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Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan January 31, 2011

Egyptian ambassador claims Egypt has made "great strides" in political and democratic reform

Egyptians took to the streets over the weekend to protest the authoritarian rule of President Hosni Mubarak and urge him to step down. The Egyptian ambassador to the United States, Sameh Shoukry, appeared on This Week with Christiane Amanpour to discuss the situation.

Amanpour, reporting from Cairo, asked the ambassador how long Mubarak would "continue to tolerate this number of people in the streets?"

Shoukry replied, "From the outset, the freedom of expression had been guaranteed. Egypt has been on a road of economic, political, democratic reform for the last 20 years or more, and it has achieved great strides in that regard. Freedom of expression, freedom of the press had been evolving and advancing with very important strides. I believe, in the president's speech, he indicated that there would be a guarantee of the freedom and ability of all Egyptians to express their points of view in a peaceful manner."

That didn't answer Amanpour's question, but we were interested in his statement that the country has made "great strides" in political and democratic reforms.

That was at odds with reporting we've read, so we decided to dig deeper to see if perhaps the ambassador was correct that Egypt has indeed been moving strongly toward more human rights over the past 20 years.

We found that numerous human rights organizations have given Egypt low marks for political openness and press freedom. We did find a few examples of improvement, particularly among the press and bloggers. But organizations described these positive developments as limited and at times occurring in spite of the government, not because of embraced reforms.

The international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, for example, ranked Egypt as 127th out of 178 countries for press freedom in 2010. "Since taking power in 1981, Hosni Mubarak has gone all out to curb not just press freedom but also citizens' rights to freedom of information. The authorities have for several years been tightening control over the Internet, but without excessive use of filtering," the group reported.

Freedom House, a nonprofit that monitors democratic freedoms around the world, noted that "Restrictions on press freedom continued in 2009, as Egyptian reporters tested the boundaries of acceptable coverage but were confronted by arrests, lawsuits and state-sponsored assaults."

"The Egyptian blogosphere remains extremely lively, with a large range of opinions freely expressed online and a wide breadth of content available to users of the medium. In response, the government has continued to harass and intimidate those who publish online," the report added.

In 2009, the Committee to Protect Journalists listed Egypt as one of the 10 worst countries for bloggers. "Authorities regularly detain critical bloggers for open-ended periods. Local press freedom groups documented the detention of more than 100 bloggers in 2008 alone," the committee said in its release.

Human Rights Watch noted widespread instances of police brutality in a 2011 report. "Police and security forces regularly engaged in torture in police stations, detention centers, and at points of arrest," the report said. There also were restrictions on freedom of religion. "Although Egypt's constitution provides for equal rights without regard to religion, there is widespread discrimination against Egyptian Christians, as well as official intolerance of heterodox Muslim sects," the report said.

Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks show that U.S. State Department officials were equally down on Egypt's human rights record.

"Police brutality in Egypt against common criminals is routine and pervasive," said a 2009 report from the U.S. embassy in Cairo. "Contacts describe the police using force to extract confessions from criminals as a daily event, resulting from poor training and understaffing."

A cable from 2008 reported, "Our fundamental political reform goal in Egypt remains democratic transformation, including the expansion of political freedom and pluralism, respect for human rights, and a stable and legitimate transition to the post-Mubarak era. Egyptian democracy and human rights efforts, however, are being suffocated ...Mubarak now makes scant public pretense of advancing a vision for democratic change. An ongoing challenge remains balancing our security interests with our democracy promotion efforts."

Experts we spoke with had similar comments.

Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch's emergencies director, told us he saw the ambassador's comments on This Week and thought they were "deeply misleading and inaccurate."

"The level of human rights abuses and restrictions on political space have not significantly changed over the past decades, and this stagnation and the daily humiliations that come with it are at the very core of the popular revolt we are seeing today," Bouckaert said via e-mail. "There are two separate realities in Egypt. That seen by the tourists and the ruling elite and that experienced by ordinary Egyptians. The ambassador was doubtlessly hoping that his audience was only familiar with the former."

We got a concise but telling reply from Steven Cook, a fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "He's a 'bs-er.' You can quote me," Cook said via e-mail.

Michael Collins Dunn, editor of The Middle East Journal, said political freedoms might be a little better than they were 20 years ago, particularly in regard to press freedom. But looking at the government, political opposition remains weak, and Mubarak's ruling party has firm control of the government. "If you're talking about genuine progress to a multiparty democracy, you have to look long and hard," Dunn said.

Finally, we should note that Amanpour told the ambassador that the Egyptians protesting in the street didn't seem to agree with his statements. "As I say, they are saying that what's happening is not enough," she said. "What more should the government do to bring more freedom, political pluralism? There is no meaningful political space here."

In our ruling, we find little to support the ambassador's statement that "Egypt has been on a road of economic, political, democratic reform for the last 20 years or more, and it has achieved great strides in that regard." A few things may have improved, particularly in the area of press freedom, but they are hardly "great strides." In fact, the government continues to arrest journalists, police brutality is widespread, and the ruling party maintains firm control. We rate the ambassador's statement False.

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Our Sources

Reporters Without Borders, Press Freedom Index 2010

Reporters Without Borders, Egypt profile, accessed Jan. 31, 2011

Freedom House, Egypt profile, 2010, accessed Jan. 31, 2011

Committee to Protect Journalists, 10 Worst Countries to be a Blogger, April 30, 2009

Human Rights Watch, World Report 2011: Egypt

The Guardian, US reported 'routine' police brutality in Egypt, WikiLeaks cables show, Jan. 28, 2011

Embassy of Egypt, Political Reform in Egypt, accessed Jan. 31, 2010

The Associated Press, Analysis: The US moral conundrum in Egypt, Jan. 31, 2010

Wikileaks, diplomatic cable, Dec. 21, 2008

Wikileaks, diplomatic cable, May 19, 2009

Wikileaks, diplomatic cable, Feb. 9, 2010

Wikileaks, diplomatic cable, March 30, 2009

Wikileaks, diplomatic cable, Jan. 15, 2009

E-mail interview with Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch's emergencies director

E-mail interview with Steven Cook, a fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

Interview with Jennifer Nelson of the University of Virginia School of Law

Interview with Michael Collins Dunn, editor of The Middle East Journal

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Egyptian ambassador claims Egypt has made "great strides" in political and democratic reform

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