According to a report released by Human Rights Watch on 7 September 2021, Egyptian Interior Ministry forces have committed a series of probable extrajudicial killings in recent years. These killings have formed a suspicious pattern, consistently being carried out under the guise of ‘shootouts’ with alleged terrorists.
The report claims that between 2015 and 2020, the Egyptian Interior Ministry announced at least 755 deaths in 143 of these so-called ‘shootouts’ in which the victims have allegedly been terrorists. In these cases, there has only been one arrest. Furthermore, the government rarely provides substantial information, exacerbating family distress and generating an alarming lack of transparency.
According to Human Rights Watch, “It is not possible to reach definite conclusions about the hundreds of killings in the scores of other alleged shootouts, given that the interior ministry rarely provides even the most rudimentary information, such as the names of those killed.” Indeed, the ministry has only identified 141 victims to date in their announcements. However, “the conclusions drawn from the documented incidents demonstrate a clear pattern of unlawful killings and cast serious doubt on almost all reported ‘shootouts’.”
Extrajudicial killings themselves refer to cases in which an official purposefully kills someone else without any legal process. This process is strictly prohibited under several international laws as it violates a fundamental human right to life. For example, under the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, using firearms or other potentially lethal uses of force are an “extreme measure” only to be considered when “strictly necessary to protect life or prevent serious injury from an imminent threat.”
The lack of transparency regarding the Egyptian Interior Ministry forces’ actions and reports has fostered a severe lack of trust in the populace and the international community. The main concern is that a lack of information hides arbitrary classification, provides a smokescreen for political maneuvering, and ultimately hides what amounts to state-sponsored assassination. Information restrictions and classifications play particularly significant roles as they imbue the government with the disturbing capacity to reframe victims as perpetrators through rhetoric. As such, the uncertainty and distrust surrounding government use of force signals a potential human rights crisis.
The current crisis can be traced back to a crackdown on dissent led by President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi following the military overthrow of the previous regime in 2013. This crackdown has incorporated the breakup of peaceful protests, arbitrary mass arrests, a lack of due legal processes and interrogation. Its purpose was primarily to consolidate President Sisi’s political power by extending presidential limits and quashing opposition. However, it is not the first time that international human rights groups have raised concerns about extrajudicial killings and the abuse of government power in Egypt. For example, in August 2021, Amnesty International called for an urgent investigation of extrajudicial killings in Egyptian military propaganda videos. To date, this investigation has not been carried out. As such, President Sisi has imposed authoritarian stability at the cost of human rights.
To allay international and domestic concerns, the Egyptian government would need to launch an impartial and independent probe into the actions of Egyptian Interior Ministry forces. This strategy would improve information asymmetries and thereby take the first crucial steps toward repairing trust. However, given Egypt’s record with such cases, this course of action is highly unlikely. As such, a catalyst for change can most safely be delivered by the international community. The international community must affirm a commitment to the protection of human rights. To do so, it should condemn escalating abuses and enforce an arms embargo that bases the resumption of trade on Egyptian reforms to investigation and prosecution structures for extrajudicial killings.
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