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Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 31 - 01 - 2008

Opposition MPs say there is a pressing need to improve Egypt's human rights record but deny there is any discrimination against religious minorities, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
The European Parliament's (EP) 17 January resolution condemning Egypt's human rights record pushed opposition MPs this week to press hard for an investigation into the prevalence of torture in Egypt. On Saturday a majority of opposition and independent MPs refused to endorse a People's Assembly report condemning the EP resolution, arguing that it would be dishonest to do so given the extent of human rights violations in Egypt.
Saad El-Katatni, spokesman of the parliamentary bloc of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, said its MPs "cannot accept or reject the assembly's condemnation of the EP resolution".
"I read the EP resolution on human rights in Egypt very carefully. Under the 1993 Egyptian- European partnership agreement both parties are authorised to comment on human rights," said El-Katatni.
While El-Katatni is happy to condone the EP resolution's criticism of torture in prison cells and police stations and the referring of civilians to military courts he denies that there are any grounds for criticism when it comes to the treatment of religious minorities such as the Bahaais and Shias. El-Katatni argues that the government could improve Egypt's human rights record by activating the role of the National Council for Human Rights and implementing its annual recommendations.
Brotherhood MP Hussein Ibrahim accused the People's Assembly of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses. Even worse, he added, the assembly has refused to form a fact-finding commission to investigate the topic or even approve the debate of several interpellations directed at Interior Minister Habib El-Adli.
"It is deplorable that opposition MPs have been unable to oblige the interior minister to come to the assembly to answer questions about torture and ill-treatment in prison cells and police stations," said Ibrahim. "How can we expect the outside world to give us a clean bill of health as far as our record on human rights is concerned when our own government prevents us from discussing the subject?"
Gamal Zahran, an independent MP with leftist leanings, warned that unless the government takes urgent measures to improve its human rights record a growing number of international institutions, including the American Congress and EP, will use that record to interfere in Egyptian affairs and might even impose sanctions. "Everybody knows that Egypt appears prominently on any list of countries operating a systematic policy of torture against prisoners and political detainees," says Zahran. He recommends that "the People's Assembly hold a free discussion of human rights abuses in the presence of Interior Minister Habib El-Adli rather than condemning or cutting ties with the EP".
NDP deputies rallied behind parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour who said he sent a message to speaker of the EP Hans-Gert Poettering on 20 January condemning the EP resolution as interference in Egypt's internal affairs.
"I told him that the Egypt-EU partnership calls for dialogue not the language of orders," Sorour said. He revealed he had asked the committees of foreign affairs and human rights to prepare a report condemning the EP resolution and claimed a majority in both the EP and the Euro- Mediterranean Parliament had been upset by the resolution.
"Most EP MPs said they do not agree with the resolution and the speaker of the Euro- Mediterranean Parliament sent an envoy to meet me on Friday," said Sorour, who told Egyptian MPs that members of both parliaments had urged him not to cut ties with them. Sorour also revealed that the speaker of the EP will visit Egypt next month.
The report commissioned by Sorour was read out by the Chairman of Foreign Affairs Committee Mustafa El-Feki. It denounced the "EP's double- standards which turn a blind eye to Israel's gross human rights violations of Palestinian citizens while focussing on Arab countries with the objective of tarnishing their image".
El-Feki, however, dismissed any idea of cutting ties with the EP. "But the human rights issue must not become a European tool for exerting pressure on Egypt," he said, calling on the EU to engage in several "Third World issues".
"We want to discuss the ill-treatment of Muslims in Europe and racial purges on that continent," he said.
Sorour gave the floor to as many NDP MPs as possible in a bid to create a united front against the EP. Edward Ghali El-Dahabi, the Coptic chairman of the assembly's Human Rights Committee, said the EP resolution insulted Egypt's Copts. "The resolution spoke about Copts as a minority and this is completely wrong," said El-Dahabi, who asserted that the "EP was also wrong when it claimed that there is no press freedom in Egypt and that Egyptian journalists go to jail because of their opinions".
Mohamed Abul-Enein, the businessman chair of the Industry Committee, thought that European ambassadors in Egypt have a far better understanding of conditions in the country than members of the EP. "For example, the German ambassador in Cairo told me that EP members should watch Egyptian movies and plays discussing domestic affairs freely in order to understand that there is space for freedom in Egypt," Abul-Enein said.
Mohamed Khalil Qiwita, another NDP MP, accused the Jewish lobby of being behind the 17 January resolution while Moufid Shehab, minister of state for parliamentary affairs, blamed "a cabal of EP MPs who are friends of Israel".
"That is quite clear," said Shehab, "given the resolution spoke about containing the smuggling of weapons on the Egypt-Gaza borders." Shehab, however, said the government is ready to conduct a dialogue with the EP "because we have historic ties with Europe and we do not want to allow others to sever those ties".
"What is dangerous about the resolution is that it asked the European Commission to closely follow up the human rights situation in Egypt," Shehab continued. "This follow-up is totally rejected though we agree on a dialogue with the commission." Shehab also said that King of Spain Carlos will still be visiting Egypt next month and that during his visit Egypt and Spain will sign a cooperation and friendship agreement -- "a clear sign," Shehab argued, "that European governments do not care about the EP's resolution".


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