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Egypt: Human Rights

Volume 754: debated on Thursday 26 June 2014

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

My Lords, the recent presidential election in Egypt and the subsequent inauguration of former Field Marshal Sisi as president make this a very timely debate. This week’s visit of the United States Secretary of State to Cairo, as well as the conviction of the three Al-Jazeera journalists, casts a spotlight on the human rights situation in Egypt. The return of the strongman to Egypt once again brings to centre stage the classic dilemma of how we navigate between interests and values in our foreign policy.

President Sisi takes office in the midst of a fiercely orchestrated campaign of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood and civil society activists, and at a time of serious security threats in Egypt and, of course, the region. Since the revolution that ousted Mohamed Morsi from office on 3 July 2013, more than 41,000 people have been arrested for political reasons, among them many youth activists who played such a prominent role in toppling both Mubarak and Morsi. Undoubtedly, Morsi’s rule caused widespread discomfort in Egypt and led to an intensification of violence against Christians and other minorities. His removal was welcomed by large sections of society. Nevertheless, many court rulings against the opponents of the present regime have been nothing short of scandalous. I think of the repeated death penalties handed down to approximately 1,500 Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Minya earlier this year.

We could also mention dozens of other cases where the courts’ harsh rulings are disproportionate to the deeds of the accused in any regard. Press freedom, academic freedom, freedom of thought and speech, and freedom of assembly remain heavily restricted in Egypt. The introduction of tough protest laws and the prospect of ever more restrictive laws on NGOs are all signs of a polarised and silenced society. Taken together, they have contributed to a climate of populist tolerance and a shrinking of the democratic space in Egypt.

In the field of religious freedom, the end of Egypt’s first Islamic presidency has not presaged a golden age for Muslim Coptic relations. Instances of violence and physical intimidation against Coptic Christians remain disturbingly high. Police investigations are haphazard and prosecutions rare. In addition to the targeted attacks against Christians, we are, sadly, witnessing a predictable return to the subtler, pernicious problems of the Sadat-Mubarak era. Egypt’s outdated laws and authoritarian institutions continue to enshrine inequality and discrimination, which breed social tension and religious conflict. The implementation of Article 98(f) of the Egyptian Penal Code, which criminalises contempt for religion, continues to be used against religious minorities despite the new constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion.

At its heart, this is a question of citizenship and what it means to have full membership in the national political community. I am inspired by the words of his Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, when he said that Egyptian Christians need to be seen as citizens on the basis that they are Egyptians who take pride in their indigenous homeland. Before anything else, he called for equal citizenship for all, by which he meant,

“equal rights and equal accountability before the law”,

regardless of religion. Any discussion on religious freedom in Egypt should note that, besides the Copts, the Shiites and the Baha’i suffer from many hardships. These hardships are at least as onerous as the problems encountered by the Copts, but because they are so much smaller in number, their problems do not appear as pressing—although, of course, they are.

Against this background it would be wrong to assume that the presidential elections signal a meaningful return to democracy or even political stability; they do not appear to do that at all. The European Union election observation mission to the Egyptian elections demonstrated in its preliminary statement of 29 May that the elections were administered in an environment that fell short of the principles of the new constitution. Do the Government agree with the assessment that the voting took place within an inherently biased framework?

Although it remains too early to say how President Sisi will act in office, and whether hopes that his political connections with the army will be properly severed, the early signs are not encouraging. Let one small example suffice: the week before last, all branches of the well established Seoudi supermarket chain were raided by the police and temporarily shut down. The owner’s family is alleged to be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood but the move was clearly designed to ease competition for other military-run supermarkets. Egyptians without personal connections to the army appear to be treated as second-class citizens when interacting with their Government.

I am aware that this depressing picture presents the Government with an all too familiar quandary. I am conscious that Egypt’s current hypersensitivity to foreign criticism means that there might be little short-term prospect of effecting positive change. Yet without bringing these human rights injustices to attention, the stability and prosperity that is currently being sought through repression of these rights is itself undermined. Clearly, the Government should work with President Sisi on development, security, migration and other mutual interests but they must at the same time also maintain clear and critical distance from the regime. I would be grateful, therefore, for the Minister’s reassurance that the Government will continue to argue both privately and publicly that Egypt’s future development, including its stability, depends on a political system that gives a fair and equal stake to all its citizens, and which allows for the free and open expression of dissenting political views.

In addition, I would be glad to know what impact the EU’s Support for Partnership, Reform and Inclusive Growth programme is having on the ground in Egypt. At the very least, I hope that Her Majesty’s Government and their EU partners will not look to assist the stabilisation effort by following the US lead and loosening the restrictions on arms licences that were put in place by the Foreign Affairs Council in August of last year. I recognise the countervailing economic pressures, not least given impending US arms exports to Egypt, but I trust that these will be resisted. The likelihood of an escalating cycle of repression and violence in Egypt cannot be ruled out. The deep divisions of Egyptian society require determined processes of reconciliation. Does the Minister hold out any hope that there might be a reconciling role here for the EU, given that it appears to be the only actor currently able to talk to all sides?

Whatever we conclude about the UK’s short-term capacity to assist Egypt to significantly improve its human rights record, I hope that this debate will serve as a timely reminder that the situation in Egypt leaves the liberties of its people severely restricted. Finally, I hope that it will strengthen our resolve to avoid slipping back into the habits of old whereby the values on which human dignity depend are too readily sacrificed on the altar of political stability.

My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on securing this debate. The terrible events and strife in Syria, and now in Iraq, have somewhat swung the media spotlight away from Egypt, leaving an impression, after last month’s democratic presidential election, that the country has emerged from difficult years. However, I was personally rather abruptly shaken out of this view when I met an Egyptian contact at the recent Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. She painted a very different picture of what has really been happening in Egypt this past year. I have never known her to be so anxious—indeed, frightened—about what is happening. She described a situation where security has deteriorated and a suppressive authoritarian culture has been imposed. People are terrified to speak out and any opposition is mercilessly crushed. I shall share with noble Lords some examples she provided and also draw their attention to the plight of women in particular.

Many noble Lords know that I champion the rights of women in developing and conflict countries. Human Rights Watch has long reported that Egyptian women are underrepresented in public life and face endemic levels of sexual and gender-based violence, with the authorities failing to take substantive action to acknowledge the problem or combat it. This adds immense fear and difficulty to women’s daily lives.

In 2011, I visited Egypt with Plan International and saw projects in the poorest parts of Cairo. What I saw was truly shocking. FGM is prevalent. I was told that 91% of women had undergone it, although it is illegal. It is hard to prosecute and is a taboo subject in their society. Most of the women I met were illiterate. There was terrible poverty, which meant early marriage was prevalent, with girls aged 13 to 15 being removed from education, if they were receiving it at all. There was also a market in child brides. Girls were effectively being sold to men who came from the Gulf. They often bored of the girls after a few months and just threw them out. Some of them were already pregnant.

Positively, there was a women’s movement, with a strong women’s body, the National Council for Women of Egypt, and women were starting to speak out. During the revolution in 2011, women stood shoulder to shoulder with men in Tahrir Square to topple Mubarak’s dictatorship. However, these women paid a price, being verbally abused and harassed by male protesters. A few were arrested and subjected to “virginity tests” because they had camped out in tents alongside male protestors. The Arab spring frustratingly brought with it a fundamentalist credo that these burgeoning women’s rights belonged with the ousted dictators and that women in leadership roles was un-Islamic. Therefore in the elections that followed, sweeping the Muslim Brotherhood to power, women’s rights were proactively downgraded. Despite this, during demonstrations last year, women bravely continued to participate, but there was a higher price, a wave of sexual violence, with more than 100 attacks reported in Tahrir Square alone.

I speak about the situation for women because women’s rights are part of human rights and must be given equal consideration, more so when such gender- based abuses are endemic in a country. Creating a strong and resilient women’s civil society is the cornerstone to addressing human rights abuses as a whole.

There is a sliver of light, as on paper there have been some legal developments under the new Government. On 10 June, they approved a law that punishes sexual assault. Although the newly drafted constitution shows signs of improvement compared to its predecessor, when noble Lords consider the wider human rights context being debated today, I expect they will join me in being doubtful as to whether President al-Sisi is the right person to implement these changes effectively. Indeed, he was the senior general who defended the army’s policy of subjecting female detainees to “virginity tests”.

So, I return to the voice of my fearful contact. She told me that independent local NGOs daily verifying data from local sources say that in the six months from July 2013 to 31 January 2014, 3,248 people have been killed on protests, in detention and during police raids. She spoke of the mass arrests which we have already heard about, the 44,163 Egyptian citizens who were arrested between 3 July 2013 and 15 May 2014. More than 9,000 of them have now stood trial. I say “trial”, but in reality there appears to have been an abandonment of democratic legal process. There has been a renewal of pretrial detention orders with people, including children, illegally held for months. Mass trials are resulting in lengthy prison sentences or death penalties, as we have already heard. In one case, 554 Egyptians were sentenced to death, most of them in absentia. The Henry Jackson Society informs me that prosecutors fail to investigate the security forces for the killing of protesters. Not a single police officer has stood trial. Meanwhile, I understand dozens of people have disappeared since July 2013. Savage torture and sexual assault have been reported by 79 protesters held in Abu Zaabal prison after a recent mass arrest and over 100 in Wadi al-Natrun.

My contact reported a worrying clampdown on the press and free speech. On 3 July 2013, at least six TV stations were shut down. Now, only TV stations owned by businessmen supportive of al-Sisi are allowed to work. Local NGOs report that around 27 journalists are currently detained. Dozens of people are similarly detained simply for possessing flyers with opposition slogans.

Death, illegal arrest, detention, a compromised legal process, torture, the repression of free speech and the repression of women are an intolerable situation. Today I join the call for Egypt’s Government to make their human rights record a top priority. But can we have any real hope that there will be any political will for this? I hope that the Minister may offer some reassurance about the situation in Egypt and indicate what influence the UK Government will be able to exert to address the human rights record there.

My Lords, I commend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry for calling this debate. Lest we look unusually critical of Egypt, one has to acknowledge at the outset that violations of human rights are, sadly, all too widespread throughout the Middle East, from the Maghreb to the Gulf, with freedom of religion and freedom of speech and association routinely circumscribed and disregarded. Representative government and an independent judiciary and press are deficient or absent in many cases.

There are of course differences, and in some Arab countries there is greater tolerance than in others. I note in passing the acquittal in Bahrain yesterday of a Shiite critic of the Government, Khalil Marzook, one of the leaders of the opposition Wefaq party. As for freedom of religion in Bahrain, its ambassador here is a Christian, and her counterpart, the Bahrainian ambassador in Washington DC, is Jewish. All of us would wish Bahrain well in a process of reconciliation, which, I hope, can include the now-freed Khalil Marzook.

Turning to Egypt, one cannot begin but with the shocking jailing of the three journalists in Cairo just a few days ago. Here I declare an interest as the international trustee of the BBC and as someone who remembers Peter Greste from the time when we both worked together in the World Service at Bush House in the late 1980s. He is a professional journalist of the highest calibre who would acquit himself well in any of the world’s major news organisations. It is no surprise to me that journalists at the BBC held a demonstration on Tuesday in support of Peter and his colleagues.

I have to say that it was shocking to see footage of three journalists held in cages in a 10-minute session in court, being sentenced in two cases to seven years’ imprisonment and to 10 years in the third. It was sadly reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s. Two other British journalists were tried in absentia and, needless to say, found guilty. All this is a chilling warning to the international press, and to the British press, in their coverage of Egypt. Those sentences have been widely condemned. The Prime Minister called them “appalling”, and the Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop—Peter Greste is Australian—considered the sentences to be a serious attack on the freedom of the press. Condemnation came from Governments and press associations around the world.

Egypt is in danger of losing friends, not gaining them. For all his faults, and there were very many—especially his meddling with the constitution, which concerned Egypt’s large Coptic Christian and secular communities—Mohamed Morsi was the only civilian elected president of the Egyptian Arab Republic in 62 years. He was replaced as interim president by Adly Mansour, a judge—but he was not elected. Egypt and Egyptian politics cannot be defined for ever by the limits of the garrison state. Like other Arab countries, it needs to look to models elsewhere, such as India, South Africa and Indonesia—incidentally the world’s largest Muslim country—which have made that difficult transition to real economic development, representative government, protection of human rights and religious tolerance.

There are, sadly, many areas of human rights where conditions in Egypt fall far below acceptable international standards. The reports of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group can provide chapter and verse, including, it has to be said, reports of widespread incidents of torture.

What then should be the attitude of the British Government? I believe that we should act on the words of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and raise our concerns about the case of the three journalists and other human rights violations in Egypt. As a former special adviser to two Foreign Secretaries and the current Secretary-General of the UN, I can imagine the advice that will go forward to Ministers. At other times, I would perhaps have written it. It would include the conflict between human rights considerations and security issues, the importance of Egypt because of the peace treaty with Israel, counterterrorism co-operation and so on. It will not be easy, but diplomacy is not meant to be easy. Our Government need to be tough in addressing concerns about the behaviour of the Government of President Sisi. I therefore submit that this is the moment for Ministers to act, not necessarily publicly but in a robust manner, on human rights violations, which have no place in the fight against terrorism and which are completely counterproductive. The political contest with the Ikhwan—the Islamic Brotherhood—is never going to be won if Egypt continues to undermine human rights in this manner.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has vast experience and is absolutely right to emphasise the significance of what has happened to journalists. This is very sinister, as the whole concept of the freedom of the press is essential to a stable, secure society and to the cause of democracy itself. I hope we can send a very strong message of support from this debate to the journalist community. I take second place to nobody in having to be peeled off the ceiling sometimes because of things journalists say. However, whatever our frustrations, we ought to be congratulating journalists and encouraging them in the crucial role they play for the things we believe in.

I warmly endorse the observations and analysis of the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger. I was greatly heartened by what she said; she ticked off the points one after another. I would like to add and re-emphasise a couple of things. First, I have rather admired the way that the Foreign Secretary has—without qualification—advocated his total conviction on the importance of human rights and the rule of law. It is very important for the Minister to convince and reassure us this afternoon that the Government’s position on Egypt is absolutely consistent with that approach because it would be a tragedy if, by default, the credibility of what the Foreign Secretary is saying was undermined.

It is also important to look at the harsh realities; they have been mentioned but I must repeat them. We have spoken of journalists, but how can the mass trials and death sentences be reconciled with the rule of law and with justice as we understand it? What about the disappearances? When I was rapporteur to the Council of Europe on the conflict in Chechnya, I found this in very real terms. I kept saying to myself: “Think of the mass concern in my country if one child or young person disappears”. People in large numbers are just disappearing. Imagine what that means for ordinary families and people throughout Egyptian society. There is also ruthless, cruel, sadistic torture and all the implications for women of what is happening.

As an old man, I have come to the conclusion that there comes a time when the niceties have to be put in perspective. At the moment, our basic message should be one of solidarity with the Egyptian people. We do not want any rationalisation about how we must be reasonable and so on. What happened in Egypt was, in fact, a military coup. There is no other way to describe it. I was in Cairo when the demonstrations were on. What worried me then was that a number of people with whom I spoke said, “All that matters is to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood”. I said, “What are you going to replace it with? First, you should not be doing it this way but building up to the next election when you deal with these things.” They said, “That does not matter. We must just get rid of it”. There is a great need for some investigation by historians into what the riots were really about, who orchestrated them and who stirred up the passion there. I think there are some very ugly realities there. I detect the hand of the old guard. I am absolutely certain about that. I suspect the military were very much involved, too.

To conclude, I again emphasise that if we are worried about extremism in the world—I am very worried about it—the one thing we must forgo at all costs is direct or indirect counterproductivity. To try to apologise for or find ways to accommodate the military regime is direct provocation to the cause of extremism and militant behaviour in the Islamic community. We have to be even-handed. I am very uncomfortable about a situation in which we have an inquiry going on about the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood while we may find all sorts of rationalisations for our behaviour on other fronts with Egypt. That is just not even-handed. I look to the Minister to reassure us on these issues.

My Lords, I took part in two visits this year to Cairo by the all-party group. Egypt has had a deservedly bad press following shootings, mass trials and death sentences. I understand that civilians can still be tried before military courts for certain offences and that some 62,000 people are in prison, many of them facing very poor conditions. This week, the New York Times estimated that 15,000 of them are there for political reasons. Another source in April thought that 2,000 were in pre-trial detention.

As far as I know, there is no process for reviewing cases before they come to court. As a delegation, we met with the National Council for Human Rights. It appeared—certainly to me—that it lacks independence and real authority. Six journalists have been killed and 20 arrested. Five received long sentences after a questionable trial. I am glad that the Egyptian ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office following those verdicts. I note that media control has already failed in Tunis and may yet fail in Egypt.

There are other relevant points. Preachers in mosques will in future have to be licensed and qualified persons—a move intended to prevent extremists and rabble-rousers. Almost all the senior and middle-rank judges were appointed in the Mubarak era and may well have very conservative views. We were told that the Government were funding the rebuilding or repair of 27 churches, mainly Coptic Orthodox, that were destroyed or damaged.

I noted that Mr Amr Moussa, the veteran Minister and former Secretary-General of the Arab League, did not demonise the Muslim Brotherhood as others have done but suggested that the 50-member constitutional committee might have a continuing role in guiding the new Parliament that should be elected before the end of this year. The real test will be whether the Government actively promote common citizenship and equality of opportunity for all. One small and low-cost improvement would be to remove the obligation to show religious affiliation on a person’s identity card.

Given the anxieties of the Egyptian Government about the Libyan frontier and the Sinai peninsula, my fear is that the military will keep a harsh grip on events. Already the state owns a significant part of the media and the many-headed private and commercial media may well feel constrained to act with great caution. The outlook for freedom of expression may not be too bright. It would be good if there could be an independent investigation of the many violent deaths that occurred in 2013, of the alleged torture in prison and of police impunity.

I conclude by asking whether Her Majesty’s Government will combine maximum co-operation for the good of Egypt’s economy and for the benefit of its neighbours with a critical eye on all abuses of human rights, whether these occur against Egypt’s own citizens or they are suffered by refugees who found themselves in Egypt.

My Lords, I was fortunate to be added to the second visit of the all-party group to Egypt two weeks’ ago on the grounds that on the previous visit it was suggested that it would be helpful if someone with a military background joined the delegation.

I was particularly interested to have, first, a two-hour meeting with Mr Sisi—he was very much Mr, not Field Marshal, Sisi. We all came away impressed with the grasp that he had of the issues that were facing the country and some of the ways in which he said he was approaching them. He said that Egypt was embarked on a road map which had three main ingredients—two of which had been completed and the third was to come. The first was the writing of the constitution by the committee of 50. Like my noble friend Lord Hylton, I was extremely interested in the exposition of this by Mr Amr Moussa, a wise man. It was interesting that the scope of the people included in the 50- person committee was very wide. I definitely share the impression he got that the Muslim Brotherhood was not to be excluded from future discussions because it was very much part of Egypt.

The second part of the road map, of course, was the election of the president. Although people think that he had a vast majority in the votes cast, we were left under no illusion that the general feeling was that it was of votes cast and did not represent that percentage of the population of Egypt. I was gratified to hear that, knowing of the number of people who deliberately abstained, particularly from the Muslim Brotherhood, because that meant that he would not claim it.

The third part, of course, is the election of Parliament. Quite a lot of time was spent on that. Not least, we were interested to learn that guaranteed numbers of women and Christians would be appointed to that Parliament. Although it sounded extremely complicated, there was a kind of first past the post representation all over Egypt. There was then the production of party lists, which had to contain a number of people of different kinds. Then there was a presidential addition of 20. It all seems complicated but at least it is based on a constitution. Certainly I came away feeling that the jury was out and we would be unwise to be too critical of everything that is in train until it has actually happened and we can see what part it can play in the development of Egypt.

The second point that President Sisi made to us very clearly—as has already been pointed out by my noble friend Lord Williams of Baglan—was that Egypt comes first. As far as he was concerned, gender and religion did not matter. Provided that you put Egypt first, then Egypt welcomed you, but if you put something above Egypt, that was where you parted company. That is where—he did not say as much but others mentioned it—the Muslim Brotherhood had appeared to go wrong, because they had put something above being Egyptian. He went on to criticise the British for our involvement in Iraq and in Libya, and for leaving Libya so soon. Others added a little dagger with the two names of Sykes and Picot, who had successfully mucked up that part of the world. Our status was not as high as we would like .

However, President Sisi said several times that task number one was to put food on everyone’s table, so there was a feeling of reality in all these discussions. The person who most concerned me was the Minister of Defence, not least when he suggested that the internal security situation in Sinai was 85% under control. I did not get the chance to ask him about the other 15%. As a soldier, I have never been able to measure internal security situations in that way. I was interested in the co-operation with Israel over this because, not surprisingly, Israel has as much interest in any terrorism based in Sinai as Egypt has.

The other group which interested me enormously were groups of students, in a meeting arranged by the British Council. I was grouped with a wonderful team of about 15 male and female students from the old Egyptian university in Cairo. Had any of them voted in the presidential election? The answer was no. Were any of them going to vote in the parliamentary election? Again, the answer was no, because they were disillusioned with politics. This was rather sad, because they are the coming generation. They were bright and one just hoped that there was more from that.

So what did I conclude from all this? I declare an interest as a member of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy. When I look at the world and consider the national security interests, I look at the geopolitical position of Egypt, the junction between Arabia and Africa and that immensely important waterway between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. We have a very long connection with Egypt. Despite all the human rights problems, I think that the attitude of critical friend is the one that we should adopt.

Finally, the most interesting person we met quite apart from the political scene was the Grand Mufti. I had not realised until he spoke to us that when all these death penalties are passed in the courts, that does not mean that they have been passed. Every death penalty that is imposed then comes to the Grand Mufti and he looks at it from the Islamic point of view. It then goes to the appeal court, then back to the Grand Mufti, then to the president. So I suspect that there is quite a long way to go. That is not to say that I support any of this, but I am interested that there are checks and balances in the system. These ought to be allowed to work through before we damage our position in the eyes of a country which is one with which we ought to maintain friendship—albeit a critical one.

Before the noble Lord sits down, may I just ask him one question? It would be interesting to hear his research. In this House he is renowned for his stand on the implementation of justice and the penal system. Did he make any inquiries about what was happening within the penal system?

My Lords, I did not. I would dearly liked to have done so. However, the 62,000 my noble friend Lord Hylton mentioned are out of a population of 90 million, while we have 84,000 in prison with a far lower population.

My Lords, while I quite often agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on this occasion I fundamentally disagree with him. I agree that we should be critical friends, but this is a country where there is no proper judicial process, where hundreds and thousands of people are sentenced to death, where journalists are banged up for seven years for doing nothing, where there is no freedom of speech and where women’s rights are totally abused. It is right to be critical, and probably right to be a friend, but I do not share the confidence that the noble Lord puts in the country of Egypt.

This has been an excellent, if depressing, debate, and I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry for tabling the Question. The catalyst for the Arab spring was the struggle for dignity, and I fear that, after three years of challenges and change, few people have had their dignity enhanced—quite the contrary. The current human rights situation is a degradation of dignity. There is no equality of citizenship.

Journalism is not a crime—at least, it should not be—but it is a crime in Egypt. My noble friend Lord Williams spoke graphically about the sentencing and imprisonment of the three journalists on charges that they provided aid to a terrorist organisation by broadcasting falsified news. This, combined with the previous imprisonment of other journalists, makes Egypt one of the worst jailers of journalists in the world. The chilling effect on freedom of speech of imprisoning those who report what is happening in the country is dramatic and it risks shifting Egypt back towards its authoritarian past. This effect will be felt not only by Egyptian and overseas journalists in Egypt but by its people. These sentences can be interpreted only as the military-led Government’s attempt to silence dissent in the country.

In the trial, the prosecution offered no evidence that was publicly available which would have shown that the journalists supported the Muslim Brotherhood or that they had broadcast anything that was not accurate. In fact, there were Kafkaesque scenes in the courtroom. It is evident that what the journalists experienced was very far from due process—in fact, quite the contrary. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will continue to pressure Egypt to release the journalists.

I turn to another pressing human rights issue that Egypt is facing at the moment: women’s rights. There were many brave women protesting in Tahrir Square in 2011, demanding change for their country and society, but their voices have not been properly heard and they paid a price, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, said. Indeed, that price grows even higher. Like the noble Baroness, I was shocked to learn that according to UNICEF 91% of married Egyptian women aged between 15 and 49 have been subjected to female genital mutilation. While support for the practice has been falling in the past 20 years, and while it was legally banned in 2008, it is still broadly an accepted practice in Egypt. This acceptance is particularly prevalent in areas with lower levels of education, which underscores the importance of promoting better education for girls. I was encouraged to read that in March this year, for the first time, a doctor was prosecuted for FGM after a 13 year-old girl died in his clinic last year. I hope that this will not be an isolated case and that the new Government take the issue seriously.

Violence against women more broadly has been a grave problem in Egypt. The new Government have criminalised the physical and verbal harassment of women and set harsh punishments for these crimes. However, real progress will be made when enforcement against these crimes takes place. During the inauguration of President al-Sisi, many women were sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square, including a gang rape. In describing the current situation for women in Egypt, Human Rights Watch calls it an “epidemic of sexual violence”. In the past year, Egyptian authorities have taken little action to prevent or investigate violence against women or to prosecute those responsible. According to recent surveys, women face alarmingly high levels of sexual and gender-based violence. This includes widespread sexual harassment in public, as well as high levels of domestic violence. More broadly, women remain underrepresented in public life, are paid less than men and are prevented from advancing to higher positions. It is clear that FGM, domestic violence and street sexual violence are all connected and form a broader pattern of crimes against women.

It is imperative that the new Egyptian Government take the issue of women’s rights seriously, and that it becomes a high priority. However, I have a pessimistic lack of confidence, although I hope it will be confounded. The future of the country as a whole depends on women not being afraid of being assaulted when walking down the street or while at home. A democratic, progressive Egypt must include women from all walks of life, especially in leadership positions. The death sentence on hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members is abhorrent, notwithstanding what the noble Lord said.

Sadly, it is clear that the new Government are cracking down on other political parties to deter people organising and uniting. Party-political activists are fearful of arrest. I pay tribute to friends who are members of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which has the support of my party, and who have been doing some fantastic work to build and grow their party, but a proposed new law on party politics would ban parties fielding candidates and allow candidates to stand only as independents.

These actions detract Egypt from the secure, stable, democratic future its people rightfully deserve and have fought tenaciously to secure, but voting does not equal democracy. Human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of political expression must underpin any democratic system. I fervently hope that the new Government will come to understand that, so that Egypt can look forward to a fair and prosperous future. I also trust that our Government will be tough, but of course I recognise—as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said—that diplomacy is not always easy.

My Lords, this Question asks us to assess the human rights situation in Egypt. I have to say that it is poor, and at the moment is getting worse. We all recognise that and the severity of the situation. We also recognise, as the right reverend Prelate said, the conflict between interest and values in foreign policy. Egypt is one of the most important countries in the Arab and Muslim world. It is also an important player in the world economy because of the Suez Canal, and in regional order, because it is Israel’s neighbour and part of the key to Gaza. So we have a complex number of interests there.

I recall that when I first started studying international relations, Egypt was in those days the largest and most important player in the Arab world and the source of influence on other countries. That is less so now because the Egyptian economy is in an extremely weak position and has gone backwards sharply over the past three years. The poverty of Egypt, in contrast to the wealth of the oil-producing states, has to some extent altered the balance. We have to start by recognising that the countries which now support the Egyptian economy and are perhaps helping to rebuild it are the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which gives them much more direct influence on what is happening in Egypt than we have.

We also have to recognise that Egypt has, after all, the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood—an important Sunni player. The Muslim Brotherhood, in a sense, was one way in which to reconcile traditional Islam and aspects of modernity. As such, it is seen by a number of other Governments in the Gulf as being a threat to their rule. The Saudi Government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation in March this year; that was very much because of its history within Saudi Arabia, in the sense that it is a challenge to the nature of the Gulf regimes.

Therefore, alongside the pressures that we are putting on the Egyptian Government, we also have to recognise that others have different priorities, which are not ours. Her Majesty’s Government have a close and continuing relationship with the Egyptian Government. We speak frankly to them. We have issued a number of statements about the numbers who have been imprisoned and, in particular, about the recent condemnation of the journalists and the liberal activists with whom we were in indirect contact. We have made, and continue to make, our position entirely clear to the current Egyptian Government.

Some participants in this debate have suggested that there are chinks of light. The new constitution has elements guaranteeing the rights of women. If we are to believe President Sisi, he sees his role as being to provide a gradual transition to democracy. We all know that such a transition can be extremely gradual; that is part of the problem we have to bear. The European Union has some influence. Egypt is part of the southern neighbourhood with which we work. We, and others, through, in our case, the Arab Partnership Participation Fund and a number of European Union funds, have been working with bodies in Egypt which want to promote a more open, liberal and equal society.

That is not easy under the current conditions. In the Chamber not long ago, some of us were debating whether foreign NGOs and other organisations are recognised as legitimate in other states. Egypt is as conscious of sovereignty as any other state in this regard. The Egyptian Government’s response to Secretary of State Kerry’s condemnation of the punishment of the journalists demonstrates how difficult it is to get one’s influence through.

That being said, the Government will maintain their dialogue and their strong condemnation of the direction in which Egypt is going. To be honest, we have to recognise that Egypt, like Turkey until recently, has a deep state which is the military—linked to military control of aspects of the economy, the intelligence services, the police and the judiciary. I never entirely understood what was meant by the phrase “the deep state” until I worked on the Cyprus problem many years ago. After funny articles and various bits in the press started getting published attacking me, I met somebody in Istanbul who told me how that had been arranged. There are parallels between Egypt and Turkey. They are not entirely dissimilar regimes, although Turkey is a great deal more developed than Egypt.

Moving the Egyptian regime on from the current privileged position of the military within the state apparatus and the economy is going to be extremely difficult. We have to recognise that, in doing so, we will not be pushing them in the same direction as Saudi Arabia or the Emirates. Thus the Europeans and, to an extent, the Americans will have a hard task to get their messages through. What we saw with the Arab spring in Egypt, as in a number of other countries, was the emergence for the first time of an urban middle class. There is a similar one in Tehran. Iran, after all, has all the tensions between rural elements and educated urban elements that we now see in Egypt, although, again, Iran is much more economically developed than Egypt.

There is a very long way to go in Egypt, and I have not yet touched on the treatment of minorities, the Coptic Church and other elements which we also have a great deal of concern about. We recognise that what happens in Egypt matters for the whole of the Middle East, for the Sunni dimension of the Middle East, in particular, and for the relationship between the Middle East and Europe as a whole. We therefore must maintain our dialogue and our criticism. We need to speak on the rights of minorities and the role of women, as well as the need to accept that the media must be allowed to criticise and that foreign media play a legitimate role in contributing to the national debate. All those messages, which the current Egyptian Government do not wish to hear, have to be repeated on a regular basis.

I think I have covered all the points. I accept what the noble Baroness said about mass arrests, torture, the role of the remarkably untrained and over-independent judiciary and all the problems that we see in that society. We are attempting to train a small number of Egyptian judges but that is also a very large task. The experience we have gained in helping to move the states of eastern Europe through transition shows just how difficult this can be. I recall going to Budapest in about 1995 and meeting my noble friend Lord Lester, who said: “We are having great difficulty in explaining to the judges here that they can rule against the state.” If that was the case in a country as developed as Hungary, the problems are much larger in less developed states and those with no tradition of democracy.

The right reverend Prelate said that Egypt is currently narrowing the space for democracy. Egypt has not yet been a democracy for any sustained period. As we all now understand in this country, democracy is a frail concept which we have to cherish. It is very easy to lose and very hard to build. It will take a long time to build it across the Middle East but we must work as hard as we can, through all the means and with all the allies we have to promote it. I assure him that the Government will continue to make their views clear as we continue a close, frank dialogue with the Egyptian Government.

My Lords, the noble Lord has been emphasising positive engagement and dialogue. Before he sits down, can he give us a specific assurance that the Government’s representations will include the dangers of counterproductivity and the hard-headed argument that what is happening within the penal system plays right into the hands of the extremists?

My Lords, I did not hear the Minister address my question about whether the loosening of arms licences is envisaged, in the light of the recent statement by the US Secretary of State.

I apologise. No, it is not envisaged. There are those who think it is a not entirely happy event that they should have announced that—for good security reasons about Sinai—just before the judgments on the journalists came out. We have no such intention.

Sitting suspended.