• Press Release

EU: Halt arms transfers to Egypt to stop fueling killings and torture

May 24, 2016

Almost half of European Union (EU) member states have flouted an EU-wide suspension on arms transfers to Egypt, risking complicity in a wave of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and torture, Amnesty International said today.

Despite the suspension imposed after hundreds of protesters were killed in a show of grossly excessive force by security forces in August 2013, 12 out of 28 EU member states have remained among Egypt’s main suppliers of arms and policing equipment. It is feared that EU foreign ministers could soon decide to scrap the current, already insufficient, suspension.

“Almost three years on from the mass killings that led the EU to call on its member states to halt arms transfers to Egypt, the human rights situation has actually deteriorated,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, interim Deputy Middle East and North Africa Program Director at Amnesty International.

“Internal repression by the security forces remains rife, and there has been virtually no accountability. Excessive use of force, mass arbitrary arrests, torture, and enforced disappearances having become a part of the security forces’ modus operandi.

“EU states transferring arms and policing equipment to Egyptian forces carrying out enforced disappearances, torture and arbitrary arrests on a mass scale are acting recklessly and are risking complicity in these serious violations.”

EU complicity in repression

In 2014 alone, EU states authorized 290 licenses for military equipment to Egypt, totalling more than €6 billion (US$6.77). The items have included: small arms, light weapons and ammunition; armored vehicles; military helicopters; heavier weapons for use in counter-terrorism and military operations; and surveillance technology.

The EU countries who have been supplying arms to Egypt through exports or brokering since 2013 are: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and the UK.

According to Privacy International, companies from several EU countries, including Germany, Italy and the UK, have also supplied the Egyptian authorities with sophisticated equipment or technologies destined for use in state surveillance, which Amnesty International fears may be used to suppress peaceful dissent and violate the right to privacy. 

Egypt’s violent crackdown on dissent

In recent years, the Egyptian authorities have presided over a crackdown under the guise of restoring stability in the country after the military ousted President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. Heavy-handed measuresincluding the use of arbitrary and excessive force with firearms, armored vehicles and other equipment, have resulted in the unlawful killing of hundreds of protesters. Thousands more people have been arrested and faced mass trials which are grossly unfair. Detainees have routinely reported torture and other ill-treatment.

The security forces have boththreatened and used armed force to strike fear into those who would peacefully challenge the government’s legitimacy or openly criticize its policies. Meanwhile, the repressive new Protest Law (November 2013) and Counter-terrorism Law (August 2015) have effectively sanctioned the use of excessive force. 

Egyptian security forces are routinely armed with pistols and rifles. They often use batons, shotguns, water cannon and tear gas, supported by various types of armored vehicles, to disperse protests and other politically charged public gatherings. The 2013 Protest Law allows security forces to respond “proportionately” to the use of firearms by protesters in order to protect lives, money and property – but this is interpreted in flagrant violation of international standards which only permit security forces to use lethal force in response to an imminent threat to life or serious injury.

Since the law came into force, security forces have used excessive force to ruthlessly dismantle protests, often with lethal results. In January 2015 at least 27 people died in protest-related violence, many at the hands of armed security forces. They included Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, a political activist, poet and a young mother, who was shot dead by a police officer in central Cairo. Despite images of her dying moments going viral and sparking international outrage, the member of the security forces originally found responsible for her death has had his conviction overturned by Egypt’s highest court and now must face a retrial.

Armed security forces have also conducted mass arrests of the government’s critics and political opponents. Almost 12,000 people were arrested on suspicion of “terrorism” in the first 10 months of 2015 alone, according to an Interior Ministry official quoted in the Egyptian press. In January 2016 more than 5,000 residences in central Cairo were raided by armed security forces in a security sweep around the fifth anniversary of the 2011 uprising, with many activists detained.

Armed security forces arrested hundreds of people while dispersing mostly peaceful protests on April 25 against the government’s decision to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Those arrested in the crackdown around the protests included human rights defenders, journalists and activists.

On May 14, courts sentenced more than 150 people to between two and five-years’ imprisonment for involvement in the protests.


A wave of enforced disappearances has seen hundreds of people abducted by armed security forces over the past year. They are held incommunicado for extended periods without access to their families or lawyers, and tortured by state security forces into “confessing” to terrorism-related offences. 

There has been no accountability for serious human rights violations committed during and since the 2011 uprising. So far, the Egyptian authorities have failed to conduct effective, independent and impartial investigations into the hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances, torture and unlawful killings documented by human rights groups.

Military operations in the Sinai

The Egyptian army has been increasingly engaged in military operations against armed groups, which have launched attacks against civilians and security forces, particularly in the north of the Sinai Peninsula. The Egyptian military is known to have used heavy weapons in such operations, including armored vehicles, tanks, Apache gunships and F-16 fighter jets.

Amnesty International is concerned about the total lack of transparency over the army’s operations against armed groups.

A media blackout has been imposed on reporting about military operations in the Sinai, and journalists and independent civil society organizations have been banned from entering the area. Meanwhile, EU states have signed off on transfers of heavy weapons and equipment purportedly to help Egypt’s fight against “terrorism,” despite a lack of transparency and human rights guarantees regarding their use. This is particularly concerning given the complete lack of accountability for gross human rights violations perpetrated during the army’s rule following the 2011 uprising.

The EU fuelling internal repression

While the records show that many EU states have all but ignored the 2013 call for a suspension of transfers of arms used for “internal repression” in Egypt, there are fears that upcoming talks could result in a further loosening or even a discontinuation of the suspension. This follows last year’s decision by the U.S. to resume military aid to Egypt to the tune of $1.3 billion annually.

“Supplying arms that are likely to fuel such internal repression in Egypt is contrary to the Arms Trade Treaty, to which all EU states are party, and flouts the EU’s Common Position on arms exports,” said Brian Wood, Head of Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International.

“The EU should immediately impose an embargo on all transfers of the types of arms and equipment being used by Egypt to commit serious human rights violations. The EU and its members must stop rewarding bad behavior by Egypt’s police and military with a bonanza of arms supplies.”

Some of Egypt’s biggest suppliers of arms that could be used for internal repression include:

  • Bulgaria issued a total of 59 licenses for €51,643,626 worth of military equipment to Egypt in 2014 with over €11 million for small arms/light weapons and ammunition. Exports to Egypt included 10,500 assault rifles, 300 light machine guns and 21 sub-machine guns.
  • The Czech Republic has been a consistent supplier of small arms to Egypt. In 2014 the Czech government issued 26 licenses for military goods to Egypt worth €19.9 million – the majority for small arms and ammunition. The Czech authorities reported to the UN that they exported 80,953 pistols and revolvers to Egypt between 2013 and 2015. Egypt’s Interior Ministry had also ordered 10 million 9mm calibre cartridges from Czech arms companies in February 2014.
  • Franceissued export licenses worth more than €100 million in 2014 under the category of “bombs, torpedoes, rockets, missiles and other explosive devices” and “ground vehicles and components”.  Exports have included more than 100 Sherpa trucks, which are advertised for use by law-enforcement officials.
  • Italyissued 21 licenses of military equipment totaling €33.9 million in 2014, nearly half of which was small arms. In 2015, Italy sent more than €4 million worth of small arms and related parts and accessories, and has already registered the export of €73,391 worth of pistols or revolvers to Egypt in 2016.

Amnesty International is calling on the EU and all EU member states to:

  • Impose and fully implement a binding embargo on transfers of security and policing equipment to Egyptof the types of arms used to commit or facilitate serious violations of human rights. Failing to do so would risk ongoing breaches of the EU’s Common Position on arms exports, as well as the human rights provisions of the global Arms Trade Treaty.
  • Impose a ‘presumption of denial’ policy on transfers of arms intended for use by Egypt’s armed forces and air force. Reports of some aerial attacks that resulted in fatalities and serious injuries have not been effectively, independently and impartially investigated. Human rights violations committed by the armed forces during the uprising in 2011 and in the year of military rule that followed also have not been effectively investigated. Any potential export to Egypt of such items should not be authorized unless a thorough human rights risk assessment demonstrates that the Egyptian armed forces’ recipient will use the equipment lawfully, including by upholding its international human rights law obligations,and unless a binding guarantee to that effect is agreed by the exporting state with the Egyptian government.
  • Maintain this embargo and ‘presumption of denial’ policy until the Egyptian authorities put in place effective safeguards to prevent further serious violations by security forces, and carry out full, prompt, independent and impartial investigations into violations since the 2011 uprising with the aim of prosecuting those responsible for crimes in fair trials.