The Muzzling of Freedom: examining the use of Egypt’s counter-terrorism laws
The United Nations Human Rights Council recently released a joint statement alongside 31 signatories condemning Egypt’s continued use of counter-terrorism laws to silence its citizens. These laws are often enforced against dissidents of the incumbent regime by President Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil El-Sisi. The Council’s recent "rare oral rebuke" highlights how Egypt's counter-terrorism laws, intended to thwart terror attacks, are instead utilised to commit violations of fundamental human rights.
The preceding years
Both Western and Middle Eastern countries alike have implemented counter-terrorism laws that seek to disrupt and prevent future terror attacks. However, there are differences in how, and to whom, these laws apply. Since September 2001, counter-terrorism laws around the world have been strengthened with the aim of limiting support for, and media coverage of, dissident behaviour. They have also been aimed at quelling concerns over fake news. Some countries, including Egypt, have expanded their counter-terrorism measures to cover the media, with the justification that journalists are now being used to disseminate information and messages, both moderate and radical. Despite this, there are no conclusive studies on whether stricter counter-terrorism laws that impinge upon human rights directly result in fewer terror incidents. With this in mind, it is important to consider whether restrictions on freedom of speech, movement and protest are acceptable as a result of implementing laws that only may improve national security.
In 2015, President El-Sisi introduced expansive new counter-terrorism laws. The laws established special courts, provided legal protections for military and police officers, and imposed the death penalty for those found guilty of involvement in a terrorist group. Most significantly, these reforms amended the definition of a “terrorist act” to include any “use of force or violence or threat of terrorising” that aims to:
“Disrupt general order or endanger the safety, interests or security of society; harm individual liberties or rights; harm national unity, peace, security, the environment or buildings or property; prevent or hinder public authorities, judicial bodies, government facilities, and others from carrying out all or part of their work and activity.”
In addition to the laws directly concerning terrorism, controversial provisions were also introduced in which journalists could be fined and imprisoned for “contradicting official accounts of militant attacks”. Leading human rights organisations and experts warned that these 2015 amendments would impose a constant “state of emergency in Egypt” as a result of such extensive powers. Since then, numerous activists, journalists and human rights defenders have been arrested, detained, and prosecuted for crimes defined under the counter-terrorism laws.
One such example is the high profile detention of Mahmoud Hussein, a journalist for the Al Jazeera Media Network. Hussein was arrested and imprisoned following accusations of spreading “false news and receiving monetary funds from foreign authorities” aimed at defaming the state’s reputation. No charges were ever formally brought against him. In February 2021, Hussein was released from prison without having ever received a trial. A four-year long international media campaign, spearheaded by Al Jazeera, is thought to be responsible for his release. Al Jazeera argued that Hussein had been “deprived of his fundamental rights”. It was only with a lengthy media campaign and with support from international organisations that the release of one journalist could be secured. However, despite the increased media attention from this incident, Egypt has continued to blatantly use counter-terrorism laws to suppress freedom of the press, speech and movement.
A continued crackdown
As recently as March 17, 2021, prominent human rights activist, Sanaa Seif, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for “broadcasting fake news and rumours”. In yet another unrelenting move to silence critics of the government, Egypt has thus exemplified its willingness to employ their counter-terrorism laws against anyone, be they a journalist, activist or humanitarian worker.
Crucially, Egypt has not cowered to international condemnation. The UN’s recent rebuke is not its first against the Egyptian government, with the organisation issuing statements in November 2020, October 2019 and September 2018. The last joint declaration on the human rights situation in Egypt dates back to March 2014 and was co-signed by 26 countries. These attempts demonstrate that no amount of condemnation will strong-arm Egypt into compliance with international human rights standards.
The use of counter-terrorism laws by countries worldwide is not a new phenomenon. Given that religiously inspired terror attacks remain a daily occurrence throughout the Middle East and North Africa, countries such as Egypt rely on national counter-terrorism laws to quell freedom of expression, movement, speech and dissent in the name of ‘national security’. But how can countries work towards quashing religious terror, without severely diminishing fundamental freedoms? And more importantly, how best can international organisations defend human rights while ensuring international security? These questions will continue to shape the debate over Egypt's efforts to combat violent extremism as they have for the past several years.
Elle Greaves is a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) and Bachelor of Justice (Criminology & Policing) graduate from QUT. She is currently undertaking her practical legal training to become a qualified lawyer and has an interest in counter-terrorism, religious extremism and international law.