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Is Obama starting to prod Egypt on human rights?

Many human rights and democracy activists in the Middle East are disillusioned with Obama's lack of action. But Egypt's acceptance today of 21 human rights recommendations after a visit by Vice President Biden may signal a shift.

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“I think the current American administration doesn't care about the human rights issue and about religious freedom in Egypt,” says Emad Gad, an analyst with the government-financed Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. He says Egypt is adept at pledging reform in arenas such as the Human Rights Council only to then ignore the implementation on the ground.

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“This is one of the problems with the Universal Periodic Review” of the Human Rights Council, agrees Moataz El Fegiery, executive director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, one of the organizations that released the report. “Usually governments like Egypt which do not have the political will to improve human rights situations on the ground, they pay no cost.”

Egypt last month extended its state of emergency by two years, after promising in February to replace the emergency law with antiterrorism legislation. The emergency law allows indefinite detention without charge, and has often been used against activists and journalists rather than the terrorists and drug traffickers the government says it is intended for.

According to the report released by the Egyptian NGOs, Egypt has continued to detain activists and bloggers, and torture by police and security forces has continued unabated. Egypt on Friday rejected three recommendations asking it to adopt international conventions against torture.

Significantly, the statement of the US delegate to the Human Rights Council expressed concern about the imprisonment of bloggers, as well as reports of fraud and interference with access to polling stations during elections last week for Egypt’s upper house of parliament. The delegate, John Mariz, praised some of Egypt’s efforts at reforms while expressing concern with other areas, including the killing of migrants on Egypt’s border and the renewal of the emergency law.

The US, he said, also “regrets Egypt’s decision not to support a significant number of recommendations with respect to religion and political liberty.”