How I realized what human rights mean in Egypt

For anybody who used to live in Europe, becoming aware of human rights practices in Egypt is a tough experience. A kind of tsumani that makes you understand that there is still a very long way to go to only reach the first step of what could be considered a satisfying situation regarding basic human rights respect. When I look back over my shoulders, three key memories come to mind.

Contrary to what one may think, the first of these memories has nothing to do with political human rights, but is related to workers’ rights, and generally speaking, to mere human dignity. As any newly arrived in Cairo, I faced the difficult task of looking for a decent flat to live in. While visiting dozens of “barely acceptable” apartments, I was unpleasantly surprised by doormen’s living conditions, that were far from being decent, too. All Cairo’s doormen, with no exception, live in dirty, cramped areas, that even can’t be called “flats”. Most often, they encompass a single low-ceilinged room located under the building’s stairs, opening on an inner courtyard whose floor is usually covered in rubbish that residents throw out of their windows. This single room generally hosts the whole doorman’s family, i.e. himself, his wife and their children. They have to manage to organize their whole life in this restricted area: cooking, sleeping, watching television, doing homework, etc.

When the doorman is single, he may even not have the option of “enjoying” a room: he just lives under the stairs, and sleeps on a mattress lying on the floor. Surprisingly, nobody seems to be shocked by this degrading treatment of human beings. Doormen in Cairo are usually poor people coming from Upper Egypt, who left their villages because they were not able anymore to live honourably off their occupation – fishing, agriculture, etc. -; this is then implicitly admitted that they have to accept any offer, even a degrading one. Buildings never include accommodation for doormen, or only this single ugly room on the ground floor. Architects do not take into account the requirement of a lodge for the doorman. From this perspective, upper classes’ areas do not differ from deprived ones: whatever the residents’ social class, doormen’s accommodation is always similar.

The 2011 revolution brought no change to this situation. Doormen’s living conditions are not a matter for discussion. No voice was raised to denounce this flagrant violation of human dignity, either at an individual level or through political parties. While demands for social justice are a common slogan, it never occurred to people that they could include improvement for doormen’s living conditions. Social revolution has not started yet.

Frighten practices

The second memory that comes to mind is the account of an Egyptian friend of mine who took part in the 2011 revolution. In his thirties, Maged is an independent movie director who abhors Moubarak’s dictatorial regime, and though he was not a political activist, he naturally took to the streets in response to calls for protest. One day, as he was demonstrating, he happened to be caught by police officers and brutally thrown into a police car. He was blindfolded and his hands were tied. Then he could hear the car moving off and racing along to an unknown destination. The car braked suddenly several times, for no apparent reason, then moved off again. At a point, the car stopped in a place that seemed to be located far away from the city, as noise level diminished and lower car traffic volume could be heard. My friend assumed that his abductors stepped out of the car, as he could hear car doors slamming, then voices grew fainter and fell silent.

Maged waited alone a long time. He did not dare neither move nor try to speak or ask a question to understand what was happening. After a time that seemed like a lifetime, he decided that he may try to make the blindfold slide, in order to free his eyes and get an idea of the place he has been brought to. He succeeded in moving it a bit and was stunned to realize that he has just been left alone in the desert. The car was stopped in the sticks and abductors left for good! My friend could manage to step out, head for a road and come back home. Actually, this practice was very common during Moubarak’s rule and was aimed to scare people. Maged was lucky enough that he was neither jailed nor questioned, but this experience resulted in a trauma that he painfully recovered from. It did not deter him from continuing his political struggle, but even reinforced his conviction that the regime should be overthrown.

This fright practice was temporarily brought to an end after Moubarak’s ousting, not because security forces were reformed – they were not -, but because they had to retreat from the streets and confined themselves to police stations, for fear of a revenge of the population who hated them. Not surprisingly, police resumed frightening political opponents by means of this specific practice in November 2013, when the government issued a controversial law practically forbidding demonstrations. A group of 50 female protestors were arrested, secretly brought to an unknown destination, then dumped in the desert in the middle of the night.

A torture room within the Senate

My friend Maged was lucky that he was not questioned, but unfortunately, violations of activists’ human rights can also be far worse. I remember what happened to one of my colleagues, a French journalist called Samuel, while he was covering parliamentary elections in 2011*. Since clashes erupted between revolutionary young people and security forces on mythic Tahrir square, Samuel had to try several alternate roads to be able to reach event’s place. As he crossed a checkpoint, he was arrested by an intelligence services’ officer. The whole story is told here, in an article that Samuel wrote immediately after his release. He was taken to several police stations, then to what he calls the “kommandantur” of the “police city”: temporary headquarters of security forces during the clashes were inappropriately located within Senate premises. My colleague realized to his horror that this prestigious institution has been turned into a torture centre. “Traces of blood lied on the marble floor”, he writes. He could also hear people being beaten and howling with pain in adjacent rooms. Samuel had to stop several times near these rooms with the officer who kept a close watch on him. Though he considered that his own situation was not at risk because he was a Western journalist, Samuel admitted that he was afraid. But he tells in his article that he made it a point of honour to keep a defiant attitude in front of the officer.

My colleague was eventually taken to an office which seemed to be the chief’s one. Ironically describing him as an “ageing beau”, Samuel reports that he asked him questions in English, while howls coming from torture rooms could continuously be heard and covered the conversations. He writes that in the course of the questioning, the high-ranking officer had to “raise his voice, while on his face, a polite and annoyed expression seemed to mean: ‘Those howls are irritating, aren’t they?’ ” Samuel’s assessment of the circumstances were right: after a while, the “chief” returned his ID back and put an end to the questioning, adding with no irony that he was welcome.

Here is the harsh reality I became aware in Egypt: in the shade of the pyramids, enjoying human dignity and exercising fundamental rights are less than a dream. In this dictatorial regime, not only political rights are restricted; in order to remain, it must apply a law of force to all kinds of relationships, even the social ones. Should only a portion of the country be subject to nonviolent rules, involving values such as equality, freedom, dialogue or respect, the whole regime would collapse.

* As for me, I never experienced any arrest by security forces in Egypt, except once during the revolution, when I was going back home in the evening after curfew hours. I was arrested at a checkpoint and brought to an intelligence service building, but as I was a UN staff member at this time and had my pass with me, they released me… after 5 hours, still.

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on 3 June 2014

4 persons shared their opinion! Join the discussion!

  • Patricia Papuc said on Reply

    Thank you for a great article Gaelle.

    I have some questions for you.

    From your own experience how are UN staff and journalists normally treated in Egypt? I am asking you this, because the examples that you are giving in your article are not happy examples to say the least. Is there a difference between the way they treat women journalists/UN staff or men journalists/UN staff?

    If during your stay there you as journalist/ UN staff/ tourist encounter problems who can you talk to? Who would provide help in this regard?

    I also wanted to ask you, how are the normal citizens of the country behaving around you and around your colleagues, since you are either working for international organisations or for foreign newspapers. Are they happy with your presence in their country or not? Because as far as I know, in many controversial places, media is not seen as a “watchdog of society” and UN organisations are also seen as organisations that cannot actually justify their stay in the country, because they are not trully helping the country develop.

    Many thanks in advance

  • Gaelle Fouere said on Reply

    Thank you Patricia for reading and commenting my article.
    To reply to your questions, UN staff never experienced ill-treatments in Egypt, to my knowledge, as they more or less diplomatic-assimilated staff, so any incident regarding the security of a UN staff member may have prejudicial diplomatic consequences for Egyptian authorities and Egypt’s image.
    Journalists’ case may differ. Western journalists are usually quite respected, unless if they work for media that are really not welcome, such as AlJazeera since last summer. Western journalists who worked for this channel have been arrested last summer, together with Egyptians and are still imprisoned.
    In the past, hot spots (protest places…) were also dangerous for women journalists. Several serious cases of sexual harassment and/or rape have been reported since 2011 revolution. They were politically organized to scare/deter journalists from reporting and never occurred at other “normal” places in Egypt. However, it’s been a while that no incident has been reported.
    As for foreign journalists/UN staff members, I can’t speak for all of them, but personally, I can’t remember any negative experience. People as individuals always welcome my requests for investigations, and as institutions/companies, if they don’t want to reply, they just ignore them, just as Western institutions/companies do! Generally speaking, media discourse in Egypt, which is prone to denounce Western interference and plot against Egypt, must be distinguished from the field situation, where foreigners, especially Europeans, even journalists, are not suspected at all. At least, this is my own experience (and I speak and work in Arabic, this may help).

  • Patricia Papuc said on Reply

    Gaelle I would like to ask you more questions.

    How are the citizens of Egypt seeing the results of the presidential elections? Because the new elected president won with 96.6% which means that almost all the people voted for him.

    Since you have been leaving in Egypt for a while, you also understand the sytem. How do you win the elections in Egypt? When people go and vote, they vote based on what? Tradition, religion, beliefs, family, doctrine, media`s influence?

    What would be the reaction of the peoples if, the international community would consider, having proof for it that the elections have been frauded? How used are people with this concept of fraud and how do they react when they hear about it.

    In addition I also wanted to ask you, what are the biggest problems Egypt is confronted with, except for poverty, which is analysed in your paper.

  • Gaelle Fouere said on Reply

    Hi Patricia ! Sorry for replying late to your questions. I think many people welcomed elections’ results with indifference. They knew ElSisi would be the winner, and as many of them did consider it was not worth voting, they did not react to the results. The official ceremony that was organised on Tahrir square confirmed that only poor/not politicized people celebrated ElSisi’s victory. However, people still hoped that the return to the old regime would allow a significant improvement of their current economic situation, i.e. even though they were not Sisi’s supporters, they expected positive outcomes from the new president.
    As to your questions about motives for voting, it is hard to reply, since Egypt has little experience of free elections. Under Mubarak’s law, turnouts were very low, and since then, only the presidential elections of 2012 offered a choice between a number of candidates/political options. Several trends could be observed: supporters of the army defending a “no change” position; supporters of islamist currents; people looking for a third way (no army, no islamists) listening carefully to other candidates’ statements and trying to identify the best one. It is worth noting that many people demonstrated a mature democratic behavior and made efforts to make a personal choice, far from medial/community/religious influences.
    Concerning electoral fraud, people are aware of the issue, as it was the main problem during dictatorial rule. But as they lack democratic experience, they do not always understand what the concept comprises. For example, posting supporters to polling stations in order to influence the vote is not always seen as fraudulous.
    As to main problems of Egypt, I would say that fighting corruption is an urgent necessity, since it is a very common practice that poisons all levels of governemental bodies and private companies and deprives the nation of necessary resources for development. Improving competencies should also be a priority at all levels, as national training institutions (universities, etc.) are very weak and do not provide students with modern skills enabling them to behave professionally (problem-solving competencies, team spirit, autonomy, project management, ability to meet deadlines, priorities setting…). Knowledge of modern programmes that could be of great interest to the country, such as pro-poor policies, sustainable development, microcredit, etc., is also missing completely among leaders at all levels (government, governorates, managers), who apply the same policies for decades (infrastructure development and subsidies cuttings).

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