Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt: "Cosmetic changes are not enough to meet the Egyptian people's demands for democracy and human rights"

Source: Human Rights Watch

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's speech to the nation on February 10, 2011, failed to address the human rights crisis fuelling the popular protests, Human Rights Watch said today. Egypt's international partners, including the United States and European Union members, should make clear that continued assistance to Egypt's security forces depends on immediate progress towards full respect for human rights and a democratic transition.

In a televised address to the nation on February 10, Mubarak suggested he is delegating some unspecified powers to the vice president but did not announce any changes that would enable a genuine democratic transition. He referred vaguely to possible reforms to several repressive articles of the constitution, including sections that affect anti-terrorism powers and emergency regulations in place since 1981, and another that severely limits candidates for the presidency.

"Mubarak's speech is far from the needed break with the abusive system of the past 30 years," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Cosmetic changes are not enough to meet the Egyptian people's demands for democracy and human rights. The US and EU governments should use their influence and their aid to encourage real reform."

A group of protesters in Tahrir Square responded to the speech by threatening to march on government buildings. Human Rights Watch urged the security forces to exercise restraint in the face of legitimate protests and warned that soldiers and police could face prosecution if they open fire on demonstrators without justification or give orders to do so.

Human Rights Watch said the Egyptian authorities need to take several concrete steps to address the human rights crisis in Egypt. These include:

  • Lift the decades-old state of emergency, and repeal laws that give theInterior Ministry broad powers to arrest and detain persons and limit the rights to freedom of speech, association, and peaceful assembly;
  • Start a meaningful and legitimate process of democratic transition, independent of the current government, to make the legal and constitutional changes necessary for free, fair, and inclusive elections; and
  • End government sponsored or tolerated attacks, arbitrary detention, and torture and other ill-treatment, and open credible investigations into serious violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.

Human Rights Watch urged the United States, EU member states, and other countries that have been allies of the Mubarak government to press Egyptian authorities to urgently take these steps.

Human Rights Watch said that the Egyptian military, long an integral part of the government, has been a key actor in creating and defending the repressive system currently in place in Egypt. The Egyptian military will likely play an important role in the run-up to future elections. Senior decision-makers include a number of individuals drawn from the security forces, such as Vice President Omar Suleiman, himself a former military officer and until January 29, 2011, the head of Egypt's General Intelligence Service; Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the minister of defense; and Prime Minister Ahmad Shafik, former head of the air force. Mubarak himself was head of the air force before then-President Anwar Sadat named him as vice president.

The United States provides $1.3 billion every year in military assistance to Egypt, in addition to other forms of aid. In the first days of pro-democracy protests in Egypt, US officials in the Obama administration and several senators said that the United States was reviewing its "aid posture" to Egypt in light of the Egyptian government's behavior.

Human Rights Watch said that Egypt's leaders, including Suleiman, have thus far resisted calls for meaningful reforms.

"Vice President Suleiman has rebuffed calls for the most basic reforms, such as repealing the Emergency Law, and instead claimed that Egyptians are ‘not ready for democracy,'" Roth said. "It's not enough for the Egyptian government to promise constitutional change, they must dismantle the system behind the dictatorship."

Human Rights Watch