The recently released European Parliament report on the state of human rights in Egypt has elicited strong reactions in the regular and social media in Egypt and abroad.
Many have charged that the report is biased and disseminates misinformation, while others have greeted it approvingly, less out of their support for human rights than out of their animosity towards Egypt.
Regardless of where one stands, it is important to discuss the report and its impartiality, considering such factors as which European Parliament (EP) blocs drafted it and brought it to a vote in a plenary session and whether the process was routine or prompted by circumstances that were blown out of proportion for reasons not directly related to protecting human rights.
In formal terms, all texts on the “situation of human rights in Egypt” adopted by the EP over the past decade have been “resolutions” with no legislative force. EP terminology draws a distinction between resolutions, which are essentially declarations of opinion, and legislation adopted by “codecision” (also termed “ordinary legislative process”) and “special legislative process.”
The EP’s powers as a legislative body are relatively limited, especially when it comes to EU foreign policy. It is the European Commission that holds an effective monopoly on the power to introduce legislation. Therefore, resolutions adopted by the EP on the state of human rights in Egypt essentially remain position papers and cannot lead to punitive measures unless the Commission acts to introduce a bill of law to that purpose.
There are three reasons why such a step would be difficult to conceive. First, the reports adopted by the resolutions are not solid enough to serve as the basis for legislation or binding resolutions. They lack sufficient detail, and much of the information they contain is derived from sources that are difficult to corroborate or that may lack credibility, such as the media or NGOs.
Second, the EU suffers from a chronic inability to formulate a common foreign policy, which hampers mustering the necessary consensus on legislative proposals, both in the Commission and the EP, especially on matters of this nature.
Third, there is a complex weave of relations and interests between European and non-European states, in which human rights often become a tool to facilitate consensus on other less complex areas such as economic and security policy.
THE KEY PLAYERS: According to EP procedures, a member of the European Parliament (MEP) or group may ask for a one of the parliament’s specialised committees (there are 20 committees and two sub-committees) to prepare a report on a particular issue raised by another EU body.
After the committee draws up and makes any necessary amendments to the required report, it turns it over to another committee to formulate it in legalese. The text is then submitted to the EP for a vote in a plenary session. But, as mentioned above, even if it is adopted by a majority, it has no legal force and remains a declaration of opinion and solely that of the EP.
According to the EP website, four blocs of MEPs requested a report on the state of human rights in Egypt:
- The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (the S&D Group). Describing itself as centre-left, this group controls 145 seats in the EP;
- The Alliance of Liberal Parties, or the Renew Europe Group, a centrist group that espouses conventional liberal ideas and supports European unity and the protection of democracy in Europe. “Renew,” as it is abbreviated to, controls 96 seats in the EP;
- The Greens-European Free Alliance (Greens-EFA), which is represented by 73 MEPs;
- The Independents, or “Non-Inscrits,” who have 29 MEPs.
The same website reports that of the 685 MEPs who were present for the vote (there are 705 MEPs in all), 434 voted in favour of the text, 49 voted against it and 202 abstained.
On the basis of the ideological outlooks of the groups that requested the report, we can conclude that leftist and centrist parties were the driving force behind the resolution and made up the majority of the votes in favour.
This reflects a profound problem, namely the extent of these parties’ awareness of the political situations in non-European countries, especially those in the Middle East. European liberal and left-wing parties tend to reduce political conflicts in this part of the world to the “dictatorship versus democracy” dichotomy and believe that all the woes in these countries stem from the existence of dictatorships that persecute pro-democracy forces.
This erroneous and reductionist approach ignores the fact that the leaders of the opposition in most of these countries do not hail from liberal-leaning schools, as those European groups seem to believe, but from an alliance of Islamist trends that advocate exclusivist, totalitarian doctrines and, sometimes, violence and terrorism, on the basis of deviant interpretations of Islam (the Muslim Brotherhood is the prime example) or far-left and ultranationalist trends bent on overthrowing governments because they believe that government is “inherently corrupt” or because they seek to revert to outdated government systems on the lines of the “socialist” or “Arab nationalist” models of the 1950s and 1960s, the outlooks, structures and practices of which were also exclusivist in nature.
What the above-mentioned European parties refuse to acknowledge is that democratisation is not a question of slogans or practices that can be imposed from above. It is a problem involving the complexities of different cultures at different levels of social development and, therefore, a problem that cannot be solved through the simplified perceptions reflected in reports on the state of human rights in the non-European countries of the world.
The problem becomes clearer when we consider the detrimental effects of politicising human-rights principles and defending individuals and NGOs that the EP describes as “human-rights defenders” when, in fact, they are politicians who espouse anti-democratic views antithetical to humanitarian values and advocate anarchy and the overthrow of government heedless of the consequences such actions may have on the stability and cohesion of their societies.
We have only to point to the present anarchy, strife and warfare in Syria, Yemen and Libya as evidence of what inciting grassroots rebellion in the name of freedom and democracy can lead to. A decade after the so-called Arab Spring, people in these countries continue to experience a fully-fledged humanitarian tragedy. Even the countries that managed to avert that fate still face domestic terrorism.
WHAT NOW? Scepticism over the objectivity of the EP stance towards Egypt is rooted in more than some European parties’ unwitting or even deliberate ignorance about domestic realities in Egypt, the interweave between these realities and regional conflicts, and how human rights issues are exploited in these contexts to attain political ends.
The timing that the EP groups chose to issue the report on the human-rights situation in Egypt also raises questions. Work on the report began at the time when the electoral battle in the US was nearing its resolution in favour of President-elect Joe Biden, who has vowed to make human rights a priority for his administration, as was the case during the administration of former US president Barack Obama, during which the “Arab Spring” erupted.
It is widely believed that Europe welcomes the incoming US president with optimism and is keen to come to terms with him on issues that had been the object of transatlantic disputes during the period in office of outgoing US president Donald Trump, such as the Paris Climate Accord, the policy towards Iran and human rights. Therefore, we cannot rule out the possibility that the EP took this step against Egypt as a means to demonstrate that the EU is ready to work with Biden on human rights.
There is also the possibility that the years-old alliance between the European left and the Islamists wanted to lend moral support to Egyptian “civil society activists” eager to stage a repeat of the Arab Spring as Egypt approaches the tenth anniversary of the Egyptian edition of that phenomenon this month.
The EP resolution argued that growing security clampdowns on human rights activists in Egypt and a surge in death sentences since November last year had led it to accelerate this action against Egypt.
However, this cannot be regarded as a reasonable justification. The arrested “activists” from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a NGO, were only three, and they were soon released after the first hearing of the charges against them. The death sentences against persons convicted of terrorist acts that have killed hundreds of innocent people were also only carried out after extensive judicial processes some of which lasted more than five years.
In other words, the defendants were accorded every opportunity to prove their innocence, which they could not do because of the proof that they had perpetrated the crimes for which they were condemned.
OBJECTIVITY AND METHODOLOGY: The brief statement the EP released to the European, Arab and international media does not reveal such hidden motives.
But an examination of the relatively short, approximately 3,600-word text as it appears on the EP website reveals an insistence on a number of formulas that are incompatible with the objectivity one might expect when dealing with such an issue.
The following observations are useful:
- The 14-point preamble refers to a range of reports and statements, some dating back more than 15 years, in order to give the impression that the alleged human rights violations in Egypt are part of a long and systemic policy.
The drafters’ purpose here is to win sympathy and support from those who know nothing about the developments in Egypt during this period, such as how the country fell victim to waves of violent terrorist attacks. A secret alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and an array of takfiri groups were behind these attacks, as became clear in 2013 when Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Council member Mohamed Al-Beltagui threatened that the terrorist attacks that were taking place in the Sinai at the time would not cease until former Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi was reinstated.
In other words, the EP resolution overrode the fact that those it seeks to defend in the name of democracy were the very people who sought recourse to violence, even while in power, in order to attain their ultimate goal of establishing a theocratic state in which there would be no room for political opponents or people who did not fall in line with their version of Islam.
In like manner, the resolution ignored how, several months before Morsi was dismissed, the Muslim Brotherhood spurned the army’s efforts to mediate between it and the political opposition and rejected a compromise proposal calling for early elections as a means to resolve the disputes. It was this intransigence that led the armed forces to heed the calls of millions of Egyptians who feared a descent into anarchy and civil war and to side with the people’s demand to dismiss Morsi and to initiate a new one-year interim phase to restore stability and safeguard the Egyptian state.
- The report makes extensive use of value judgements in its references to what it calls human rights violations. For example, it speaks of the continuing deterioration of the human rights situation “as the authorities intensify their crackdown on civil society, human rights defenders, health workers, journalists, opposition members, academics and lawyers”, etc, while deliberately ignoring the fact that those who fell into these and other mentioned categories were not arrested in the course of the practice of their professions, as regulated by law, but because they were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned by law, or because they had used social networking sites to disseminate rumours, falsehoods and calls for illegal demonstrations, all of which are acts punishable by law in any country that wants to protect its citizens from the dangerous outcomes of such activities if they are left uncontrolled.
Nor did the drafters of the EP resolution take the trouble to study trends among more than 50 million Egyptian social media users. If they had done so, they would have learned that 10,000 of these users attack the government and its officials, sometimes in terms punishable by law, yet they were not arrested and their accounts were not suspended.
What this means is that freedom of expression is fully available in Egypt, including on electronic media. Ultimately, only a few hundred people were arrested and had their accounts suspended for having committed crimes that are punishable by law anywhere in the world, and not because they exercised their freedom of expression, as the resolution claims.
- While the resolution speaks of mass arrests and more than 60,000 people in detention, it fails to corroborate such figures. When it comes down to specifics, it only mentions 29 individuals whom it categorises as prisoners of opinion even though they were tried and convicted on charges related to disseminating rumours and falsehoods, operating without a licence, or incitement to demonstrations without a permit.
As the universal legal principle states, “the burden of proof falls on the accuser, not on the defender.” The authors of the resolution should abide by this rule, reassess their claims and spend more effort corroborating them, for example by listing the names and dates of arrest of the alleged 60,000 detainees.
- In an attempt to legitimise certain practices unacceptable to Egyptian culture, such as “homosexual marriage,” the EP resolution includes such practices in the human rights regime, disregarding not only factors of cultural specificity but also how pressure to incorporate such practices in the legal structures of certain countries could precipitate dangerous social problems with disastrous consequences.
It also appears that the authors of the resolution do not sense how they contradict themselves when they call, on the one hand, for the protection of cultural diversity and, on the other, for the inclusion of homosexuals in society and allowing them to practise their sexual preferences as though these were normal and religiously and socially acceptable in this culture.
In fact, the attempt to impose such values is a flagrant assault on the culture of the majority, who have a right to express their culture which rejects and abhors such practices.
- Two points in the resolution address the subject of Giulio Regeni, the Italian researcher found murdered in Egypt in 2016.
The text reiterates unsubstantiated allegations that several Egyptian security personnel were involved in his murder despite the fact that the Egyptian authorities have categorically denied any taint of wrongdoing on the part of the Egyptian security apparatus in connection with this murder.
The authors of the report had the right to ask the Egyptian authorities to make further investigations in order to unearth those guilty of the crime, but they did not have the right to adopt the spurious narrative circulated by the media of countries hostile to Egypt and level accusations against the Egyptian authorities on that basis.
If anything, the report should have urged the Italian authorities to clarify what evidence they have of the guilt of the Egyptian security personnel and to submit such evidence to the Egyptian authorities or to an international body, thereby substantiating or putting to rest claims concerning the involvement of Egyptian security personnel in the incident.
- A comparison between the EP resolution on the human rights situation in Egypt and similar resolutions it has adopted on other countries reveals considerable disparities in tone and substance, such as the use of references to previous reports and statements to give the impression that human rights abuses in a particular country are systemic and chronic.
Take for example, the EP resolution of 8 February 2018 on the human rights situation in Turkey (2018/2527 RSP). One is immediately struck by how impartial the language is in the case of the resolution on Turkey, how frequent the affirmations are that Turkey is an important partner of the EU and a candidate for EU accession, and how gently it urges Turkey, in these capacities, to comply with EU norms.
On the subject of the mass arrests of army officers and supporters of the opposition leader Fethullah Gulen in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the resolution basically asks the Turkish government to scale back such practices. Even as the resolution mentions how more than 100,000 civil servants were dismissed from their posts for allegedly having abetted the coup, the wording remains tempered as though the authors have shrunk from accusing the Turkish authorities of gross and sustained violations of the rights of hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens.
Nor does the resolution call on the European Commission or the European Council to impose sanctions on Turkey, in contrast to the resolution on Egypt which urges a penalty of dubious intent: a halt to all exports of arms, surveillance technology and other security equipment to Egypt. The disparity is ironic given that Egypt is fighting a wide-ranging battle against the terrorists that Turkey has been sending to Libya, the Sinai, Somalia and elsewhere in the vicinity of Egypt’s borders.
CONCLUSIONS: The report and statements that the EP has issued beneath the rubric of monitoring the state of human rights in the Middle East and elsewhere are no more than contributions to strengthening the weaponising of human rights in political conflicts within states or between them.
Europe will find, over time, that it is not in its interests if the peoples of the Middle East reach the conclusion that Europe has not been sincere in its defence of human rights and is not prepared to shoulder the consequences of the civil wars ignited by its “democracy versus dictatorship” approach to this region’s issues.
Those peoples who have fallen for this reductionist dichotomy have paid a catastrophic price. Now Europe is paying Turkey six billion euros to contain the refugees from the subsequent wars, while simultaneously turning a blind eye to Ankara’s recruitment of mercenaries from among those refugees to feed the militias it sends to destabilise Turkey’s rivals, including peace-loving countries such as Egypt that are cornerstones in the global battle against terrorism.
*The writer is an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.