No one could claim that Egypt is a perfect country when it comes to human rights record. In Egypt, poor concern for human rights, especially political and civil rights, is a problem as old as Egypt’s modern history. Yet, it would be extremely unfair to claim that the current political leadership of President El-Sisi has not practically proven, over the past six years, its sincerity to change this ugly reality and improve state performance on human rights issues. Then, why Egypt is still struggling with improving its human rights record, despite the political leadership’s will and efforts. There is, at least, one main reason to explain this lag between the presidential efforts and the yielding results, in relation to improving Egypt’s human rights record.
In fact, no country on Planet Earth managed to realize the thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), released in 1948. The number of the countries, worldwide, that managed to achieve an enviable progress on human rights can barely be counted on one hand. Long-term political stability and limited sources for security threat played a tremendous role in availing the space for these states to achieve progress on their human rights agendas. Meanwhile, countries like Egypt that have been suffering from repetitive events of political turmoil and massive internal and external security threats, had to put human rights issues as a second or third priority. This perception has changed a lot, at least in the Middle East, since the Arab Spring revolutions, in early 2010s.
Egypt, as one example, has been struggling with chronic deficiencies on the human rights file; mostly inherited from the long era of corruption and tyranny under Mubarak. The current Egyptian leadership does not deny this fact and has been sincerely working, for six years, to improve human rights conditions, amidst countless political and security challenges. Despite the delay on reforming civil and political rights, Egypt witnessed a leap on improving economic, social, and cultural rights, thanks to new legislative amendments and huge national development projects targeting improving health, housing, and security conditions, as well as protecting freedom of religion and empowering women in public life.
On the civil and political rights agenda, President El-Sisi took a historical step, in mid-September, by launching “the National Strategy for Human Rights” and dedicating the year 2022 to the Civil Society. The National Strategy for Human Rights is the first document of its kind, in the history of Egypt, that is meant to help the Egyptian state improve its human rights record and practices. The strategy is built on key four pillars: advancing economic, social, and cultural rights; advancing the rights of women and children; advancing the rights of the people with disabilities, youth, and the elderly; and the dissemination of human rights culture among the public. The strategy looks impressive, on paper, but there is some skepticism about whether the state can successfully manifest it on the ground.
This brings us to the main question on why Egypt is still stumbling on the path to human rights advancement. The real obstacle which has always been preventing Egypt from making tangible progress on the civil and political rights agenda, is not the lack of will or lack of sincerity by the political leadership of President El-Sisi. The essence of the problem lies in the poor choices the government is making, in relation to the mechanisms used and individuals entrusted with handling this tedious portfolio of advancing human rights. The recently announced composition of the new board of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) is a living proof on that.
Last week, the Egyptian Parliament approved the names of the new 27 board members of the National Council for Human Rights. NCHR is the country’s leading body entitled to improve state performance on human rights in compliance with related international treaties and principles. Unfortunately, only a few of the selected names are good fit for the job, thanks to their professional experience and career record in the civil society and human rights sector. For example, the selection of a strong woman leader, like Ambassador Moushira Khattab, to chair the NCHR’s board is an impressive choice. She has a long history of fighting for women’s rights and human rights of the Egyptian grassroots citizens. Even when she served as a minister in former governments, she kept the spirit of the human rights activist in her heart while performing on the job.
In complete contradiction to that, a large number of the selected members for the new cycle of NCHR board are shockingly unqualified. Some of them has never worked for a human rights organization and barely got a related experience in that field. Some others are known for their declared political hostility to the current state and its leader, President El-Sisi. In the past, they did not hesitate to cooperate with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is designated as a terrorist organization in Egypt. Some of them cooperated with leftist groups to hinder the presidential elections of 2018, after seeing the massive popular support to re-electing El-Sisi. One of them got expelled from the Parliament, in 2017, for communicating false information that distorted the parliament and the state in the eyes of Egypt’s allies, in Europe and the United States, using the human rights talk.
This raises a question on how such members, with declared hostility towards the state and president, could cooperate with the political leadership and with the government on improving human rights. In fact, they are expected to be a huge obstacle that may cause the entire machine of the NCHR to stuck, and thus prevent the sincere and qualified members from doing their job. We have seen a similar scenario in the past cycle.
In short, for the Egyptian state to succeed in improving its human rights agenda, qualified actors should be selected to do the job. Bringing unqualified people to lead this complicated file of human rights, under the claim of making political balances, has proven to be a mistake that previously incurred harm to the overall wellbeing of the Egyptian nation-state. I hope the Egyptian president will take time to review the names selected by Parliament for the new NCHR board, before officially approving it. This is crucial, to ensure that past mistakes will not be repeated and that Egypt truly progresses on the human rights track.
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