El-Sisi one year on: George Ishak
Dina Ezzat, Monday 8 Jun 2015
Human rights advocate George Ishak argues that Egypt’s president needs to focus all efforts on domestic issues during his second year in office

A member of the semi-official National Council for Human Rights and a long time advocate of freedoms, George Ishak was not necessarily hoping to see Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi run for president, but was willing to support him when he was elected.

Throughout the largest part of El-Sisi’s first year in office, Ishak was not forthcoming with any criticism – not even with regards to human rights, a domain that falls squarely within his responsibilities. Instead, he tried to advise the president’s aides.

Last week, however, as he spoke to Ahram Online, Ishak insisted that this file should be a top priority for El-Sisi’s second year in office.

“There are so many things that El-Sisi needs to do promptly in his second year and he really needs to start now and not later,” he said. “Attending to the grave violations to rights and freedoms that we have seen should be the top priority.”

“El-Sisi needs to open the closed doors of freedoms, to amend the [November 2013] Protest Law and to grant the long overdue release of the young men and women [who were part of the January 25 revolution] who were imprisoned under this law,” Ishak added.

Freedoms were a major demand during the [25] January 2011 revolution and the 30 June [2013] demonstrations, he said.

“People demonstrated against Muslim Brotherhood rule because they feared for their freedoms, and it’s mad that these freedoms should be compromised to the extent that we now see, under any pretext. It’s really very depressing. It’s as if we hadn’t done anything, as if we hadn’t been through two revolutions.”

Security should never be compromised in the name of freedoms or vice versa, Ishak argued. The regime should be working on two parallel tracks: advancing freedoms and improving security. This might be a task for the president in his second year in office, he suggested.

“We need to see an end to attacks in Sinai, especially those by militant groups targeting civilians,” Ishak said. “We need better security performance to make sure that we do see innocent people being targeted in Sinai.”

According to Ishak, it is hard to reconcile major security success stories in Sinai, with the fact that three judges were shot dead there two weeks ago.

“There's a big problem if we keep having such incidents,” he said. “We need a thorough investigation into how it happened, and to adopt measures to prevent more bloody attacks from happening in the future.”

Better security and improved freedoms could have been granted in the first year of El-Sisi’s presidency, or in the second year at most, had the state worked on improving the police’s professionalism, Ishak said.

“Unfortunately, we still have to see the beginning of this process,” he said. “The police puts up with no small load, but this should be no excuse to exempt them from reform and professional development.”

Eliminating corruption should also figure as a priority during El-Sisi’s second year in office, according to Ishak.

“During his first year, the president spoke of his commitment to face corruption, and it is probably true that there have been some measures in controlling government corruption, but here I am here talking about the big tycoons whose illicit ways have to be revealed and punished,” he explained.

“We need to have a task force working on this mission, because it would help generate wider public confidence in the regime and would allow for an overdue confrontation with elements within the business community who have gone too far in violating the law.”

This confrontation of those in the business community who tend to think that they are above the law should not end until the unfortunate intertwining of money and media is undone, Ishak said.

“The media’s performance has at times been simply scandalous, and this is essentially a function of some businessmen’s control over satellite channels,” he said.

On the media front, there has to be an end to exaggerated praise of the president, Ishak added.

“It goes way overboard, and it is almost more disadvantageous to the president than the recent wave of criticism targeting him,” he said.

Recently, a new programme to be hosted by OnTV presenter Reem Maguid, and essentially to tackle feminist issues, was stopped upon the demand of top state bodies, according to what the presenter was told.

“The best anchors are not allowed on television, or are too frustrated to appear on screen because of their affinity to the January [2011] revolution,” he said. “This is absurd. Again, it’s as if we never had two revolutions. Fixing this problem is one of the things that the president should work on in his second year in office – he should see to it that no voice is forced into silence, even if it is critical or disapproving.”

Ishak is convinced that, during his second year in office, El-Sisi should return to the basic demands that united all Egyptians during the 18 days of the January revolution: Bread, Freedom and Social Justice.

“It is not too late – not yet – to try and recap,” he added.

Ishak added that El-Sisi would need to work on restoring the positive sentiments predominant during the 18 days of the January 2011 uprising and right after.

“This feeling of national partnership that brought us all together without hesitation or discrimination has been lost, and the president has to do what it takes to bring it back, because, without a deep sense of belonging and ownership, it is hard to see how we could seriously move forward,” he said.

He argued that it is not very important for the president to show up for Coptic Christmas mass, as he did last January, but more so to address the rights of Egypt’s Christians.

“This is a symbolic gesture, but the values and rights of citizenship are what counts,” he said. “The rights of Christians are at stake, no matter how good the chemistry between the president and the patriarch.”

If El-Sisi used his first year in office to build bridges with the Coptic patriarch, then he might work on reaching out to the actual Christian population during his second year, he said. He could do this by issuing overdue regulations on the construction and reconstruction of churches, and by ending discrimination against Copts in accessing top level jobs -- “or even the department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in schools of medicine at all Egyptian universities.”

Reactivating a fading political scene is also a key assignment for El-Sisi’s second year in office, according to Ishak – “unless of course he is happy to head a political system in which there is a government with no real vision, no parliament, no political parties and no active civil society.”

“As a first step in this direction, the president should give some oxygen to the clinically dead constitution,” he said. “It's not possible that the constitution be so overlooked and that we have seen so many unconstitutional laws.”

A second step would be to “finally move towards way overdue parliamentary polls, and to do so on the basis of a law that is not specifically designed to eliminate political participation like the one that we now have.”

As he gets into his second year, Ishak argued, El-Sisi is not without a decent majority of support. However, he added, some of these supporters are becoming worried, while others are becoming confused.

“He needs to tell us up front what he has in mind,” he concluded. “We could put up with difficulties, if we were convinced that we were on the right track to gain the fruits of our political labour since 25 January [2011] and before.”