News | Social Movements / Organizing - North Africa “The Human Rights Situation Is Catastrophic”

A conversation with Egyptian activist Mohamed Abdel Salam about civil and political rights under Sisi


Lower-ranking police officers protest in front of the Ministry of Interior demanding better pay and conditions, Cairo, Egypt, 22 March 2011. CC BY-SA 2.0, Photo: Flickr / Alisdare Hickson

It has been over a decade since the Egyptian military, riding a wave of popular frustration, overthrew the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, and replaced him with then-Minister of Defence Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Promising to restore secular norms, instead, Sisi and his cronies have imposed a dictatorship far more ruthless than anything Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood could have dreamed of. Economic inequality has grown, the state’s debt has risen to eye-watering levels, and yet few Egyptians have risen up to protest.

Mohamed Abdel Salam is the executive director of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), an Egyptian NGO dedicated to promoting and defending freedom of expression and freedom of information.

Have the ten years of repression simply worn people down? Are they hesitant to rise up again after the disappointed hopes of the Arab Spring, which began in Egypt in 2011? What is the state of Egyptian civil society and what does the Sisi government’s recent rhetoric about improving human rights really mean? The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Andreas Bohne sat down with Egyptian activist Mohamed Abdel Salam to get the answers to these and other questions.

This month marks the tenth anniversary of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rise to power in Egypt on the back of a military coup. Can you briefly outline developments since then?

Ten years ago, the Egyptian population was not happy with the Muslim Brotherhood, who were in power at that time, and people were very angry about the lack of political dialogue between the Muslim Brotherhood and leftists and liberal political actors. The military successfully used this anger and the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership to strike a compromise with the opposition and came back to power.

At that time, most Egyptians thought removing Mohamed Morsi from power was a step to save the country from civil war. That was also the official message from Minister of Defence Sisi at that time. However, since Sisi was elected president in 2014, everything has gotten worse — especially the economic situation. Most Egyptians are stuck in poverty, and even the middle class feels their privileges slipping away — now they need loans for housing, for school fees, and more. Everyday life and the daily routine is becoming harder than any time before, even during the era of Hosni Mubarak.

The problem with the relationship between Egypt and the European Union countries is that it focuses only on security and stability.

At the level of human rights and political reforms, the Egyptian parliament is totally controlled by the security agencies. There is no chance for competitive elections between pro-government parties and the opposition. Before Sisi’s rise to power, the security agencies’ main target was political activists. Now, they arrest anybody who says anything critical, even when it comes to the economic situation. Thousands of people are detained because of their views.

At the same time, more than 500 websites are blocked. “Case 173”, a court case against human rights defenders initiated in 2011, is still ongoing, while many Egyptians face travel bans and asset freezes. Everything regarding the human rights situation is catastrophic.

Besides the repression, how do Sisi and the security agencies secure their political and economic power?

I think that the Egyptian government accrues most of its power from the population’s fear of repression on the one hand, and the fear of chaos or protests on the other, because of the previous experience in the 2011 revolution which led to a bad economic and political situation. Thus, when people think or discuss the situation now, they say, “Okay, we don’t want to make the situation worse.”

There have been some steps by the government to ease the political situation in recent years, at least on paper, such as the establishment of a National Human Rights Council in January 2022. Are there any substantial initiatives to improve the situation?

First, the Egyptian authorities launched the “National Human Rights Strategy”, then they called for the “National Dialogue”, and re-established the Presidential Pardons Committee. All three initiatives show that the authorities realize there is a problem in terms of human rights and political reforms and they have to act.

However, there is a lot of resistance to big policy changes within the state institutions, so, they are trying to send positive messages to civil society, the political opposition, and Western allies. That's not bad, but these messages and promises are very different from the reality on the ground, given the ongoing repression.

What we need are concrete steps from the Egyptian government to ensure that all these promises are part of a real change, even if that change is very limited. Without concrete steps, it remains little more than government propaganda.

Egypt is widely seen as an “anchor of stability” in West Asia. Joseph Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, arrived in Cairo in mid-June for high-level talks where he met Sisi and the Defence Minister, Zaki. Borrell tweeted “Cordial in-depth discussion with Minister of Defence Zaki on common concerns, such as migration and the need for immediate action to fight traffickers and smugglers, who take advantage of people’s despair.” How do you assess the relationship between the EU and Egypt?

I think that the problem with the relationship between Egypt and the European Union countries is that it focuses only on security and stability. Some European politicians say that we have mutual strategic and security interests with the Egyptian government — so, it’s not about our values or human rights. The direction of EU foreign policy towards Egypt is very harmful, not only in terms of values, but even regarding the interests of the EU.

Removing human rights and political reform from negotiations with the Egyptian government led to the lack of transparency and also worsened the economic situation. All of these mega-projects like the New Administrative Capital and the high.-speed rail being built by the German Siemens Group are depleting the financial resources of the country, and I think that this complicated situation led most Egyptians to be afraid of the future, afraid of staying in the country. They simply want to leave.

We need to see more organized action inside the country and an opening up of civic space and media freedom as tools to achieve climate justice.

That’s the main argument of European politicians, too — support the Egyptian government and keep the country stable. But that will lead to the biggest refugee crisis ever. Even President Sisi said that because of the bad economic situation, people will cross the Mediterranean and leave the country. Some will see this as an issue of borders and border security, but it’s not about that — it's about how to secure a transition inside the country, for its population to live and participate in political life, to express their opinions and choose their representatives freely.

Egypt hosted the COP27 last year. What role does the climate crisis play in Egypt? Has the issue become more relevant to Egyptian society since the COP?

COP27 was a huge chance for the human rights community inside Egypt because of all the travel bans and fears around joining international events or things like that. COP gave us a chance to be connected with the world again.

We succeeded in highlighting and addressing the human rights situation in the country, but ultimately, there wasn't enough pressure from the international community on the Egyptian authorities, and that's why the prominent opposition activist Alaa Abdel Fattah is still in prison along with other political detainees. That said, I feel that the human rights organizations showed they are still strong, and that all of these crackdowns didn’t succeed in stopping human rights advocacy.

In general, climate justice issues aren’t part of public debates in the country because there isn't sufficient access to information in Egypt, as the media is controlled by the state.

Are human rights organizations and the climate justice movement still divided, as they often are in other parts of the world, or did the COP serve as a chance to build bridges between them?

I don't think they are divided. The experience of COP27 taught us that environmental and climate justice issues are related and are very close to other human rights issues. For example, in a country like Egypt, there is no space for civil society. This stops organizations from raising awareness about the climate crisis. There was strong cooperation and coordination during the COP between human rights organizations and environmental organizations, and I think that we will see this coalition continue to work together in the future.

How did Egyptian civil society look back on the COP, and to what extent did Sisi emerge from the international conference stronger?

In my opinion, of course, the countries of the Global South have to be compensated for the effects of climate change on its population and economy. As an Egyptian civil society organization, we supported this, and we think that COP27 offered a good chance for developing countries to get this kind of commitment from the wealthy and the Western countries.

The Egyptian government has strong diplomatic relationships on the Africa continent, and we understand that this isn’t a bad thing. But ultimately, the policies of the Egyptian government towards the climate crisis inside Egypt are not relevant to foreign policy efforts. Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Sameh Shoukry is very active in climate negotiations, but no other state institutions inside the country has an organized plan. So, we need to see more organized action inside the country and an opening up of civic space and media freedom as tools to achieve climate justice.