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Repression unbound - Egypt under Sisi

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 4/11/2015 David Mepham

In March this year, Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood suggested that Egypt was taking "steps towards a stronger democracy" and that British/Egyptian relations were "in a very positive place". The first claim is absurd in the context of mass repression, while the second speaks volumes about Britain's current approach to foreign policy.
Under the leadership of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt is engaged in an unprecedented crackdown on dissent and opposition, trampling over fundamental freedoms and rights, and entrenching the authoritarian state that so many Egyptians bravely revolted against in 2011. David Cameron - who hosts President al-Sisi in Downing Street this week - should not be allowed to brush these issues aside.
In the months following the coup of July 2013, which removed democratically elected president Mohamed Morsy, and while al-Sisi was defence minister, Egyptian security forces killed some 1,150 protestors in five separate incidents. In the worst of these, on August 14, they crushed a pro-Morsy sit-in at Rab'a al-Adawiya Square in Cairo. Using armoured personnel carriers, bulldozers, ground forces and snipers, police and army personnel attacked the makeshift protest camp and gunned down protestors, killing at least 817 people - perhaps the largest mass killing of protesters on a single day in modern history, worse even than Tiananmen Square. Yet two years on from this massacre, no Egyptian government official or member of the security forces has been charged for the killings.
According to credible local sources, Egyptian security forces detained, charged or sentenced at least 41,000 people between July 2013 and April 2014 in cases connected to the political upheaval, mostly because of their alleged support for or association with the Muslim Brotherhood. In this context, the British government's decision in early 2014 to launch a review into the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood (which has yet to be published) has reinforced the narrative of the Egyptian government that these people are all terrorists and criminals, not a core constituency in Egyptian society. Many of those detained continue to languish in overcrowded and insanitary detention centres, where more than 100 have died for want of proper medical care.
Hundreds of Egyptians have also been sentenced to death, most after unfair mass trials. This includes a death sentence imposed on Morsy and some of his associates as well as the top leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood - their convictions based almost entirely on the 'testimony' of security officials, with no evidence presented to substantiate claims against them. Mass trials have also been used to convict others, notably in February this year when a judge sentenced the activist Ahmed Douma, a women's rights defender Hend al-Nafea, and 228 others to life in prison simply for participating in peaceful protests.
The Egyptian government has intensified its repression of civil society and independent journalism, with many human rights groups - including Human Rights Watch - forced to close their offices in Egypt, and local and international journalists imprisoned.
Egypt is also pursuing an aggressive counter-insurgency campaign in north Sinai. While the Egyptian state faces a dangerous extremist group there which is affiliated with Islamic State, its counter-terrorism operations have been indiscriminate and abusive. Over the past two years in north Sinai, in a bid to create a buffer zone with the Gaza strip, Egypt's military has wiped entire neighbourhoods off the map, displacing thousands of families.
This - not preposterous claims of democratic transition - is the reality of today's Egypt, and it ought to prompt an urgent and far-reaching reassessment of British policy. The very least David Cameron should do during al-Sisi's visit is support an international inquiry into the grave crimes committed by the Egyptian security forces. He should also call publicly for the immediate release of all those unfairly jailed, and urge Egypt to end its abusive counter-terrorism policies in Sinai and elsewhere, which are fuelling, not containing, extremism.
Anything less would be a betrayal of the many Egyptians still struggling to end repression, and those who have lost their lives or their liberty in the pursuit of genuine democracy.

David Mepham is UK director at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter @mephamd

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