the widespread impunity and the social epidemic of sexual violence.

Furthermore, the Protest and Public Assembly Law has been used to incarcerate several HRDs and WHRDs. Most recently on 20 May 2014, a court in Alexandra upheld the two-year prison sentence of WHRD Mahienour ElMasry who is currently at Damanhour Women’s Prison in Alexandria governorate.  The sentencing included a fine of 50,000 Egyptian Pounds (approximately US $ 6980).  She was arrested and charged with organising an unauthorised protest on 2 December 2013.  The initial verdict was passed in January 2013 and an appeal lodged in February. The sentencing of Mahienour is reminiscent of the judicial persecution, intimidation and constant threats faced by human rights defenders, civil society activists and journalists in Egypt as the authorities impose restrictive laws, carry out physical assaults and judicial persecution to silence them.  Sadly, these vicious acts usually go on punished as the perpetrators are not held accountable for their actions and they repeat their actions because of the impunity they seem to benefit from. 

2) What has been the response from the government and military to protests calling for reforms and what effect does this have on freedom of assembly and association in Egypt?

As mentioned earlier, almost all demonstrations are dispersed and mass arrests are made using the Protest and General Assembly law referred to above.  For example during a protest against the use of military trials in civilian cases held in front of the Shura (Consultative Council) on 26 November 2013, almost 50 protesters were arrested, and 17 WHRDs were sexually assaulted, beaten at the police station and were dumped in the middle of the desert. Furthermore, minimal response has been made regarding calls for revising the Protest and Public Assembly Law in addition to the demands to design and implement a national strategy to combat violence against women.

Even though an amendment to the Egyptian Penal Code was done on 5 June 2014, they do not adequately address violations against citizens. For example Article 306 (a) was amended and Article 306 b (ibid) was introduced to the Penal Code. These amendments now define sexual harassment but cannot be used effectively to combat sexual violence, which includes rape and sexual assault. The current Egyptian penal code does not include a comprehensive definition for rape, to include rape with fingers, sharp objects, anal and oral rape, nor does it include a clear definition for sexual assault.  Rather, these crimes are referred to as “indecent violations”, which reinforce the stigma of crimes of sexual violence as crimes related to “virtue”, negating their characteristics and implications as crimes of violence and torture.  The often violent response from the authorities to peaceful protests is an affront to the freedom of peaceful assembly and association in Egypt.

3) The government is planning to introduce systems to survey activities of citizens on social media. How will this affect freedom of expression in Egypt?

It is important to note that plans to monitor activities of citizens are not new.  The government and the security sector in particular have been involved in surveillance of activities and behaviour of citizens at least from 2008.  The authorities have in the past monitored computers of citizens, hacked personal accounts and conversations including those done using mobile phones. Since 2008 the government used several systems and tools to carry out surveillance of private content on the web including on email, chats and on laptops.  What is different is that the new plans will involve more sophisticated methods to monitor the online activities of citizens and conversations and messages exchanged on mobile phones. These tactics will be extended to target dissenters and those who criticise the actions of the authorities.  Such actions by the government will inevitably lead to self-censorship in certain cases and will usher a significant and widespread assault on freedom of expression and on the privacy of citizens. 

4) Are there are any specific campaigns/actions by civil society in Egypt which call on the authorities to address these violations and what can international civil society organisations do to support Egyptian civil society?

Civil society in Egypt has issued several statements at the local and international levels, calling on authorities to review the Protest and Public Assembly Law. There have also been calls from civil society for the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those detained under this law.  We also call on international civil society organizations to continue exerting pressure  for the aforementioned demands to be achieved.