Egyptian media paints rosy picture of UNHRC review of Egypt’s human rights record

Published on 30 December 2014 in Opinion Jordan Daniels (author) Jordan Daniels


In early November, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) undertook a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Egypt’s human rights record, a standard assessment that takes place every few years for all UN member states.

The session came just three months after Human Rights Watch issued a report concluding the methods used by Egyptian security forces to break up pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests in the Al Raba’a Al-Adaweya and Al-Nahda Squares in August 2013 “likely amounted to crimes against humanity.” This accusation is only the most recent in a steady stream of criticism that human rights groups have lodged against Egypt’s de facto criminalization of demonstrations; indefinite detention of dissidents, opposition figures, and journalists without trial; and crackdown on freedom of the press.

After hearing statements from the Egyptian delegation, 125 other member nations, and both Egyptian and foreign non-governmental organizations, the UNHRC issued 300 recommendations to improve human rights conditions in Egypt. These included the abolition of the death penalty, the immediate release of journalists and political prisoners, and amendment of Egypt’s controversial protest law. For comparison, Iraq’s review earlier this year produced 290 recommendations.

Despite the wide range of issues identified by the UNHRC, the Egyptian media described the review as an overwhelming diplomatic success and praised the Egyptian delegation for its patriotic defense of Egypt’s human rights record against largely unfounded attacks. This chorus of support is the latest example of the restricted media environment and widespread self-censorship that has developed in Egypt following arrests of several journalists over the past year.

Egyptian Media Glosses over International Criticism

Several outlets have published news pieces detailing the criticisms leveled against the Egyptian government by other countries, activists, and rights organizations. Privately-owned Al-Masry Al-Youm published an article describing Human Rights Watch’s demand that the international community condemn Egypt for its human rights violations over the past year, including the Al-Rabaa and Al-Nahda massacres. Privately-owned Al-Shorouk ran a story on George Isaac, a political activist and Coptic Christian, who argued that the 300 recommendations—nearly double the number from its first UPR in 2010—represent serious regression.

There has, however, been an absence of opinion pieces in major Egyptian newspapers and popular television talk shows expressing critical viewpoints. There has also been no mention of the seven Egyptian human rights organizations that boycotted the UNHRC session for fear of retaliation, with the exception of the English language Egyptian site  Mada Masr.

By contrast, in an exceptionally flattering op-ed in the state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram, Emad Hijab claimed that “Egypt scored major victories in the realm of politics and human rights” at the UNHRC session, saying that those who stood in opposition to Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Alkarama Foundation, “lost their bet” to the prowess of Egyptian diplomacy.

Overall, coverage about the entire affair was relatively minimal. The UNHRC review received little airtime on major Egyptian television channels and a limited number of articles in each of the major dailies.

The one big exception was Al-Ahram, which published nineteen articles before, during, and after Egypt’s appearance before the UNHRC. This deluge of commentary may have been the paper’s attempt to control messaging about Egypt’s image and legitimacy on the international stage.  Al-Ahram recently came under fire for misquoting New York Times columnist David Kirkpatrick in his account of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi’s appearance before the UN General Assembly and then offering contradictory accounts about the editorial blunder in the Arabic and English statements it subsequently released.

“With us or against us”

The Egyptian media largely parroted the government’s official response to accusations about its human rights abuses, and pointed to domestic security challenges, especially the fight against terrorism.

What makes this rhetoric important is its implications in an international context. It is, in fact, neither new nor unique to Egypt. In her television program Hona Al Asema, Lamees Al-Hadeedy drew parallels between Egypt today and the United States following the 9/11 attacks, when the Patriot Act was passed to give the government exceptional powers.

Couching Egypt’s human rights performance in terms of national security creates a dramatic “with us or against us” dynamic. In an interview with TV personality Ibrahim Issa, Mervat Al-Talawi, head of Egypt’s National Council for Women and member of the Egyptian delegation to the UNHRC, described the 125 member countries who participated in the review as belonging to one of three blocks: “Supportive,” “biased,” or “hostile.” In the same interview, she called human rights a “weapon” that countries use to “attack” others they dislike.

Many articles drew a line between countries who “recognize,” “appreciate,” and “understand” the security and stability challenges Egypt faces and those who did not. One columnist for Al-Shorouk, generally perceived as more progressive than other mainstream media outlets, characterized the UNHRC review as a “battle to determine the powers that stand with Egypt and those that stand against her on the foreign policy stage.” An opinion piece published by Al-Ahram entitled “Human Rights…the Muslim Brotherhood’s Last Card” took it one step further and accused the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and their “Turkish and Qatari followers” of using the UNHRC review to launch a desperate war against Egypt.

What emerged from this commentary was a dossier of international friends and foes. The United States, most European countries, Tunisia, and Turkey were at the top of the black list. Criticism from the United States and Europe was attributed to Western meddling, while those from Tunisia and Turkey were often portrayed as part of a global Islamist plot to undermine Egypt.

Qatar was the darling of the Egyptian media for its relatively positive and deferential remarks during the review. Given the bitter cold war between the two countries over Qatar’s support for Islamist elements in Egypt, as well as Egypt’s recent sentencing of three Al-Jazeera journalists on terrorism-related charges, Qatar’s decision not to criticize its rival’s human rights record was surprising. It came to light a month later that a broader reconciliation campaign is underway to thaw relations between Qatar, Egypt, and other Gulf states.

Reflecting its much warmer diplomatic relations with Egypt since Sisi took office, Israel’s comments at the review session were also muted, and limited in scope to combating illegal immigration and human trafficking.

The Egyptian government will review the UNHRC recommendations and decide which it will accept and reject. Its final response will be announced in March 2015.

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