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Egypt

Executive Summary

According to its constitution, Egypt is a republic governed by an elected president and unicameral legislature. Presidential elections were held in March 2018. Challengers to the incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pulled out ahead of the election, citing personal decisions, political pressure, legal troubles, and unfair competition; in some cases they were arrested for alleged violations of candidacy rules. Domestic and international organizations expressed concern that government limitations on association, assembly, and expression severely constrained broad participation in the political process. Domestic and international observers concluded that government authorities professionally administered parliamentary elections in 2015 in accordance with the country’s laws, while also expressing concern about restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly, association, and expression and their negative effect on the political climate surrounding the elections.

The Interior Ministry supervises law enforcement and internal security, including the Public Police, the Central Security Force (CSF), the National Security Sector (NSS), and Customs and Immigration. The Public Police are responsible for law enforcement nationwide. The CSF protects infrastructure and is responsible for crowd control. The NSS is responsible for internal security threats and counterterrorism along with other Egyptian security services. The armed forces report to the minister of defense and are responsible for external defense, but they also have a mandate to “assist” police in protecting vital infrastructure during a state of emergency. Military personnel were granted full arrest authority in 2011 but normally only use this authority during states of emergency and “periods of significant turmoil.” Defense forces operate in the Sinai as part of a broader national counterterrorism operation with general detention authority. The Border Guard Forces, under the Ministry of Defense, are responsible for border control. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

In April the country held a national referendum that approved new constitutional amendments, which among other outcomes extended President Sisi’s current term from four years to six years and allowed the president to run for a third six-year term in 2024. Domestic and international press reported multiple violations of the elections law by the government in the referendum process, including arrests of opponents. The State Council blocked all legal challenges to the referendum and amendments.

President Sisi requested that parliament approve a nationwide state of emergency (SOE) after the 2017 terrorist attack on Coptic churches. Since then, the government has requested, and parliament has renewed, SOEs with one- or two-day gaps between every two SOE periods to meet the legal requirement that SOEs may only be renewed once. In North Sinai, a partial SOE has been in effect since 2014. The government regularly renews that SOE every three months and has imposed partial curfews on parts of North Sinai.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents and terrorist groups; forced disappearance; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and the existence of unenforced criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive laws governing civil society organizations; restrictions on political participation; violence involving religious minorities; violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; use of the law to arbitrarily arrest and prosecute LGBTI persons; and forced or compulsory child labor.

The government inconsistently punished or prosecuted officials who committed abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in government. In most cases the government did not comprehensively investigate allegations of human rights abuses, including most incidents of violence by security forces, contributing to an environment of impunity.

Attacks by terrorist organizations caused arbitrary and unlawful deprivation of life. Terrorist groups conducted deadly attacks on government, civilian, and security targets throughout the country, including places of worship. Authorities investigated terrorist attacks and prosecuted alleged perpetrators. Terrorists and other armed groups abducted civilians in North Sinai, some of whom they beheaded. There were incidents of societal sectarian violence against Coptic Christian Egyptians.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but includes a clause stating, “It may be subject to limited censorship in times of war or public mobilization.” The government frequently did not respect this right.

Freedom of Expression: Citizens expressed their views on a wide range of political and social topics. Nonetheless, the government investigated and prosecuted critics for alleged incitement of violence, insults to religion, insults to public figures and institutions such as the judiciary and the military, or violation of public morals. Individuals also faced societal and official harassment for speech viewed as sympathetic to political protests in other countries, such as Mohamad Ramadan who remained in pretrial detention after his December 2018 arrest for “inciting social unrest” by posting a photo on Facebook of himself wearing a yellow vest akin to those worn by political protesters in France.

The law provides a broad definition of terrorism, to include “any act harming national unity or social peace.” Human rights observers expressed concern that authorities could use the ambiguous definition to stifle nonviolent speech and nonviolent opposition activity.

Between January and June, a local organization that tracks freedom of association and speech recorded 138 violations of the freedoms of media and artistic and digital expression. One example cited by The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) is the June 25 arrest of several political figures after they met to form a new political alliance (Alliance of Hope) to run in 2020 parliamentary elections. On August 6, the Cairo Criminal Court upheld a freeze on the assets of 83 defendants in the case (no. 930/2019). On September 3, board members of the Journalists’ Syndicate, journalists, and families of the detainees submitted three official complaints to NCHR claiming that the detainees were experiencing poor detention conditions and medical negligence. The next hearing on the renewal of the detention of the defendants was scheduled for January 8, 2020.

On September 24, authorities arrested Hazem Hosni and Hassan Nafaa, both political science professors at Cairo University who were outspoken critics of President Sisi. Hosny was also a spokesman for the 2018 presidential campaign of Sami Anan (see section 3). According to media, Nafaa’s arrest came minutes after a local channel aired a leaked conversation between Nafaa and an al-Jazeera producer in which Nafaa demanded LE 16,500 ($1,000) for conducting an interview with al-Jazeera. On December 17, the State Security Prosecutor ordered the renewal of Hosni and Nafaa’s detention for 15 days pending investigations on charges of joining a banned group and spreading false news.

In a November 19 report, HRW claimed it had documented 28 cases from 2016 to 2019 in which authorities harassed or threatened one or more family members of journalists, media workers, and political and human rights activists who have criticized the government and now live abroad.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a variety of views but with significant restrictions. Independent media reported that entities wholly or partially owned by the intelligence services assumed control of several independent media companies throughout the year. The constitution, penal code, and media and publications law govern media issues. The government regulated the licensing of newspapers and controlled the printing and distribution of a majority of newspapers, including private newspapers and those of opposition political parties. The law does not impose restrictions on newspaper ownership.

The more than 20 state-owned media outlets broadly supported official state policy. The National Press Authority holds the power to appoint and dismiss editorial leadership of state-owned print outlets. The governmental Egyptian Radio and Television Union appointed the heads of state-owned radio and television channels. Both state-owned and private media (including television and online journalism) occasionally broadcast and published mild criticism of government policies, but dominant media narratives supported the president and his policy initiatives.

The law considers websites and social media accounts with at least 5,000 subscribers as media outlets, requires them to pay a licensing fee of 50,000 Egyptian pounds (LE) ($3,030), and grants the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) broad discretion to block their content. According to media reports, the SCMR fined the weekly newspaper al-Mashhad LE 50,000 ($3,030) in March and blocked its website for six months for allegedly publishing sexually explicit material. Al-Mashhad claimed it did not publish illicit material and that the censorship was due to its reports claiming that a police station in Cairo extorted business owners to fund food to be given to voters in the April referendum. According to media reports, the SCMR also prevented al-Mashhad from sending 30 journalists to report from polling stations during the referendum.

As of December the Committee to Protect Journalists reported there were 26 imprisoned journalists in the country.

On June 23, the al-Tahrir news agency stated it was shutting down operations after authorities blocked its website on May 9. According to a June 25 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the SCMR issued a bylaw in March stating that websites in violation of Egypt’s media laws would be blocked.

On November 24, unidentified security officials raided the office of news site Mada Masr, seized documents and electronic equipment, and detained three staff members. Detained staff members were taken to a police station before being released several hours later. On November 27, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying that Mada Masr was investigated because it was operating without a permit. No additional information was available on the status of the investigation as of December 16.

On May 21, a court ordered the release of al-Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, who had been held for 880 days in pretrial detention for allegedly disseminating false news and receiving monetary funds from foreign authorities to defame the state’s reputation. Before processing his release, authorities rearrested Hussein, who remained in pretrial detention awaiting formal charges.

Violence and Harassment: According to media reports and local and international human rights groups, state actors arrested and imprisoned, harassed, and intimidated journalists. Foreign correspondents reported cases where the government denied them entry, deported them, and delayed or denied issuance of media credentials; some claimed these actions were part of a government campaign to intimidate foreign media.

According to media reports, on February 20, authorities detained David Kirkpatrick, a New York Times reporter, in the Cairo International Airport and prevented him from entering the country. Kirkpatrick was the Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times from 2011 to 2015 and is the author of a book on Egypt, Into the Hands of the Soldiers.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Official censorship occurred. The SOE empowered the president to monitor newspapers, publications, editorials, drawings, and all means of expression and to order the seizure, confiscation, and closure of publications and print houses.

According to media reports, authorities blocked 34,000 websites prior to the April referendum, including sites gathering signatures to oppose the amendments. On June 23, AFTE reported that authorities censored three issues of the leftist Al Tagammaa Party’s weekly Al Ahly newspaper that discussed presidential pardons, corruption, and a planned government cabinet reshuffle. The AFTE report noted the government had previously censored Al-Dostour, Al-Mesryoon, Sawt Al Ummah, Al-Sabah, and Al-Bawaba newspapers.

Some activists and many journalists reported privately they self-censored criticism of the government or comments that could be perceived as sympathetic to the MB, due to the overall anti-MB and progovernment media environment. Publishers were also wary of publishing books that criticized religious institutions, such as al-Azhar, or challenged Islamic doctrine.

On March 22, the Musicians’ Syndicate banned famous singer Sherine Abdel Wahab from performing and summoned her for questioning for “insulting Egypt.” The syndicate lifted the ban in early June after she publicly apologized.

Libel/Slander Laws: Local and international rights groups reported several cases of authorities charging and convicting individuals with denigrating religion under the so-called blasphemy law, targeting primarily Christians but also Muslims.

On January 29, atheist video blogger Sherif Gaber launched a crowdfunding page called “Help Me Escape Egypt” to aid him in purchasing another nationality. On March 29, he posted on Twitter that there were two warrants for his arrest for treason and receiving funding from unknown sources. Gaber was arrested for denigration of Islam-related charges in 2018, 2015, and 2013. As of December 16, the government had not detained him.

National Security: The law allows government censors to block the publication of information related to intelligence and national security.

The law imposes a fine on any person who “intentionally publishes…or spreads false news.” The fine is many times the average annual salary of most local journalists. In March 2018 authorities established hotlines for members of the public to call or leave text messages reporting fake news in either traditional or social media that endangers state security.

Judges may issue restraint orders to prevent media from covering court cases considered sensitive on national security grounds. Rights groups stated authorities sometimes misused the orders to shield government, police, or military officials from public scrutiny. Citing safety and security, the government and military restricted media access to many parts of North Sinai.

Authorities have held blogger Islam al-Refai, known as Khorm, who ran a satirical Twitter account with 75,000 followers, in pretrial detention since 2017, according to his attorney. NGOs continued to claim that authorities used counterterrorism and state-of-emergency laws and courts unjustly to prosecute journalists, activists, lawyers, political party members, university professors, and critics for their peaceful criticism.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not consistently implement the law effectively, and officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: The Central Agency for Auditing and Accounting was the government’s internal anticorruption body and submitted reports to the president and prime minister that were not available to the public. The auditing and accounting agency stationed monitors at state-owned companies to report corrupt practices. The Administrative Control Authority (ACA), another state institution with technical, financial, and administrative independence, had jurisdiction over state administrative bodies, state-owned enterprises, public associations and institutions, private companies undertaking public work, and organizations to which the state contributes in any form. The ACA is a civilian agency led by personnel seconded from the military and intelligence services. The ACA has no oversight role for allegations of corruption involving the military. In addition to anticorruption, it also has jurisdiction for criminal violations to include human trafficking and financial crimes.

On April 3, the World Bank offered a positive assessment of the country’s anticorruption efforts. The ACA raised more than 400 corruption-related cases and took legal action against more than 1,400 employees January to August. For example, on August 20, the ACA arrested the secretary general of the SCMR, Ahmed Selim, for bribery and corruption.

In another case, on September 15, the Illicit Gains Authority referred Souad al-Khouli, the former deputy governor of Alexandria, to the criminal court based on charges of illegally obtaining more than LE 907,500 ($55,000) by exploiting her public positions. On April 4, the Port Said Felonies court sentenced Gamal Abdel Azim, the former head of the Customs Authority, to 10 years in prison and a fine of LE 769,000 ($46,600) on charges of corruption and bribery. A February report by the Project on Middle East Democracy criticized the lack of transparency in ACA investigations and alleged the organization may selectively target individuals for investigation at the behest of the Presidency.

In August Mohamed Ali, a disgruntled former contractor whose contracting company formerly carried out civilian projects for the army, posted a series of videos accusing President Sisi of wasting public funds on prestige projects. President Sisi stated the allegations were “lies and slander” and that the projects were necessary to build a new state.

Financial Disclosure: There are no financial disclosure laws for public officials. A 2013 conflict-of-interest law forbids government officials from maintaining any pecuniary interest in matters over which they exercise authority.

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