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Testing times

Ahmed Eleiba reviews the way Egypt presented its own account of its human rights record

Ahmed Eleiba , Saturday 23 Nov 2019
Testing times
Testing times
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Views: 1008

Egypt received 372 recommendations in its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) with the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva last week. The number seems large, even excessive, but it should be borne in mind the review covers four years.

Omar Marwan, who headed the Egyptian delegation to Geneva, said Egypt will respond to the recommendations in February, after the government has had time to study them in detail.

“We have nothing to hide,” says Assistant Foreign Minister for Human Rights Ihab Gamaleddin. “We’ll respond to all the recommendations transparently.”

According to Egyptian human rights advocacy sources, 39 out of the 136 countries that attended the interactive session in Geneva criticised Egypt’s human rights record, while 97 lauded the progress Cairo has made during the last five years.


Human rights is a field that involves activists, lawyers and other professionals, the UN High Commission for Human Rights and domestic organisations and bodies such as parliament, the ministries of justice and interior and the National Council for Women.

The general map of activism in Egypt has changed little since the Mubarak era in terms of performance and discourse. “Opposition” activists tend to approach the question from a political rather than a rights advocacy perspective. They see human rights as a platform from which to oppose the regime. In Egypt they are regarded with suspicion, and are often accused of being linked to the agendas of countries or agencies biased against Egypt. In fact, they tend to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is officially banned in Egypt, although they try to hide this affiliation as well as links with governments, such as those of Turkey and Qatar, which are hostile to Egypt.

There are, too, those people who feel it is their patriotic duty to defend Egypt’s human rights record, and who often do so to an exaggerated degree. In Geneva they did air criticisms of some laws and the performance of certain government agencies. For instance, on women’s rights they observed that while the number of women in parliament is important, as Egypt’s National Report noted, it is not quantity that counts but quality, and women still have less input and influence in the legislature than men.


The discourse and performance of the diplomatic missions present at the Geneva meeting was a useful gauge of the efficacy of Egypt’s foreign policy and diplomacy. There were three categories of countries that attended.

Members of blocs such as the Arab group in the UN participated actively and constructively, registering observations and recommendations on questions related to education and health. They rarely broached politically contentious issues and tend to support one another from one UPR to the next. Only Qatar departs from this rule. The Africa group is also an important bloc with an influential presence in the UPR.

The second category might be labelled the leaders’ lobby. It consists of countries that cast themselves as human rights pioneers and take it upon themselves to lecture everyone else. The US and UK take the lead here, closely followed by other EU states.

Then comes a miscellaneous and inherently fluid category. Its members deal with human rights on an ad hoc basis determined by their relations with the country under review and with particular interest groups. It also includes countries that may have no prior stance towards the country under review but approach the process with an eye on securing a quid pro quo arrangement, praising a country under review in the hope the country will return the favour later.


In Cairo there was a widespread impression that Egypt was standing trial, almost literally, in Geneva. This was due in large part to the propaganda disseminated by Muslim Brotherhood media platforms, especially those based in Turkey. Ultimately, the event proved how bankrupt these platforms are, both in their approach to human rights and in their ability to mobilise anti-Egyptian sentiment. In the end, these Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated activists betrayed themselves as tools in the hands of the countries that host them.

Some US and European rights organisations have a hostile attitude towards the army in Egypt and this is regularly reflected in their reports. However, these reports were not brought up in the sessions in the UNHRC, and for a good reason: their findings frequently lack credibility.

Egypt contributed actively in many of the activities surrounding the UPR session in which 14 countries came under review. Yet at times it seemed Egypt was speaking to itself, not making itself heard as forcefully and dynamically as it could.

Certainly, there were some deficiencies in the Egyptian performance including, on occasion, a lack of realism. Some Egyptian officials behaved as though prison conditions in Egypt were ideal, and images of a “barbecue party” in Tora Prison, screened at the time of the UPR, quickly turned into a running joke, overshadowing the recent prison inspection tour by prosecutors.

Egypt has never pretended it is in the vanguard when it comes to human rights. However, as its National Report made clear, it is seriously working to improve its record.

It is important to bear in mind that progress in human rights is contingent not just on the government’s behaviour but also on that of civil society and of individuals. Human rights cannot be reduced to a single dimension — the relationship between government authorities and very specific rights issues. This lays the blame for any abuses entirely on a single agency — the government — and reduces human rights to a handful of issues such as prison conditions and the freedom to demonstrate.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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