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By George Mikhail – Al-Monitor

Egyptian parliament

Human rights is a touchy subject in Egypt, but even more so since recent parliamentary elections produced what some fear is a fox in the henhouse.

Alaa Abed, chairman of the Free Egyptian Party’s parliamentary bloc, recently became chairman of the Human Rights Committee in the House of Representatives. This has stirred widespread controversy, given his previous work as a police officer and accusations — which he denies — that he was complicit in torture during his tenure at the Ministry of Interior.

The way he was “elected” — by default — also created quite a conflict. All the other candidates for the position withdrew in protest after, they said, Abed recruited 34 handpicked parliament members to join the Human Rights Committee specifically to vote for him.

Also, parliament member Akmal Qortam, head of the Conservative Party, resigned from parliament because he opposed the way the Oct. 17 committee chair elections were conducted.

Adding to the tension, parliament member Muhammad al-Ghoul, another former police officer, won the position of deputy chair for the committee.

Many believe these developments create a stark contradiction between the Human Rights Committee’s mission and its membership. The committee is supposed to safeguard rights by collaborating with the National Council for Human Rights and to oversee how individual and collective human rights complaints are handled. In addition, the committee inspects prisons and police precincts to monitor for any violations of individual rights. Many politicians, activists and lawyers now doubt the committee’s ability to discharge its duties.

The committee also witnessed a number of conflicts in its previous session. Former committee Chairman Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat tendered his resignation in August because, he said, parliament leaders and the government in general had failed to respond to citizens’ complaints. He also cited “parliament’s failure to communicate with the outside world over implementing Egypt’s international commitments and defending its image abroad.”

Parliament member Samir Ghattas, one of those who withdrew from the elections, said in exclusive statements to Al-Monitor that Abed “has a bad personal history and he faces a good deal of suspicion that he was involved in cases of torture as well as other cases which render him unfit for this post.”

“The second issue is his dishonest claim that he was a major general, despite the fact that when he retired from the police he ranked no higher than a colonel. The fact that he would pretend to possess a more senior rank while he sought the committee chairmanship is a bad thing,” Ghattas said.

“The Human Rights Committee in its first session was not permitted to visit the prisons and police precincts, which drove the committee chairman [Sadat] to tender his resignation. The committee took [critical] positions that embarrassed the Ministry of Interior.”

Therefore, the security services cooperated with the parties and the large, pro-government Coalition to Support Egypt in a bid to take control of the committee, he said.

“This came to fruition in the elections for committee chair, where the committee rolls suddenly swelled to 64. This sort of behavior has precedents in the parliament’s history. [But] it amounts to an invasion of the committee.”

Ghattas concluded, “I put forward my candidacy to chair the committee with one goal: unmasking their intentions and exposing their mistaken tactics in parliament.” Concerning the committee’s future in its new form, he said, “The Interior Ministry will permit [members] to visit prisons and police precincts, but without tangible results that advance the cause of human rights.”

Akram al-Alfi, a veteran observer of parliamentary affairs, told Al-Monitor that Abed’s victory “harms the parliament and the state on the international level.”

“When Abed represents Egypt in international forums, he will not have a history in the field of human rights as a former police officer. In addition, he will face suspicions that he was complicit in the torture of Egyptians. Certainly, this is not in the interest of the state, and it will cost its credibility in the realm of human rights.”

Alfi concluded, “The security mindset is still in control as regards politics. [Those behind that mindset are] managing affairs in a primitive way: They eliminated politics and deployed their men in parliament, whether major-generals or former policemen. It rejected even those who support the current regime as potential chairmen of the Human Rights Committee — men like Akmal Qortam — all of whose statements support the state and the stances it has taken.”

As the new committee chairman, Abed denied in press statements the accusations that he was complicit in torture. In his words, “At present, I work as a lawyer. And a lawyer is someone who specializes in the defense of individual rights. I have been working in the realm of human rights since 2008, through the Regional Center for Human Rights. I was also honored to be its president, and I am interested in everything pertaining to human rights. As a police officer, this is a great honor.”

He concluded, “I have not been involved in any case of torture. This accusation is not true. … Whoever has any evidence substantiating this claim, let him bring it forward.”

Abed also commented on his priorities for the committee. “The ordinary citizen is at the top of this committee’s concerns. He must feel that he is in full possession of his rights, particularly since he is subjected to pressures. The committee will work to eliminate the many barriers which separate average Egyptians and members of the police, particularly since the recent past has witnessed many [human rights] violations, whether from some civilians or some policemen, or from some [political] movements.”

He stressed that he does not look at human rights through the prism of security alone, but in its broader understanding that pertains to life as a whole.

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