By Semanur Karaman and Sara Katrine Brandt
No country in the world is safe for women human rights defenders, yet Egypt is particularly dangerous for women who want to contribute to democracy and assert their presence in the public-political sphere.
Here are a few examples of defenders who have been punished, attacked, who have experienced others attempting to silence them, and threatened for merely being socially conscious women.
On 16 June 2015, Esraa Abdel Fattah, of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, was banned from travelling due to her work in promoting the use of new media tools for democracy and human rights.
On 28 December 2014, Yara Sallam was sentenced to two years in prison for taking part in a peaceful protest. It appears that she received this harsh sentence because of her advocacy with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights [EIPR] on transitional justice.
Also jailed on the very same day was Sanaa Seif, a member of the “No to Military Trials for Civilians” movement. Her crime was calling for an impartial judiciary system.
On 31 May 2015, Mahienour Al-Masry was sentenced to 15 months in prison for her work in building solidarity for prisoners and ensuring the rights of those jailed for political reasons.
Of course, if you ask the Egyptian authorities, they will tell you that all these women have been put behind bars for distorting public order and breaking laws. However, those of us who know them and their meaningful work, and are in solidarity under the banner of human rights and political justice, know these women are simply targeted for being women human rights defenders.
And now, the Egyptian authorities have set their eyes on another women – Azza Soliman, of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, an internationally renowned female human rights defender known for her work promoting gender equality and access to justice. She was a witness to and voluntarily reported to the police regarding the brutal murder of Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, yet she is now being tried under the infamous Law 107, commonly known as the Anti-Protest Law.
After a series of routine postponements within the Egyptian criminal justice system, the judge decided on 4 July that her trial should be once again postponed to 26 September.In the meantime, Azza tirelessly continues her work:“I will continue my fight to ensure protection of witnesses until my next court date. I still have hope for Egypt.”
Despite ongoing attacks and threats against human rights defenders, Egypt continues to enjoy the support of so called Western democracies. Obama’s multi-million dollar military assistance to Egypt is complemented by Germany’s $9bn trade deal and Britain’s decision to launch the largest trade delegation over a decade.
Additionally, the European Union is renegotiating its neighbourhood policy with Egypt with an emphasis on fighting terrorism instead of ensuring the human rights of Egyptian citizens are allied to that purpose. Egypt, despite clamping down on literally everyone who dares to criticise the current order, is a diplomatic rock star.
Is this legitimate? No. And more so, Western democracies are complicit in the persecution of peaceful human rights defenders.
This has to stop. The international community must speak up, before it is too late. If Egypt falls short of implementing internationally accepted human rights standards, and is not pressured to do so, there is no hope for a peaceful and stable Middle East and North Africa, even if we manage to eliminate the “Islamic State” (IS) terror.
We can’t fight terror with terror. Therefore, it is time to stop turning a blind eye, and start speaking out.
Women human rights defenders need your support. Act now. Every socially conscious citizen of the world should pressure their own governments to stop being complicit in the deteriorating human rights situation. It is time we start holding our own governments accountable for the death, torture, ill treatment, and imprisonment of hundreds of citizens for taking a stand and speaking for justice.
Semanur Karaman is a feminist activist from Turkey who has been specialising on freedoms pertaining to civil society, with a specific focus on Women Human Rights Defenders in the Middle East and North Africa. She is the Women Human Rights Defenders Programme Coordinator at AWID: Association for Women’s Rights in Development.
Sara Katrine Brandt has been based for the last two years in Cairo where she is the International Advocacy Advisor of Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA). Sara engages in international policy processes at the United Nations and the European Union about women’s rights.