Bahey Eldin HassanDirector of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
High hopes were raised by the European Parliament’s 18 December resolution on the deteriorating human rights situation in Egypt. The exceptional recommendations contained in the resolution reinforce hope for improvement in an abysmal state of affairs unprecedented in the modern history of the afflicted country. With remarkably uncompromising language, the resolution is not limited to condemnations or demands on the Egyptian government but extends to calling for firm punitive measures in its recommendations to the European Union. A mechanism monitoring human rights violations in Egypt, independent investigations into the state’s human rights crimes, and the imposition of sanctions against senior Egyptian officials found culpable in these crimes are among the demands for which the resolution urges EU member states to advocate at the EU and United Nations Human Rights Council.
In short, the resolution reflects the reality that the members of parliament, who represent public sentiment in Europe, despair of any reform at the hand of Egypt’s dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. A large majority of the European Parliament—434 members—voted for the resolution, with only 49 opposed, suggesting that MEPs have little hope of a constructive response from Sisi. The resolution does not merely appeal to Sisi to release prisoners of conscience and institute legislative reforms, as previous resolutions have done. Rather, for the first time, the parliament seeks to mobilize strong external pressure that could compel the dictator to make tangible concessions.
Hopes for change are bolstered by the timing of the European Parliament resolution and other significant international developments of import for human rights in Egypt. These include the election of a new US administration with a declared interest in human rights and democracy, and President-elect Joe Biden’s pledge in July to link US aid to Egypt to these issues. Another important international development is Italy’s refusal in December to backtrack on the prosecution of Egyptian officials for disappearing, torturing, and killing Italian academic Giulio Regeni nearly five years ago. The Egyptian state is also criminally liable for misleading the authorities investigating the crime and killing five innocent Egyptians to divert attention from the real criminals.
When the trial begins early new year, the accused, whom Sisi refuses to extradite, will most likely not be standing in the dock. Yet nevertheless this process may turn into a very public political trial of a regime responsible for thousands of more crimes against Egyptian citizens – including enforced disappearance, torture, and murder – and covering up for the perpetrators.
Along with these developments, the international community has grown increasingly impatient with Sisi’s indifference to successive criticisms of human rights violations over the past seven years and his repeated evasions and equivocations. Perhaps the best expression of this impatience was the scorn shown to Sisi by Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo on 8 December. The mayor said that she agreed to meet Sisi only to inform him of her strong stance on human rights issues and to demand the release of political prisoners. The same day, Hidalgo submitted a proposal to the Council of Paris to grant honorary citizenship to four prominent prisoners held in Sisi’s jails, which the council subsequently approved.
Nevertheless, it must be recognized that there is a tremendous distance between renewed hopes for human rights in Egypt and the transformation of these hopes into reality. Making that leap is closely tied to the extent of political will in Europe and the United States. Of course, the western governments are elected to advance the interests of their electorates, and while it is true that the values of democracy and human rights have mostly become closely aligned to these interests, their position on the scale of priorities varies from one ruling party to another.
No state is governed by angels who consistently make human rights values their first priority in domestic and foreign policy regardless of other considerations and challenges. The priority is ultimately relative but that does not detract from the importance of this historical development: the reaching of an advanced stage in human history in which human rights are prioritized by a considerable number of pivotal countries. Even if this historical development was ushered in by a religious war, bloody revolutions, two world wars, and a bitter history of wars of conquest, colonialism, and other brutal practices, at the end of the day these values gradually did become a priority in most Western countries, not only as they relate to respect for the human rights of their own citizenries but also as an important pillar of their foreign policies.
This would not have been possible without another historic achievement: the emergence over time of a critical social mass in every Western country that believes in human rights and democracy as a vital, indispensable value at the core of its vision of itself, its world, and its direct vital interests. This critical mass has therefore developed the determination and willingness to sacrifice in order to protect these values, even if their diminishment comes in the form of a French law last December to ban the filming of police officers.
The ascendancy of Donald Trump to the presidency of an entrenched democracy exposed the complexity of the domestic conflict over human rights and their status in the politics of Western countries. A dynamic struggle, it varies from one country to the next, and the nature of the ruling party or coalition and main opposition forces play an influential role.
On the other hand unfortunately, respect for human rights does not constitute a priority for the governments of the Arab and Islamic worlds, whether with regard to the rights of their own citizenries or peoples elsewhere. This does not negate the fact that the people of the Arab world increasingly consider human rights and democracy vital demands, especially in times of major crises, such as the Arab Spring. Human rights and democracy may constitute a permanent priority for a narrow elite, but it is difficult to say that these values are highly prioritized by the peoples of the region.
One of the striking ironies in recent weeks is the indignant response of newspaper columnists and social media activists at the overwhelming attention given by some government circles and public opinion in the West to the demand for the release of three Egyptian human rights defenders, while thousands of others who have been unjustly imprisoned for years did not received the same concern.
It is ironic not only because there is a well-established global consensus that priority should be given to those who defend others without any personal, political, or religious interest, nor only because it seemed that for some disgruntled writers, the West had transformed overnight from the embodiment of the Great Satan and the most dangerous enemy of Islam and Muslims into a Santa Claus who was expected to push for the release of 60,000 prisoners. For me, the most important irony was that no one indicted what Syrian intellectual Burhan Ghalioun called in another context ‘defect of the self’ by which I mean the absence of a driving social force in Egypt and most Arab countries that Arab or Western leaders are compelled to consider when making decisions related to human rights.
The huge gap between the tragic human rights situation in the Arab world and the low priority given to protecting these rights by governments and peoples in the region is not separate from the question of whether there is political will in Europe and the United States to advocate for human rights in Egypt. When Egyptian human rights organizations raise human rights issues with international figures and parties, it sometimes poses a related question about the extent to which popular momentum exists in Egypt for respecting human rights or at least for ending some of the most heinous crimes, such as the killing of thousands of peaceful citizens by security forces, turning trials into massacres with the issuance of mass death sentences, or disappearing thousands of people, torturing thousands more, and imprisoning tens of thousands of innocent people.
When I recall the situation thirty-five years ago, when I with others founded the first contemporary human rights organization in Egypt, I note with pride the exponential increase in Egyptians’ awareness of human rights, in terms of quantity and quality and especially among the younger generations.
This heightened awareness of human rights issues is not due to human rights organizations alone. Globalization played a vital role in Egypt, as it did around the world, along with some writers and intellectuals. There is an increased currency and deeper awareness of human rights, and the persons and groups that promote and defend human rights increase in number by the day. A growing number of Egyptians are willing to pay a heavy price to defend the rights of others they do not know, whose political or religious opinions or political beliefs they may not share, or may even ardently oppose. Yet these developments alone are not enough to transform human rights into a societal force that can guarantee respect for even a minimum level of human rights. That requires the formation of a critical social mass, which unfortunately has not yet emerged in any Arab country.
In the last ten years this force, despite its fragility, has gathered significant steam in Tunisia. Yet in Egypt during the same period, the necessary critical mass was aborted as it struggled to be born. The historical responsibility for this abortion does not lie only with the military establishment that has de facto ruled Egypt since the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011. The procedure began just a few weeks after the January uprising and was completed over the course of two and a half years, with the help of various parties that took part in the uprising. It was followed by a bloody process over the next seven years to forestall any possible re-emergence of this mass.
Of course, there is remarkable societal momentum in Egypt and the Arab world to rise in defense of perceived insults to Islam or its sacred symbols. We saw this most recently when cartoons of the Prophet of Islam were again published in France. Leaving aside the issue of whether a cartoon can harm a religion embraced by hundreds of millions around the world, it is striking that no minimum social interest has emerged in defense of Islam as millions of Muslims in China are being brutally oppressed to force them to abandon their religious beliefs. Unfortunately, there has been no response consistent with the gravity of the threat posed to Islam as a religion by compelling millions of people to renounce it. There has even been no symbolic reaction in the form of protesting the silence of Arab Islamic governments, which are openly colluding by offering political and (im)moral support to China in the United Nations, backing it as the West condemns it in solidarity with the Muslim minority in China.
This paradox sheds additional light on the lack of societal momentum for the protection of human rights in Egypt and the Arab world, even when it is a matter of religion, traditionally the most important factor in the formation of a person’s conscience in this region.
Very early on the late Mohamed El-Sayed Said, one of the most important scholars of human rights thought in Egypt and the Arab world for two decades, drew our attention to the obstacles in traditional mainstream culture in the region, which impede the crystallization of a critical social mass pressing for respect of human rights, thus providing a free service to authoritarian regimes in the region. As he confronts the protests of tens of thousands of victims in Egypt, the tears of hundreds of thousands of their families, and the sympathy of millions, the butcher Abdel Fattah al-Sisi does not rely on tanks. Although violence may be his last line of defense, the first line—mightier than all his tanks—is the prevailing political and religious culture that sanctifies servitude to the tyrant, even if he is unjust.
Until cultural and intellectual platforms take up their deferred historical mission and existing political groups and parties in Egypt agree on a threshold of human rights as a program, all victims can do is look to human rights organizations to appeal to Western countries about individual cases here and there among tens of thousands of victims. Or they can closely follow general elections in Western countries, hoping they will bring in governments more concerned with human rights in Egypt, or hope that European and American courts will try Egyptian security officers for their crimes in a way that may deter their colleagues and superiors in Egypt. Or they can wait for a major economic or political crisis that replaces the butcher with another, less bloodthirsty general.
The article was originally published in Arabic Here
This post is also available in: العربية