Conflict & Justice

5 human rights issues Egypt must address


Egyptian protesters wave their national flags in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Over the past year there has been little movement on human rights issues such as religious tolerance and women's rights.



The history books will write about Tahrir Square and say a lot of things, including the equality and camaraderie of the people who stayed there to fight a tyrant and take back their country. Men and women marched side by side together, Muslims and Christians protected each other at prayer, and the revolution operated through a democratic decision-making apparatus. 

But a year later, instead of inspiring pictures on the front pages and tweets about the success of the movement, the people can talk of nothing but what the future holds for all the things lost after the fall of the government. Civil liberties are under attack as the country prepares to elect its first president in three decades, and it seems no one is immune from oppression in the new Egypt. 

Here are the top five human rights issues experts say the new Egypt must focus on (in no particular order).

Women's rights

Arguably the biggest issue facing Egypt is the divide between the newly energized women and the men who are telling them to go home. Though women led the revolution in Tahrir, now they're being asked to stand down and return to their lives. In addition, the sexual assaults that plagued the square (and Egyptian society) as well as the "virginity tests" administered by the army after the square was cleared haven't been addressed by the provisional government, and have continued. 

“Women and girls must be able to express their views on the future of Egypt and protest against the government without being detained, tortured, or subjected to profoundly degrading and discriminatory treatment,” said Amnesty International in a press release last year. 

According to a recent article in RT, "Women say they would be better off under the rule of Mubarak since rights are being taken away, such as the right to divorce, instead of more being given. Parliament is also discussing proposals to reduce the marriage age for a girl to 14 and a custody law that will give children over eight to fathers."

More from GlobalPost: Female protesters allege assault by Egyptian military

This is particularly concerning because of the very significant role women played in the revolution. And even though women are still speaking out about getting pushed to the sidelines, few men are listening and the new parliament hasn't responded to requests from the international community to speak out on the issue.

In addition, the military government abolished the quota for women in parliament, a provision enacted by former president Mubarak. Only nine women were elected to the new parliament. 

"The biggest challenge facing women is how they see themselves and their role in the political, economic, and social changes going on around them," said Dalia Ziada, who ran for a seat in parliament and lost, in a report from CNN on women's role in the uprising. "The spring cannot come without flowers. And women are the flowers of the Arab Spring, but if they do not appreciate their own value and societies fail to include them in democratic transformation, the end will not be nice."

Religious freedoms

Christians and Jews don't have it so easy in Egypt, but during the revolution everyone banded together toward a common goal — a free country. Christians would hold hands around circles of praying Muslims in the square to protect them from attack, and vice versa. But that was in Tahrir. Post-revolution, Egypt's largest religious minority, Coptic Christians, fear for their future, even as the formerly outlawed Muslim Brotherhood celebrates its triumphant return to the government — and possibly the presidency.

"Despite the euphoria following the revolution, fissures remain between fundamentalist and moderate Muslims, and between Muslims and Christians," wrote Ellen Knickmeyer for the Pulitzer Center.

More from GlobalPost: Christians in Egypt: A storm within the storm

Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population, and have faced persecution for years, but renewed anti-Christian attitudes have resulted in even more severe bans on repairing and building churches and more violence than before the fall of Mubarak's government.

Moderate Muslim think tank The Gatestone Institute documented a significant rise in violence against Christians in Egypt in April (including an incident in which nuns were held hostage at swordpoint for hours) and has called 2012 "Year of Dhimmitude," referring to the word for appeasement to Islam. 

"Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the return of dhimmitude for Copts as when the Egyptian government itself—as opposed to 'radicals' or 'mobs'—openly treats Christians as second-class citizens," wrote Raymond Ibrahim for Gatestone.

Gay rights

Actor Omar Sharif Jr. made a shocking admission when he came out as gay (and half-Jewish) in a letter printed in the Advocate. "I have a voice, and with it comes a responsibility to share it during this time of social and political change, no matter the risks," he wrote, describing his nervousness about the pitfalls the new country is facing. 

"More than a year into the revolution, Egypt’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has stepped back out of the public eye and retreated into the shadows once again," reported GlobalPost's Michael Luongo. "Their high hopes for a more open, accepting society have been put on hold as the ruling military continues its firm grip on power and socially liberal revolutionaries have largely failed to secure positions in the legislature."

Read more from GlobalPost: LGBT rights window closing in Egypt

No matter the outcome of the upcoming run-off election, LGBT Egyptians fear a future worse than the former regime. The Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative Muslim party represented by candidate Mohamed Morsi, is pretty cut-and-dry about intolerance towards homosexuality, and opponent Ahmed Shafiq, a former prime minister under Mubarak would likely not undo the former president's policies. 

"For LGBT, there are no any expectations of hope at all. On the contrary, they will be more suppressed, especially if an Islamic president wins in the end, which has a high probability of winning against someone from the old regime," said an anonymous Egyptian interviewee in an article about the future of Egypt's LGBT rights issues in Gay Star News.

Labor rights

Unemployment is estimated at close to 12 percent in Egypt, but some say that number could be twice as high. Nearly 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. There are few jobs available, young people find they have a hard time finding employment in their skill set, and one of the big losses of the revolution was the labor movement, which hasn't gotten nearly as much attention as some other issues, despite the deep roots labor had in the beginnings of the Jan. 25 movement. 

For the past year, the trade unions in Egypt have been drafting one decree after another, but to no avail — the military government banned strikes and labor meetings in March 2011, in a provision in accordance with the on-going state of emergency the country has been in for 31 years. Although the state of emergency law lapsed last week, the military has said it will uphold its "duty" until the new president takes office.

The up-and-coming generation has more degrees than any before it, but the political turbulence has left the government unable to create jobs for educated young people needing to work, and it doesn't look like this is high on the list of priorities. 

More from GlobalPost: Egypt's labor movement finds its own strength

A recent article in The Nation about Egypt being at war with itself internally describes the dire situation, and it's no surprise jobs for grads is at the bottom of the heap when it comes to rebuilding. 

"The economy, which tumbled amid the uncertainty of Mubarak’s overthrow, has yet to achieve meaningful signs of recovery. The nation’s infrastructure is failing and there is no money, let alone a master plan, to rebuild it. The rate of tourist arrivals, the country’s most important source of hard currency, is at rock bottom, and the threat of a currency devaluation is keeping foreign investors at bay. Subsidies, some of them legacies of the Nasser era, are wasteful and biased toward industry at the expense of public goods and services. Banks choke on discarded government debt, even as small to midsize businesses—the backbone of the economy—are starved of capital."


As I wrote last week, a number of foreign NGOs are being investigated and indicted for operating without licenses and those involved are facing sham trials and jail time, such as Freedom House's Sherif Mansour. But it's not just foreign groups under attack by Egypt's justice system. 

Parliament recently added amendments to the Code of Military Justice that would continue military trials for civilians, effectively curtailing a just trial system for activists or those detained while protesting. 

According to Human Rights Watch, in 2011, 12,000 civilians (including children) were illegally tried via military tribunal, and 300 more since May, despite international human rights law clearly stating the illegality of such actions. 

"Military courts in Egypt do not meet the requirements of independence since judges are subject to the orders of their superior military officers," said a report by HRW on recommendations for Egypt's future. "Human rights lawyers representing defendants before military courts have on several occasions been able to informally obtain information about what ruling the military judge plans to issue before the trial has even started, especially in the case of the arrest of political activists."

More from GlobalPost: Military trials threaten Egypt democracy

With the military tribunal justice system comes the military's evidence-gathering tactics: torture. Continuing the practices of the last year of military rule, arrested dissidents and activists are routinely subjected to beatings, electric shocks, and blindfolded interrogations.

“It’s shocking that this elected parliament has failed to take the basic step of protecting Egyptian civilians against an inherently unfair military justice system,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Parliament’s failure to ban a major abuse of the military government betrays campaign promises to deliver justice to all Egyptians.”

For more on GlobalPost's continuing Egypt coverage, check out our Special Report "Egypt Votes."