Human rights in Egypt : Silence in class

Opinion Articles

A MONTH after Tunisians tossed out their hated dictator, Egyptians did the same, forcing Hosni Mubarak to step down. But while Tunisians are choosing a new parliament to complete their transition to democracy, Egyptians have been heading back to school. And not only physically—state universities have reopened—but also metaphorically: unhampered by any parliament, the government of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has been posting a series of restrictive laws. Should they all be imposed, Egypt may feel rather like a military academy.

One example is state universities, where the authorities want to quash the anti-government protests that disrupted studies last year. The more than one million students returning to campuses faced lengthy queues and body searches just to get inside. After some responded angrily, police moved in with tear gas and shotguns; one student has died. Political activity of any kind is now, in effect, banned. Students who object may be dismissed. Faculty members may be fired for “inciting” protests. University staff had won the right to elect university presidents and deans after the 2011 revolution. Now Mr Sisi appoints people to those posts.

Ironically for a government legitimised by the mass protests against rule by the Muslim Brotherhood, which paved the way for a military coup in July 2013, Mr Sisi’s state also bans protests. Unless they are licensed, that is; but such licences are rarely granted.

In the guise of “regulating” funding for non-governmental organisations, the government is also set to outlaw obstreperous legal-aid and human-rights groups. Some international organisations, such as the Carter Centre, an American elections monitor, have closed their Egypt offices. Many Egyptian NGO workers have quit their jobs or fled the country.

Even those groups willing to submit to laws that allow intrusive oversight have a new fear. Mr Sisi’s government has made it a crime punishable by life imprisonment to accept or “facilitate” funding for any activity deemed a danger to national security or to “public peace”. If the accused is a government official, the punishment is death. “Why do they make laws to frighten citizens instead of protecting them?” asked an Egyptian on Twitter. “It’s because they make them to protect the state,” was one answer.

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