North Africa, West Asia

Red carpets for everyone? Cameron ought to tackle Sisi on human rights

We can expect the PM to talk to Egypt's president about trade and security—but what about disappearances, detentions, and stifled dissent?

Kate Allen
5 November 2015
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Demotix/Paolo Gargini. All rights reserved.

I’m not sure what favourable terms David Cameron has reached with the dry cleaners who work for Downing Street, but they must be pretty good. Because, soon after rolling out a pristine red carpet for the Chinese President Xi Jinping, he’s at it again. This time Egyptian army chief-turned-president Abdel Fattah El Sisi is the man treading the crimson plush.

Sisi isn’t getting the five-star lavishness of Xi’s gold carriages-and-state-banquet visit, but he’s still a welcome guest to London. We’re likely to hear No10 saying the visit will help strengthen a security partnership against ISIS and other threats in the region, what the Egyptian state-run news agency MENA has called a “widening circle of terrorism and extremism.”

As ever, trade will also feature, not least with the Foreign Office hailing the fact that Egypt’s stock market “was the best performing market in the region” last year. 

But what about that not-so-congenial topic, human rights? Here there’s an abundance of material for Cameron's discussions with the Egyptian leader. He could start by welcoming the freeing of the jailed Al Jazeera journalists Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy in September, as well as the dozens of other political prisoners pardoned during the Eid holiday. Though why, Cameron may want to ask, were Mohamed, Fahmy and fellow journalist Peter Greste ever put behind bars in the first place?

More pressingly, Cameron ought to ask about all the others. Tens of thousands of people have been detained in Egypt since President Sisi’s predecessor Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power in July 2013. This includes journalists (for example the photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid who’s been in pre-trial detention for over two years), a whole generation of young protesters, and thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members, sympathisers or even just those suspected of having Muslim Brotherhood sympathies.

It’s been a vast crackdown and Cameron cannot in all conscience ignore it.

By any measure it’s been a vast crackdown and Cameron cannot in all conscience ignore it. As many as 1,000 people were killed by the security forces in a single day when it attacked pro-Morsi supporters in August 2013. No-one has been held accountable. Indeed, since Morsi’s removal, Egypt’s criminal justice system has become little more than a tool for repressing dissent. Morsi himself is one of the hundreds sentenced to death in the ensuing anti-Muslim Brotherhood purge, and the handing down of mass death sentences has become something of a hallmark of Sisi’s Egypt.

Two names ought to be in Cameron’s head on the morning of his meeting with Sisi. One is that of Mahmoud Hussein, a teenager languishing in jail for wearing a t-shirt that said “Nation without torture”. He’s been in jail since his arrest on 25 January 2014. In a viciously ironic twist, Hussein appears to have himself been tortured, including with electric shocks to his face, back, hands and testicles.

The other name for Cameron is that of Israa Al-Taweel, a 23-year-old student who was bundled into the back of a white minivan in Cairo on 1 June. She’s been in detention ever since, accused of “belonging to a banned group” and “broadcasting false news” (apparently because she was carrying a camera). To make matters worse, she’s already disabled, having been shot in the back at a protest last year. If she doesn’t get vital physiotherapy in jail she may now lose the ability to walk altogether.

Young protesters like Hussein and Al-Taweel are part of Egypt’s “Generation Jail”, as the authorities move to snuff out all dissenting voices. Egypt’s draconian Protest Law (introduced by presidential decree) has formally outlawed gatherings of ten or more people not approved in advance by the Interior Ministry, but in truth the intention appear to be far more ambitious. It’s to wipe out all dissent whatsoever.

Cameron’s revolving door of authoritarian leaders entering Downing Street is spinning again this week. But will he be able to get the stains out of the red carpet after Sisi’s walked all over it?

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