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The Right to Citizenship in Egypt’s Age of Terror

Shortly after President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi suggested at a side meeting of the United Nations General Assembly that the state of human rights in Egypt should not be judged from a Western perspective, Egypt’s cabinet gathered to approve a set of draft laws, one of which violates the right of Egyptians to their nationality in a completely unprecedented manner.

On September 20, 2017, the cabinet approved draft amendments to Law No. 26 of 1975 Concerning Egyptian Nationality that, if ultimately approved by the parliament and ratified by the president,[1] would set forth a number of additional circumstances in which an individual’s citizenship may be withdrawn by Egyptian authorities. Under the draft amendments, an individual can lose his or her citizenship if a court issues a verdict establishing that the individual belongs to “a group, association, front, organization, gang, or entity—whatever its natural, legal, or actual form and whether it is based inside or outside of the country—that aims to undermine the public order of the state or to undermine its social, economic, or political order by force or by any unlawful means.”

A full draft of the amendments has not yet been made public, so it is unclear whether these amendments establish a new process by which to designate an individual as belonging to the aforementioned groups (much like the Terrorist Entities Law did for the country’s terrorism lists) or whether they will rely on litigated or ongoing cases that include charges brought under the Penal Code, Anti-Terrorism Law, and the Terrorist Entities Law—all of which have provisions similar to those mentioned in the amendments. For an individual’s citizenship to be dependent on a judicial order, in the age of terror and at a time in which elements of the judiciary are becoming increasingly politicized, is cause for serious concern. Additionally, it is unclear what the practical effects of the amendments will entail, whether an individual whose citizenship is taken away from him or her will also be deported from the country, and whether, for individuals who do not have a second citizenship, Egypt may be creating a class of stateless individuals.

There is no doubt that proponents of the amendments will cite an intent to preserve and protect Egyptian identity, issues of national security, and the threat of terrorism as reasons to justify expanding the cases in which citizenship can be withdrawn. However, the reality at hand gives observers reason to believe that these amendments would be problematic on at least two fronts: in the subjects that they target and in the process on which they rely. At a time in which a human rights lawyer seeking to participate in a U.N. session on forced disappearances can be charged with establishing an illegal organization, a group of Nubians singing and peacefully protesting to demand their right to return can be accused of disrupting public order, and the April 6 Youth Movement can be banned for “acts that tarnish Egypt’s image as well as espionage,” it is far from inconceivable that these amendments will implicate not only those considered terrorists per global standards, but also the country’s human rights defenders, members of opposition parties, and even independent voices. When terrorism is cited as reason to have speedy and mass trials, rely on shaky evidence, and circumvent due process rights for expediency, there is no reason to believe that the withdrawal of citizenship would be based on a fair, transparent, and appealable process that is only a method of last resort, rather than a new tool for abuse by Egyptian authorities.

In assessing the language of the draft amendments at face value and considering their potential implications, it is clear that the proposed language would violate the country’s domestic and international legal obligations establishing the right to nationality as a fundamental human right. Under Article 6 of the Egyptian Constitution, “citizenship is a right to anyone born to an Egyptian father or an Egyptian mother.” Per Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the provisions of which are considered by many to be customary international law, “(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.” The U.N. has, in General Assembly Resolution No. 50/152, called upon states to “to adopt nationality legislation with a view to reducing statelessness, consistent with the fundamental principles of international law, in particular by preventing arbitrary deprivation of nationality.” More recently, the U.N. Human Rights Council has iterated similar language in Resolution 32/5 of 2016 and added that “the arbitrary deprivation of nationality, especially on discriminatory grounds such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status, including disability, is a violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Egypt’s proposed amendments on the withdrawal of citizenship from a citizen based on his or her affiliation with a group that undermines public order—a phrasing that has become code for any peaceful political dissident—constitute an arbitrary deprivation that singles out individuals in a discriminatory manner based on their political opinions. Additionally, the reliance of the authorities on court verdicts to back citizenship-related decisions at a time in which the Egyptian court systems have consistently violated the right to fair trial is further proof of the arbitrary nature that these decisions are likely to take.

As Egypt witnesses one of the most serious human rights and rule of law crises of its time, the cabinet’s decision to enshrine and approve a set of draft amendments that explicitly and clearly exist in violation of the country’s legal obligations is proof that the state will continue to rely on the threat of terrorism as reason to introduce legislation that solidifies the crackdown on rights and enshrines it into the Egyptian legal code. Even more concerning is authorities’ unprecedented willingness to create a new punitive measure that seeks to deprive the individual of a key element of his or her identity.


[1] TIMEP’s Egypt Parliamentary Watch project found that at least 67 percent (by the most conservative estimates) of laws passed during the parliament’s first session had originated in the cabinet. Accordingly, there is reason to believe that while these draft amendments have only passed the cabinet approval stage of the legislating process, they will very likely become enshrined into law in the near future.


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