Egypt’s human rights strategy: Why now? Serving whose interests and to what end?

In Human Rights Dissemination Program, Salon Ibn Rushd by CIHRS

At Salon Ibn Rushd

On 20 September, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) hosted a webinar titled “Is there a future for Egypt’s human rights strategy?” as part of its monthly Salon Ibn Rushd series. The discussion followed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s release of the National Human Rights Strategy on 11 September, which sparked wide debate about the feasibility of such a strategy and whether it signaled a genuine change in the Egyptian government’s stance on human rights.

The salon hosted Mohammed Anwar al-Sadat, president of the Reform and Development Party and coordinator of the International Dialogue Committee; Dr. Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace; and Bahey eldin Hassan, director of the CIHRS. The discussion was moderated by Ezzedine Fishere, professor of Middle East Studies at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. The discussion, held remotely, was heavily attended and witnessed valuable contributions from attendees.

The panelists addressed the timing of the human rights strategy’s announcement and its significance. Dunne speculated that American pressure, particularly the partial withholding of  military aid to Egypt, was the prime reason for the strategy’s announcement.

Sadat in contrast attributed the timing to domestic considerations, in particular political stability, the containment of terrorism, and tangible achievements in the economy and infrastructure.

Hassan also focused on domestic conditions in Egypt, but came to a different conclusion about the strategy’s timing; attributing it to growing concern among lower-level government officials about the Sisi regime’s stability, particularly in light of deteriorating living conditions and the lack of political intermediaries capable of absorbing mounting rage and thus avoiding major political unrest.

Indeed, the state of human rights in Egypt is catastrophic, and has been condemned by Egyptian and international organizations alike, including the United Nations and European Union. Meanwhile, the legislative and judicial arms of the state have been weakened at the expense of expanding executive power under Sisi’s rule, and there is no effective oversight of the security apparatus, whether from state or society. The strategy’s 11 September release date is deeply significant, Hassan asserted, indicative of the strategy’s target audience. The strategy was written by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the only ministry that has no relationship to the country’s internal affairs.

In line with Hassan’s perspective, Dunne asserted that the strategy failed to acknowledge any serious human rights issues in the country, as is consistent with what Hassan called the deeply entrenched “state of denial” throughout all levels of governance: from president Sisi who denies the existence of any human rights abuses to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which also denies Egypt’s human rights situation and condemns any criticism of it.

Sadat said that simply the fact that the state had worked on the strategy for two years constitutes itself a recognition of the human rights problems in the country. He contended that when the state extends an offering of reform, it should be engaged with rather than rejected or condemned.

Participants also criticized the strategy’s placement of the the brunt of the responsibility for Egypt’s human rights situation on its citizens. Dunne said that repeated references to the necessity of raising citizens’ awareness of human rights culture were laughable, as it implies that  rights violations in Egypt originate not from the state but from citizens who are ignorant of their rights. Similarly, Hassan said that in repeatedly faulting the citizenry’s for its low societal human rights awareness, as well as the failures of political parties and even the Arab Spring (which the document does at least 30 times in the space of its 78 pages)—the strategy is effectively “blaming the people” for human rights violations. This is an extension of the state’s denial of state agencies’ complicity in serious human rights crimes against the people.

Adding to this, Dunne said that even if all the strategy’s goals were achieved, it would change little about the human rights situation in Egypt, which only demonstrates how modest the strategy’s goals are.

Participants discussed their concerns about the clear contradiction between the strategy and state practices. When it comes to political participation, Hassan said, practices of the Egyptian state continue to reflect a deeply ingrained philosophy based on the exclusion of citizens from public life at any cost or however severe the methods. Tens of thousands of innocent people are currently languishing -often for years – in Egyptian prisons for exercising their fundamental rights . They are subject to enforced disappearance and/ or prolonged pretrial detention on a familiar array of false charges, such as joining a terrorist group. Sadat himself has faced repression, along with his colleagues and countless other citizens, when attempting to exercise their right to participate in public life, whether by running for president or in the parliament (as exemplified by the Hope Coalition case). This repression, Hassan emphasized, is a concrete demonstration of the fraudulence of the strategy, which holds citizens and political parties responsible for their failure to act on the right to participate in public life.

Turning to freedom of belief, Dunne said that although the Egyptian government has repeatedly discussed laws for the construction of churches, it ignores infringements and attacks on Copts and activists defending their rights, who are imprisoned with other political dissidents. This discrepancy between word and deed is apparent even in the president’s statements said Amr Magdi, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, who noted that just days after the new human rights strategy was announced, the president approved the construction of a new prison complex.

Calling on attendees to ignore past practices, Sadat said, “We are the children of today.” He said that the new prison complex has nothing to do with political prisoners, but is a long-standing demand dating back to 2005 for dignified conditions for prisoners, which is part of the state’s role, the same as the construction of schools and hospitals. Sadat went on to cite some examples of a shift in practice and application, in particular the release orders given to some people held in pretrial detention, the closure of Case 173 of 2011 on foreign funding, and the referral to trial of officers with proven involvement in rights crimes. In response to a question from activist Esraa Abdel Fattah, Sadat said that the president had called for the strategy to immediately be implemented, and a committee of experts and representatives from ministries is currently being formed and will soon be announced; the committee will draft an implementation strategy with a time-bound program.

All attendees were in consensus that the future of the human right’s strategy – its success or its failure –  is contingent upon its application.

Dunne said that the Egyptian government is responsible for translating the items in the document into a reality backed up by hard facts and figures. Sadat affirmed that the government has a responsibility to release real figures and it alone can prove how serious it is about change. Hassan contended that the strategy depended on opening channels of dialogue between government officials with decision-making authority and  independent rights organizations in Egypt and abroad, and agreeing on a specific roadmap. Otherwise, the document will be nothing more than 78 pages of meaningless words without accompanying action.

Watch the entire panel discussion here.

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