What Egypt's Civil Society Need in the Civil Society Year?



In his concluding remarks at the closing ceremony of the World Youth Forum (WYF), in the City of Sharm El-Shiekh, last week, the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi reiterated his previous announcement of labeling 2022 as the Civil Society Year.


"Declaring the year 2022 a Year of Civil Society, during which the WYF’s administration and the relevant authorities and institutions in the state will establish an effective platform for dialogue between the state, its youth, as well as local and international civil society institutions;" El-Sisi noted.


President El-Sisi’s announcement is received with much applaud and optimism, at home and abroad. It is seen as an honest initiative to start a new chapter in the uneasy relationship between the state and civil society organizations, especially those active on topics related to human rights and civil freedoms. Matching the vision of the Egyptian state and president, in that regard, with the needs and aspirations of the civil society professionals is a crucial first step to juice out the maximal benefits of the Civil Society Year.


El-Sisi’s announcement comes at the tail of a cluster of positive decisions that aims to enhance state performance on issues related to human rights. They started with releasing the National Strategy for Human Rights, in September 2021. The National Strategy for Human Rights is the first-ever long-term action plan to be created and adopted by the Egyptian government with the purpose to improve state performance on human rights. 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 citizens.


The Egyptian state is clearly keen to successfully accomplish this important human rights strategy and improve its human rights record. On one hand, it will help increase the level of citizen satisfaction and preserve political stability, while preparing Egypt to enter the new era of the new republic that El-Sisi has been building up for seven years. On the other hand, Egypt’s success in balancing its human rights agenda with security and socio-economic priorities is necessary for fixing the negative aspects that have been hindering Egypt from advancing its foreign relations with western countries and world powers.


The Egyptian state’s performance related to human rights, especially in the category of civil and political rights, has always been an intimidating topic in Egypt’s relations with European countries and the United States. While Egypt’s western allies pushed the Egyptian government to focus on improving civil and political rights, the Egyptian state gave the priority to social and economic rights. This created situations of misunderstanding between Egypt and key players in the international community. During his visit to France, last year, President El-Sisi had to publicly refute claims about Egypt’s systematic violations of human rights to the journalists who challenged him. In August 2021, the Biden Administration, in the United States, announced that it plans to cut part of the annual military aid due to the Egyptian military, unless the Egyptian government improves its human rights record.


At least three of the plenary sessions of the World Youth Forum, last week, covered the issue of human rights. In one of these session, President El-Sisi, personally, intervened to defend the Egyptian state’s bias to prioritizing social and economic rights to ending the lag in improving civil and political rights. “Egypt did not bow to any kind of external pressure when it took steps towards improving human rights;” El-Sisi said at one of the WYF’s United Nations Simulation session, highlighting that the western allegations about human rights violations in Egypt are not true and are not fair. “Diversity among humans and countries is normal. Trying to force everyone to adopt a certain political color is an act of arrogance.”


In fact, the Egyptian momentum for improving state performance on human rights has been building up for a while. However, for the Egyptian state to succeed in this mission, it needs a strong civil society to complement its efforts. The Civil Society Year is a golden opportunity to reset the terms of the troubled relationship between the state and civil society organizations, especially those working in the field of human rights and civil freedoms.


In the past five years, the government has been extensively coordinating with civil society organizations, which are working in the field of charity. Their number is close to four thousand organizations, working on national and local levels, all over Egypt. Meanwhile, the civil society organizations working in the human rights field (about 400 organizations) have been suffering from systematic distortion in the media and the neglect of the state. Part of this problem has to do with the fact that a few of them played political roles in the post-revolution era, to compensate for the absence of viable political parties that can contain the youth.


Let’s hope the Civil Society Year 2022 creates the momentum needed to change state’s perception to human rights organizations, and to rehabilitate the Egyptian civil society through balancing advancing civil and political rights with improving social and economic living conditions. A vibrant civil society is not a luxury for any state that desires to grow and thrive. A robust civil society is one of the pillars of support that the new Egyptian republic needs to prosper.


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