Egypt has become an international laughing stock

If Egyptian officials are really interested in improving the country’s image, they should take corrective action.

An Egyptian doctor covers his mouth with a paper reading, ''I feel bitter'', during a protest against rampant police abuses in Cairo, Egypt [AP]
An Egyptian doctor covers his mouth during a protest against rampant police abuses in Cairo, Egypt [AP]

If recent comments made by Egypt’s foreign minister are any indication, his divorce from reality may be near completion.

Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s highest ranking diplomat, complained in a recent exclusive interview with Foreign Policy that his government is being unfairly maligned, especially on the human rights front. He said “lies” repeated against the Egyptian government are part of a Western propaganda campaign reminiscent of Nazi propaganda. Foreign Policy quoted Shoukry as saying: “Are we to return to the ideologies and the practices of [Joseph] Goebbels, where he says that if you repeat a lie sufficiently it becomes a truth?”

In particular, Shoukry took issue with a claim – made repeatedly by human rights groups, academics, and journalists – that Egypt has arrested 40,000 people since the start of its summer 2013 crackdown. He implied that the claim was both preposterous and offensive to Egypt.

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“It has been an onslaught of 40,000, repeated and repeated and repeated in the public domain until it has been accepted as a matter of fact,” Shoukry grumbled.

Anti-Egyptian propaganda

Shoukry’s gripe over reported arrest numbers is difficult to understand. The Egyptian government – while underestimating arrest figures and keeping precise official data private – has itself acknowledged in press statements that it has arrested tens of thousands of people during its crackdown.

Shoukry would do well to review the statements of his Interior Ministry colleagues before complaining about anti-Egyptian propaganda.

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In March 2014, Egyptian security officials told the Associated Press that they had arrested 16,000 people after the elected President Mohamed Morsi was deposed in July 2013.

While no one but the Egyptian government knows the exact number of post-coup arrests, an estimate of 40,000 appears safe, if not overly conservative.


At the time, Joe Stork, of Human Rights Watch, argued that the 16,000 figure was almost certainly a gross underestimate, noting that Egyptian human rights groups had documented and confirmed the names and locations of more than 21,000 people who had been charged.

Following March 2014, the crackdown continued unabated. In July 2014, an Egyptian Interior Ministry official acknowledged that the number of arrests had risen to 22,000 – again, almost certainly an underestimate.

More recently, the Egyptian government acknowledged in an interview with an Egyptian state-run newspaper that the Interior Ministry arrested 11,877 people between January and September 2015.

Thus, a total of 33,877 arrests can be easily confirmed purely on the basis of a small handful of Egyptian government press statements, which, importantly, do not even cover the entirety of the post-coup period.

Undoubtedly, many arrests were also made from July 2014 to December 2014 and from October 2015 to the present – not represented here and about which the Egyptian government has remained silent.

While no one but the Egyptian government knows the exact number of post-coup arrests, an estimate of 40,000 appears safe, if not overly conservative. It is not surprising, then, that so many academics, Western human rights groups, and journalists have accepted without problem the arrest data gathered by independent sources such as the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, which has compiled a statistical databaseof arrests.

Egyptian doctors stage a protest against rampant police abuses [AP]
Egyptian doctors stage a protest against rampant police abuses [AP]

Post-coup Egyptian political order

The arrest numbers come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the post-coup Egyptian political order. In late 2013, the Egyptian government passed a protest law that effectively criminalises protest.

The government later passed an overly broad anti-terrorism law that considers certain non-violent acts of civil disobedience as “terrorism”. These and other draconian laws have been used to arrest and prosecute thousands, including journalists, academics, and activists.

Shoukry’s recent comments about arrest numbers do not represent his first brush with absurdity. In May 2015, shortly after taking over as foreign minister and immediately following a series of unprecedented mass death sentences issued by Egypt’s judiciary, Shoukry defended Egypt’s justice system against a global outcry led by human rights groups, diplomats, and independent academic and legal experts.

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In 2014 and 2015, Egyptian judges issued four mass death sentences, including one sentence against 529 people for the alleged killing of a single police officer, and a separate sentence against 100 people, including several individuals who, human rights and legal experts noted, were apparently either dead or in jail at the time the crimes they were accused of committing were carried out.


Death sentences and hangings

In a separate judicial case, Egypt hanged six young men in spite of evidence noted by human rights organisations showing that the men could not possibly have committed the crimes they were accused of committing – they had all been in jail long before the crimes were carried out.

In a May 2015 press conference that followed the death sentences and hangings, Shoukry took offence at suggestions that Egypt’s judiciary may be politicised or otherwise unjust.

Addressing a series of critical statements by academics, global human rights groups, and foreign diplomats, Shoukry said, “the Egyptian people do not accept that others should doubt the integrity of [their] judicial system”. Ignoring the evidence presented by independent observers, he argued that Egypt was “keen about implementing the rule of law and separation of powers”.

Egypt has become an international laughing stock, thanks in large part to comments made by Shoukry and other government officials, who have consistently denied or downplayed human rights abuses and pushed the absurd line that Egypt is the victim of a global conspiracy.

If Shoukry and his government colleagues are interested in improving Egypt’s international standing, they should consult a basic Image Restoration text, which would instruct them to acknowledge abuses, express remorse, and take corrective action. If recent government performance is any indication, the chances of any of this happening are slim.

Mohamad Elmasry is an assistant professor in the Department of Communications at the University of North Alabama.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.