CAIRO – More than 20 Egyptian rights groups said authorities excluded them at the last minute from a meeting Tuesday with a visiting European Union delegation aimed at boosting ties with the 27-nation bloc.
The rights groups alleged the decision reflects the disregard for human rights of the government of Egypt's new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, and a continuation of the policy of the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak and the country's transitional military rulers. They also lamented the lack of political will to strengthen human rights or involve the groups in decision making.
"Everyone expected the first president elected after the January 25 revolution to pursue a new policy that paved the way for communication and cooperation with rights groups in order to benefit from their experience and include their recommendations in the relevant decision-making processes," said a statement signed by the 21 human rights groups.
"However, the human rights policies adopted by the current president and government have been disappointing."
The groups said that after initially being invited to a meeting Tuesday with the EU delegation, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry abruptly withdrew the invitation without an explanation. Organizations focusing on poverty reduction and charity still took part in the talks.
Foreign ministry officials were not immediately available for comment.
Popular anger over widespread human rights abuses mainly by Egypt's pervasive security agencies was one of the driving forces behind the last year's uprising that sent hundreds of thousands of Egyptians into the streets, eventually forcing Mubarak to step down.
The groups said Tuesday's alleged snub was not the first against human rights organizations. They said they also were barred from a recent meeting that Morsi held with a variety of civil groups. Human rights principles, including civil liberties, and references to international human rights conventions ratified by Egypt, were not included in the country's newly drafted constitution, they added.
Comments and recommendations by the groups on the president's first 100-days in office, which he had encouraged a social dialogue, were also ignored, the groups said.
At a recent U.N.-organized conference in Cairo about transitional justice, a representative of the Foreign Ministry sharply attacked the conference, calling it an "extension of the international conspiracy against Egypt," according to the rights groups.
"These groups were excluded from the president's recent meeting with civil society organizations, showing that the political will needed to strengthen human rights and involve human rights groups in decision-making discussions is sorely lacking," the statement said.
The European delegation visiting Egypt is part of a task force announced during Morsi's visit to Brussels in September to reinforce cooperation between Egypt and the European Union. The delegation is led by Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and vice president of the European Commission.
The EU special representative for Human Rights, as well as business leaders and members of the European parliament are part of the delegation. In a statement before the visit, the EU said it is committed to provide "support that is tailor-made to the needs" of Egypt.
The Egyptian official chairing the meeting, Abdel-Aziz Hegazi a former prime minister under late President Anwar Sadat, said Cairo wants to focus on fighting poverty, not building democracy and human rights.
Hegazi called on the European Union to respond to Egypt's demands "on the basis of Egypt's priorities and not their own priorities."
"Millions have been spent on democracy and human rights issues and the results were not as we hoped," he said.
Judith Sargentini, a member of the European parliament, who sat through the meeting as an observer, said the EU special representative for human rights and the parliamentarians met separately with the human rights groups excluded from the meeting.
"I am not particularly happy when I visit a civil society dialogue and human rights groups are not at the table," she said. "But I see it as a start of a long process."