International Community Urges Egyptian Authorities to Respect Rule of Law and Human Rights, amid Mixed Reactions to President’s Ouster

Immediately following the military-led ouster of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, and amidst clashes between authorities and protesters, supranational bodies urged all parties involved to respect human rights and adhere to the rule of law.  Morsi, an Islamist politician elected in June 2012 following the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, faced increasing public opposition as he expanded executive powers and oversaw the adoption of a controversial constitution.  On July 3, 2013, the Egyptian military deposed and detained Morsi, suspended the constitution and thereafter instated an interim leader, Supreme Constitutional Court Chief Justice Adly Mansour, who dissolved the upper house of parliament while the military and prosecutors cracked down on Morsi supporters and Muslim Brotherhood leaders.  An Associated Press timeline detailing key events leading to the ouster is available here.

Morsi’s ouster was met with a mixed reception, both in Egypt and internationally. Overwhelmingly, however, intergovernmental bodies and human rights monitors called for authorities – and particularly the Egyptian military – to respect the fundamental rights of protesters, politicians and others and to ensure a return to democratic governance in keeping with international standards.

Suspension of African Union Membership

In a communiqué issued on July 5, the African Union (AU) suspended Egypt’s membership, finding Morsi’s overthrow contravened provisions of the Egyptian ConstitutionSee African Union, Peace and Security Council, 34th Session, PSC/PR/COMM.(CCCLXXXIV), 5 July 2013, para. 6. The African Union acknowledged that since Morsi’s election, Egypt has been “marked by the growing frustration of many Egyptians over the management of the country, cumulative economic difficulties, deteriorating security, political and social polarization and lack of consensus on the best way forward.” Id. at para. 3.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay echoed these concerns, expressing her general “support for all Egyptians striving for a state that would safeguard their human rights and freedoms, and guarantee respect for rule of law, noting that the massive protests and demonstrations over the past few weeks were a very clear indication that Egyptians want their fundamental rights to be honoured.” [OHCHR]

These larger frustrations and goals did not, in the AU Peace and Security Council’s opinion, justify the military backed removal of Morsi.  It found the overthrow, together with the “suspension of the Constitution adopted by referendum in December 2012, and the appointment and swearing in of a caretaker Head of State” constituted an unconstitutional change in government prohibited under the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.  Communique of 5 July 2013, at para. 5.  That Charter defines an unconstitutional change of government as, inter alia, “[a]ny putsch or coup d’Etat against a democratically elected government.”  African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, Eight Session, art. 23.[1] Any violation of that provision triggers the AU Peace and Security Council’s obligation to suspend the State party from the right to participate in the Union’s activities. Id. art. 25.

The suspension, however, did not sever the AU’s diplomatic contacts with Egypt, or prohibit it from undertaking any initiatives to restore democracy in Egypt. Id., art. 25 (2)-(3).  Indeed, the African Union has already expressed its intention to establish and send a panel to Egypt in the hopes of fostering a “constructive political dialogue aimed at national reconciliation, as well as to contribute to [Egypt’s] efforts as they work towards a transition that would lead to an early return to constitutional order.”  [African Union]  However, the African Charter on Democracy requires States to prosecute or extradite perpetrators of an unconstitutional change in government, and prohibits such individuals from participating in elections or holding political office.  Id., art. 25 (4)-(9).

The African Union nonetheless encouraged all Egyptian stakeholders to “work towards the fulfillment of the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people as embodied in the February 2011 Revolution” and “embrace the spirit of dialogue and mutual accommodation and to refrain from any acts of violence and retribution.”  Communique of 5 July 2013, para. 7.

In contrast, the Secretary General of the League of Arab States, Egyptian national Nabil Elaraby, reportedly welcomed the leadership change in Egypt as a fulfillment of the revolution’s ideals, but condemned the subsequent violence and called on authorities to exercise restraint. [KUNA]

Human Rights Abuses in Egypt since Ouster

Immediately after Morsi was removed, the military suspended the December 2012 Constitution approved by the Egyptian population. [NPR] Although controversial[2], the Constitution guaranteed the right of an individual to express opinions, organize public gatherings and “engage in peaceful, unarmed demonstrations;” safeguarded freedom of the press; prohibited censorship in the absence of a court ruling; and codified equal protection under the law.  2012 Constitution of Egypt, art. 33, 45, 47, 48, 50.  These rights reflect protections enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international instrument to which Egypt is a party. See e.g., ICCPR, art. 14 (equal protection of the law);art. 19(2) (freedom of expression); art. 21 (freedom of assembly).

Although “[i]n time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation. . .  the States Parties to the [ICCPR] may take measures derogating from their obligations,” the State must publically proclaim a public emergency, and the derogations must be strictly construed and not involve discrimination solely on the ground of race, colour, sex, language, religion or social origin. ICCPR, art. 4(1).  Furthermore, certain rights are non-derogable, no matter the circumstances; these include: the right to life (art. 6); freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (art. 7);  freedom from slavery and servitude (art. 8(1) and (2)); freedom from ex post facto punishment (art. 15); and freedom of though, conscience and religion (art. 18). Id., art. 4(2).

Absent the necessary declaration of a qualifying public emergency, Egypt is obligated to respect and ensure all the rights enshrined in the ICCPR. See, e.g., UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 29, States of Emergency (Article 4), CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.11, 31 August 2001, para. 2.  The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights thus requested the “military and law enforcement officials to show utmost restraint and make sure that they comply at all times with international human rights obligations and international standards on policing, including the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.” [OHCHR]

However, numerous human rights abuses have been reported since Morsi’s ouster.  Egyptian authorities have ordered the arrest and detention of Muslim Brotherhood members solely based on their participation with that group. [HRW]  Prosecutors in Egypt have ordered the arrest of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie. [NPR]  “Special forces dressed in black stormed into the [Muslim Brotherhood TV] studio and arrested [the station’s program director] along with 22 other journalists and detained them overnight, releasing a day-and-a-half later.” [HRW]  Military officers also seized the cameras and transmission equipment from Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr. [HRW]

Excessive use of force by the military and police has resulted in many deaths and injuries among the protesters.  On July 5th alone, “more than 30 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured in various clashes across the country.” [OHCHR] The following day, Egyptian soldiers fired at Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators, killing at least 51 people outside the Republican Guard Compound. [AP]

Senior United Nations officials, including Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, voiced concern regarding the targeting of Muslim Brotherhood members and the general level of violence, while calling on the interim authorities “to exercise restraint, protect human rights and resort to peaceful dialogue to resolve differences.” [UN]  UN Women highlighted reports of attacks against female protesters and underscored women’s right to participate in the political process. [UN]

July 8th Declaration

Amid continuing protests regarding the ouster, Egypt’s newly-instated interim president, Adly Mansour, issued a declaration articulating a timeline for amending the suspended constitution, electing a new president, and holding parliamentary elections. [AP]  The declaration also contains 33 provisional articles providing, inter alia, that personal freedoms, the right to expression, and assembly are guaranteed, but prohibiting political parties based on gender, race, or religion. [Ahram]  More significantly, the declaration confers the president with legislative and executive authorities, as well as the ability to declare a state of emergency for a period of three months upon approval by a Cabinet which has yet to be formed. [Ahram]

Many freedoms were curtailed under a near-continuous “state of emergency” in place for over three decades under Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian leader deposed in 2011.  During Egypt’s 2010 Universal Periodic Review, many UN Member States urged the Mubarak regime to lift the state of emergency and repeal the Emergency Law. See Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review on Egypt, Fourteenth Session, UN Doc. A/HRC/14/17, 26 March 2010.  Following his 2009 visit to Egypt, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism documented the impact of the Emergency Law on fundamental freedoms, and raised concerns about the use of military and state security courts to try civilians, the systematic use of torture and degrading treatment, and irregular detention. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Martin Scheinin, Mission to Egypt, A/HRC/13/37/Add.2, 14 October 2009.

The declared state of emergency eventually expired in 2012; the law’s repeal had been a key demand of Mubarak’s opposition. [Washington Post] Its possible reemergence – discussed at various points since Mubarak’s overthrow – is a key concern for civil society in Egypt and external observers. [OHCHR; Ahram; HRW]

[1] In contrast, the United States White House indicated yesterday at a press briefing that there is “a legal framework” to determine whether the events constitute a military coup – a determination that would impact the $1.5 billion in aid the United States contributes to Egypt.  The Foreign Assistance Act precludes aid to “’any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état’ or ‘where the “the military plays a decisive role” in such an action.’” Peter Baker, New York Times, The Caucus.

[2] The adoption of the December 22, 2012 Constitution was wrought with controversy.  Morsi had initially granted himself expansive powers over the legislature.  Following protests, a new constitution was drafted. [NPR] The December 2012 constitution approved by popular referendum “was adopted by a largely Islamist body. Most others involved in drafting the document withdrew in protest over what they say is a constitution that fails to abolish military trials for civilians, effectively limit the powers of the president and protect minority rights — all while slightly expanding the role of Islam in Egypt.” [NPR].  Only 39% of the Egyptian population voted in this referendum.