The inaugural report of Egypt’s state-sponsored National Council for Human Rights raised eyebrows when it was released in April 2005. The 358-page document acknowledged claims of torture in the country’s police stations and called for an end to the emergency laws that have effectively suspended the Egyptian constitution since the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat on October 6, 1981. It was tempting to believe that the report was more evidence that President Husni Mubarak’s regime is beginning to bow to popular pressure for reform.

Since the US-led war on Iraq, there has been a clear trend toward greater cooperation and more consistently articulated demands among Egyptian opposition activists. A loose agglomeration of socialists, Nasserists, communists, Islamists and liberals march under the banner of Kifaya (Enough) and demand an end to emergency rule and to Mubarak’s reign. More cautiously, the Muslim Brotherhood issues the same call. Judges have threatened to boycott supervision of the 2005 legislative elections, while strikes and landlord-tenant conflict in the Delta also have pressured the government. These pressures encouraged Mubarak’s call upon Parliament in February to amend Article 76 of the constitution and permit a multi-candidate, direct presidential election in place of the usual single-candidate referendum. This gesture was an overt attempt to diffuse the opposition, which, though it is not yet regime-threatening, has nonetheless continued to intensify. Meanwhile, the authoritarian regime is also employing “softer” techniques to adapt to its changing domestic environment.

As is now apparent, the establishment of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) in 2003 was one such “soft” adaptation technique. In its first 15 months, even as the authorities conducted indiscriminate roundups of Islamists in the northern Sinai and even as press reports fingered Egypt as a prisoner depository for the CIA’s policy of ‘rendition,” the NCHR remained silent. [1] Despite the stir caused by its mildly critical first report, the council’s limited legal reach suggests it is unlikely to assert itself as a check on the abuse of power in Egypt.

A Policies Secretariat Initiative?

The secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party, Safwat al-Sharif, says the NCHR is the “brainchild” of the party’s Policies Secretariat, formed in September 2002 and headed by the president’s son Gamal. The Policies Secretariat is now the most influential political force in Egypt and is also portrayed by party loyalists as “the most valuable institutional think tank in the country.” [2] When Egypt abolished state security courts (though not “special” state security courts) in 2003, the secretariat (and, indirectly, Gamal) received the credit. The NCHR is another initiative designed to emphasize Gamal’s “reformist” agenda and “democratizing” proclivities. Yet, rather than developing the NCHR from scratch, the Policies Secretariat inherited it.

In May 2000, the Justice Ministry announced that a human rights council would be formed. [3] The ministry then drafted proposed legislation, which quickly disappeared from public view. Hani Khalaf, rumored to be in the running to be the council’s chairman, was appointed ambassador to Libya. As one knowledgeable human rights advocate says, “The council was ready in 2000. But without Khalaf around to run it, the government decided to put it in a desk drawer. It was just a matter of someone coming along with enough energy to revive the idea.” [4] Along came the Policies Secretariat.

After the cabinet approved the idea in May 2003, Justice Minister Farouk Saif al-Nasr laid out the council’s composition and mission in the same language used in 2000. The NCHR would consist of 20 members who would be appointed by the president, and it would aim to foster human rights awareness. Also, its mandate would include examining pertinent legislation to ensure Egypt’s compliance with international standards. The council would be expected to publish an annual report on the state of human rights in Egypt. Yet the justice minister’s announcement was not the final word. Mubarak “decided” to affiliate the NCHR with the upper house of Parliament rather than with the presidency, perhaps having realized that, according to international law, national human rights commissions cannot be affiliated with the chief executive. Aside from this alteration, the Policies Secretariat’s initiative mirrors the council proposed in 2000. Legislation creating the NCHR passed on June 16, 2003. Law 93/2003 stipulates that the NCHR is state-funded, possesses no legislative powers and (following a compromise in Parliament) consists of 27 members.

The NCHR was conceived as an advisory body. National Democratic Party (NDP) parliamentary whip Kamal al-Shazli described the limits of the council’s authority by saying, “It is merely a consultative council with no power to draw up any plans.” While NDP MPs “heaped praise on Gamal Mubarak’s policy secretariat,” analysts noted that the council’s powers do not extend beyond “requesting cooperation” from government agencies and “recommending” cases for prosecution. [5] Inconvenient council recommendations can be shelved by the prosecutor-general’s investigative branch. Similarly, requesting cooperation rarely works; with no legal redress to back up the NCHR’s requests, other agencies are not accountable.

Cooptation or Nationalization

The list of parliamentary appointees to the council sounds like a who’s who of Egyptian politics. Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali is the chairman, and international lawyer and acclaimed Islamist thinker Ahmad Kamil Abu al-Magd serves as deputy. The additional 25 council members can be described as socially active and respectable.

Osama al-Ghazali Harb, editor of al-Ahram’s international affairs quarterly, al-Siyasa al-Dawliyya, and former ambassador and NDP MP Mostafa al-Fiqi are two such appointees. As government-inclined yet seemingly independent pundits, both enjoy positive reputations. Hossam Badrawi, another NDP MP and a Gamal Mubarak associate, is also on the council. Wafdist MP Munir Fakhri ‘Abd al-Nur represents opposition parties. With Nasserist press syndicate head Galal ‘Arif and women’s rights lawyer Mona Zolfiqar also serving on the NCHR, journalists and women’s rights activists are represented.

The appointment of human rights activists Bahey al-Din Hassan and Hafiz Abu Saada adds a degree of credibility to the council. Hassan is head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. Abu Saada runs the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), probably the most widely known such organization and one that has been subjected to considerable and hostile government scrutiny. Abu Saada was arrested and held for six days in December 1998 because he authored a report about sectarian strife incited by the security services when as many as 1,000 villagers, mostly Copts, were detained and tortured over an unsolved murder in al-Kosheh in August 1998. Although the appointments of Hassan and Abu Saada failed to placate civil society activists, their presence on the council suggests that it is outside the government’s control — and they are, in fact, considered the dissident members.

However, their appointment was not unexpected. An investigation in the English-language al-Ahram Weekly traced the germ of the council’s development to Paris, where Abu Saada had pitched the idea to the president’s chief of staff, Zakariyya ‘Azmi, in March 2000. [6] In the same article, other activists denounced the potential ramifications for human rights NGOs, but Hassan indicated that the council was a positive step. The parliament apparently approached other activists to gauge their willingness to serve. [7] Most human rights activists argued that the NCHR was a government attempt to coopt certain personalities so as to divide civil society. A day before the council convened its first meeting on February 18, 2004, human rights NGOs met to discuss a collective response. While the EOHR lobbied for cooperation, 15 other groups, among them the al-Nadim Center and the Hisham Mubarak Legal Center (HMLC), issued a statement of condemnation. As HMLC director Ahmad Saif al-Islam argued, “We refuse to deal in any positive way with the council because we believe the Egyptian government is trying to decorate unacceptable policies.” NCHR deputy Abu al-Magd regretted the groups’ uncooperative position, arguing that their decision “was 100 percent a wrong judgment. It was premature, unnecessary and will have no constructive impact.” [8]

Abu Saada is now branded as an “opportunist.” [9] Others argue that Hassan and Abu Saada “lost their independence” when they joined the NCHR. [10] For their part, Abu Saada and Hassan defend their membership. As Abu Saada states, “If you do not join, you can have no impact. I could not say no until we see how the council operates. If it is inactive, I can resign.” [11] Hassan makes similar arguments. [12] The argument over cooptation even reached the NCHR’s chairman, who brushes away the criticisms. “There is not a single representative of the government on the council,” says Boutros-Ghali. “My personality alone is an obstacle to the government’s pressure. I said no to the US government, so I can say no to the Egyptian government.” [13] At any rate, as implied by the appointment of only two dissidents, if the council aimed at wholesale cooptation of the Egyptian human rights community, it did not succeed. The NCHR maintains an institutional credibility deficit.

While the cooptation debate rages, a charge leveled just as frequently at the NCHR is that it panders to human rights concerns voiced by the United States. The opposition parties thunder that the council is little but a regime tool for mollifying the querulous West. Boutros-Ghali’s initial public statements lend some credence to that interpretation. The former UN head seemed to hint that the goal of the council was to polish Egypt’s image abroad. He argued, “Through cooperation between domestic organization and state bodies, [a country’s] image can improve in the outside world while also strengthening human rights.” [14] This, he explains, is why it is advantageous for him to live in Paris. As an expatriate, he has access to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other international organizations. [15] However, the NCHR is not simply designed for Western consumption. Rather, the council seeks to reach a mixed and relatively broad domestic constituency.

The bookend personalities of Boutros-Ghali and Abu Saada attract the most attention, but it is the middle bloc of members that allows the council to work. The perceived key constituency of this bloc is educated but politically inactive urban professionals. The middle bloc of NCHR members reaches out to lawyers, journalists, bureaucrats, doctors and intellectuals because they themselves are of this stratum — neither the aristocratic elite embodied by Boutros-Ghali nor the political dissidents embodied by Abu Saada. As it seeks political stability and its own security, the regime seems most concerned with this social sector; complementary economic reforms such as a reduction on import tariffs — most notably a 40 percent slash in tariffs on midsize automobiles — also target this group. In this vein, the target audience is not the upper-class businessman or the numerous urban and rural poor. Rather, the NCHR is granted legitimacy by urban professionals who, while perhaps concerned with domestic human rights issues, are not consumed by the details of the debate and are more concerned that the Egyptian state adopt a strong stance toward Israeli and US-British abuses in Palestine and Iraq. The NCHR represented Egypt at a March 2004 conference held in Cairo, under the auspices of the Arab League, where member states discussed regional, and not domestic, rights abuses. [16] Secondly, the NCHR provides a semi-official platform from which its socially respectable members transmit an incrementally liberalizing message. By adding its voice to the human rights debate, the government quasi-nationalizes the concept of human rights — rendering it no longer the exclusive preserve of foreign embassies and uppity activists with suspect foreign funding.

The Usual Casualties

The NCHR currently has seven working subcommittees, six of which deal with social, economic, civil and cultural rights as well as legislative matters. The remaining subcommittee checks the veracity of citizen and institutional complaints, and documents violations. An eighth subcommittee is slated to deal with international regulations. The subcommittees, save the one for complaints, also undertake the task of human rights education. Given the NCHR’s limited legal compass, institutional dependency and inactivity, little has transpired to date. Observers focused on the NCHR in April 2004 when Boutros-Ghali announced that there was “unanimity [on the council] to ask for the elimination of emergency laws.” [17] Speculation increased a week later when Interior Minister Habib al-‘Adli claimed that his ministry was “not opposed” to repealing emergency laws.

Yet when the NCHR voted to postpone discussion of the emergency law issue, the previous unanimity of dissent transformed into majority support for the status quo. Only Hassan, Abu Saada and Huda Sadaf, chairwoman of the Women and Memory Forum, opposed tabling the proposition that the government end emergency rule. [18] Boutros-Ghali remarked that the council had not finished formulating its stance, Abu al-Magd was unreachable for comment and other members mounted a moderate defense. As Harb argued, “The reason often cited for [criticism of the council] is that the NCHR has failed to annul the state of emergency…. It is unfair to pass judgment on an agency that is four months old and still building its organizational structure, refining its operational methods and hiring staff.” The NCHR’s ability or inability to discuss cancellation of the emergency law is not the point. Rather, it is how Harb situates his argument. He does not seek to convince already decided opposition politicians and NGO activists that they see inaction where in fact there is action. Rather, Harb argues that reform is imminent and that NCHR is one of its many vehicles. As Harb states, “It is essential, for the very sake of reform, that we maintain a measure of confidence in our institutions and the people involved in public work. It is all right to have doubts and voice misgivings, but one must not rule out progress out of hand because it is taking time, or denounce entire institutions just because some issues are more complicated than they seem.” [19] Within the context of the Policies Secretariat’s reforming discourse, the government’s tactic of establishing the council aims to reassure politically inactive professionals that change is on the way — and therefore there is no need for them to become politically active. Whether the strategy is working or not remains debatable.

After this blip, the council again slowly disappeared from the Egyptian radar screen. The opposition al-Wafd newspaper claimed that the NCHR did not receive promised funds and that the government failed to provide adequate office space. According to al-Wafd, the NCHR’s budget of 3 million Egyptian pounds was reduced by two thirds as it operated from the NDP’s downtown headquarters. [20] The symbolism of the office’s location was not lost on anyone scrutinizing the council’s every move. Yet lonely opposition paper articles do not damage the council’s reputation. The NCHR is frequently mentioned in the more widely read quasi-official press, with al-Ahram and al-Akhbar stressing that a meeting convened or a member issued a statement. Follow-up articles that might point out the NCHR’s inaction after such meetings or statements do not appear. Meanwhile, Egypt’s human rights situation deteriorated amidst the council’s silence.

Following the bombing of the Hilton in the Sinai resort of Taba that killed 34 people on October 7, 2004, the interior minister announced that nine Islamist radicals, led by a 25-year old microbus driver living in the northern Sinai town of al-‘Arish, committed the atrocity. While most of the suspects have been captured or killed, one fugitive remains. In keeping with the government’s common practices of collective punishment and torture, al-‘Arish and nearby al-Shaykh Zuwayd have been subjected to flagrant repression. [21] The reasoning seems to be that if the bombers resided there, the town’s population has all the answers about the bombing. Cairo’s human rights NGOs (including Abu Saada’s EOHR) reported that over 2,500 people were indiscriminately detained and abused in late November. Human Rights Watch published a 48-page report in February 2005, based on collaborative investigations with Egyptian groups, detailing the targeting of women, children and the elderly alongside accused “Islamists.” [22] Joe Stork, the advocacy director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division, explained at a Cairo press conference that although he raised the al-‘Arish detentions with Boutros-Ghali in a December 2004 meeting, the council chairman failed to speak out publicly. [23] In addition to the mass repression in the Sinai, quotidian human rights violations such as harassment and torture at police stations continue unabated.

Release of the council’s first annual report was handled in dubious fashion. A NCHR meeting to discuss the report’s contents was scheduled for mid-April. Instead, Abu al-Magd adjourned an ad hoc meeting on April 5. Bahey al-Din Hassan, who was traveling, contends that this maneuver is increasingly consistent with how the body operates in general. Two days after the report’s release, Hassan said: “The report was adopted at a meeting convened on short notice and sent to the president without making it available for its members to read it. I have neither read the report nor do I know its contents.” [24]

Upon examination, and despite its depiction by the BBC and al-Jazeera as aggressively critical, the report engages in verbal gymnastics. Out of the report’s six chapters, only two deal with reports of human rights abuses submitted to the council. The report cites receipt of 4,850 complaints between February 25 and December 31, 2004, largely in written form and received by post. [25] Of these, the report says, 1,646 complaints fell beyond the scope of the NCHR’s mandate and 752 complaints remain under review. [26] There are only 74 or 75 complaints related to torture, 2.3 percent of the reported violations deemed within the council’s mandate.[27] Had the report simply described torture as widespread, it would have concurred with findings by other domestic and international groups as well as State Department reports on Egypt’s human rights situation. Instead, the report resorts to vague language when discussing the issue, saying only that people “claim” to have been tortured. As the report notes, “The complaints committee received 74 complaints regarding claims of torture.” These statistics were based on what the accusers said and not on physical evidence.” [28] The report also notes that the Interior Ministry denies all claims of torture:

The National Council for Human Rights received three replies from the Interior Ministry to 75 queries that the council forwarded regarding complaints from individuals claiming that officers and civil servants in police stations had extrajudicially detained them and tortured them. The Interior Ministry stressed in its replies that the claims were propagated by local and international groups and that they lacked supporting evidence. [These claims] — from the interior ministry’s point of view — contradict the public policies applied in correctional institutions and police stations. Such policies are based on upholding the values and principles of human rights promulgated by the public prosecutor’s office, which in turn adheres to its supervisory duties, including scheduled and surprise visits to correctional institutions and police stations throughout the republic. As for claims of torture on state security premises, the Interior Ministry replies confirm that these were not detention facilities but rather security information gathering centers that have nothing to do with detention. Thus, they are not subject to regular inspections carried out by the public prosecutor. The Interior Ministry statements point out that…[torture] was neither a systematic policy of the ministry nor a regular practice in the country. [29]

The report went on to cite the ministry’s claim to have investigated three cases submitted by the NCHR, and to have proved them to be “baseless lies” (kidhb). [30]

The council’s call to end the state of emergency before it expires in May 2006 also has been touted as controversial. [31] Yet, further examination again reveals rhetorical acrobatics. The report states, “The council feels that ending the state of emergency (inha’ halat al-tawari’) is more necessary and more urgent now [sic] so that people can participate in the referendum on Article 76, and then the presidential and legislative elections, in an atmosphere of neutrality, security and adherence to regular Egyptian law.” [32] This recommendation is not the same as the call of the Kifaya movement for “cancellation of the state of emergency and all special laws that restrict freedoms” (ilgha’ halat al-tawari’ wa kafat al-qawanin al-istithna’iyya al-muqayyada lil-hurriyyat). As journalist Ursula Lindsey writes, “The report calls for the end of the current state of emergency — not an abolishment of the emergency law itself.” Indeed, Abu al-Magd told her that ending the state of emergency is a “risk worth taking” because it “can be reimposed if something terrible takes place or there is imminent danger.” [33] Such cautious language has been a concern for Egypt’s opposition press. As an article in al-‘Arabi reports, Abu al-Magd toned down the report’s language because it is, in his words, “inappropriate” to present something to the president that viciously condemns the political establishment. [34]

The NCHR’s members and the government have an interest in the appearance of independence. While the report’s general findings are marketed to confer credibility, the report is not as critical as portrayed — especially given the council’s silence for the previous 15 months. Rather, the report is a public relations stunt to underscore that incremental reforms are underway in Egypt. Besides, it would not look good for Gamal Mubarak’s Policies Secretariat if one of its signature projects floundered in its first prominent exhibition before the court of world opinion.

Why a Legitimacy Deficit Does Not Hurt

Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights cannot prevent human rights violations or investigate citizens’ complaints in a manner that constrains the regime’s freedom of action. Any potential institutional autonomy was legally curtailed by the terms of its mandate. The NCHR’s mandate only permits consultation through non-binding recommendations. Yet it is simplistic to dismiss the NCHR as a government attempt to justify a poor human rights record, as many critics do. The NCHR serves a political purpose. While the council does not pretend to possess power, its primary purpose is, in fact, to expand and redistribute regime power by dissuading its target constituency from joining the various opposition currents that are buffeting the regime and persuading them instead to cast their lot with the vision of the Policies Secretariat. In the meantime, muddling the human rights debate — speaking the language of human rights alongside the dissident activists — seems to favor the government.

The NCHR advertises that the government is moving in a liberal direction. By attributing the NCHR’s origins to Gamal’s Policies Secretariat, the government markets that group as the regime’s enlightened wing. The council preempts and dilutes discontent while expanding support for the secretariat by reaching out to professionals. In building support or reaffirming existing supporters among this potentially wavering social base, regime power increases. By adding a semi-official and seemingly critical voice, the council redistributes power because the field is redefined into “moderate” and “rejectionist” camps. As such a distinction arises, the human rights debate is quasi-nationalized because the NCHR diffuses independent human rights activists and groups’ criticism of the government. If a few or even most of the human rights NGOs disregard the work of the council, that does not invalidate the NCHR’s legitimacy or assumptions of incremental development among politically inactive citizens.

The NCHR also attenuates Western criticism of Egypt’s human rights abuses. For instance, had the report omitted any reference to the fact that torture happens in Egypt, its credibility abroad would have been compromised. The council opens an avenue for channeling the concerns of Western officials to Egypt’s government — and so its mere existence slows the pace of Western calls for political reform. Yet the council’s establishment should be read within its domestic political objectives rather than its limited foreign ones.

Handling domestic human rights violations, even egregious cases like the wave of Sinai arrests, is not the NCHR’s job. The NCHR is rhetorically active in areas that concern Egypt’s professionals. In this vein, increasing attention to the Western human rights violations in Palestine and Iraq, in tandem with Arab media coverage, helps the council to satisfy its intended domestic audience. Continuing US military activity in the Middle East and the failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict keep the NCHR’s focus abroad rather than at home. Whether or not the NCHR is capable of assuring long-term support does not seem to be important.

An authoritarian regime adapts to adversity by expanding its power base and redistributing political power among its opponents, in addition to employing repression upon occasion. The NCHR, despite its weakness and seeming insignificance, serves as a dynamic, albeit temporary, system maintenance mechanism. By attracting new supporters to its base, the regime demonstrates continuing viability. Softer measures help link the more dramatic announcements of impending political change. A regime’s survival becomes questionable when it cannot expand its base or reorder power relations among its detractors. It is within this new regime-created reality that Egyptian activists’ battle to safeguard human rights takes place.


[1] Human Rights Watch has documented that other Arab countries, as well as the US, “render” prisoners to Egypt, where they face the prospect of torture. Human Rights Watch, Black Hole: The Fate of Islamists Rendered to Egypt (New York, May 2005).
<[2] Interview with ‘Adil Bishai, member of Higher Policies Council, February 25, 2004.
[3] Previously, Egypt had two offices that dealt with the human rights portfolio. The prosecutor-general’s office investigated alleged violations, while the foreign ministry responded to allegations.
[4] Interview with Aida Saif al-Dawla, December 2, 2004.
[5] Al-Ahram Weekly, June 19-25, 2003.
[6] Al-Ahram Weekly, May 18-24, 2000.
[7] Others approached but not appointed include Negad al-Bora‘i and former Cairo Times publisher Hisham Kassem, who is also chair of the board of EOHR. Interview with Saif al-Dawla, December 2, 2004.
[8] Cairo Times, February 26- March 3, 2004.
[9] Interview with Ahmad Saif al-Islam, February 16, 2004.
[10] Interview with Saif al-Dawla, February 24, 2004.
[11] Interview with Hafiz Abu Saada, February 18, 2004.
[12] Interviews with Bahey al-Din Hassan, February 26, 2004 and December 16, 2004.
[13] Interview with Boutros Boutros-Ghali, March 16, 2004.
[14] Al-Musawwar, February 20, 2004.
[15] Interview with Boutros-Ghali, March 16, 2004.
[16] Interview with Hassan, April 7, 2005.
[17] Reuters, April 8, 2004.
[18] Interview with Hassan, December 16, 2004.
[19] Osama El-Ghazali Harb, “Premature Pessimism,” Al-Ahram Weekly, June 23-30, 2004.
[20] Al-Wafd, June 4, 2004. The NCHR remains in the NDP headquarters and is financially constrained, despite receiving supplementary assistance from the UN Development Program. Interview with Hassan, December 16, 2004.
[21] Al-‘Arabi, November 28-December 4, 2004.
[22] Human Rights Watch, Mass Arrests and Torture in Sinai (New York, February 2005).
[23] Full disclosure: Joe Stork is also the founding editor of this magazine.
[24] Interview with Hassan, April 7, 2005.
[25] National Council for Human Rights, The Annual Report for the National Council for Human Rights, 2004-2005 (Cairo: Shura Council Printing House, April 2005), pp. 109-110.
[26] Ibid., p. 130.
[27] The report cites conflicting numbers. See pp. 146, 240.
[28] Ibid., pp. 146-147.
[29] Ibid., pp. 240-241.
[30] Ibid., p. 241.
[31] The report says that the Council is “renewing” this call. Ibid., p. 327. Yet, from the time of the April 2004 vote to table discussion of the issue until the time the report was released, according to several human rights activists and observers, the NCHR neither took an official position nor ever fully articulated one on the public record. Hence, the NCHR report misrepresents what the council has done.
[32] Ibid., pp. 327-328.
[33] Ursula Lindsey, “Nipping the Hand That Feeds It,” Cairo, April 21-27, 2005.
[34] Al-‘Arabi, April 17-23, 2005.

How to cite this article:

Joshua Stacher "Rhetorical Acrobatics and Reputations," Middle East Report 235 (Summer 2005).

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