Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi announced 2022 Year of Civil Society as he launched on Saturday the National Strategy for Human Rights.
In a speech at the launch of the strategy from the New Administrative Capital, El-Sisi urged the civil society to "continue working hard side by side with the state institutions to achieve sustainable development in all fields."
He also urged the civil society sector to cooperate with the state institutions to "spread awareness of the human rights culture and to contribute to achieving the aspirations of the Egyptian people."
El-Sisi hailed the role of the civil society as "key and important in enhancing and protecting human rights at the political, economic and social levels."
He added that the civil society organisations contribute to "spreading awareness of human rights in society and the culture of volunteer work and efforts to combat extremism and trends against the values of our Egyptian society."
"There is no doubt that the contributions and achievements of the civil society are clear, and its partnership with the state is indispensable," El-Sisi said.
He added that he, hence, had directed the government to reconsider the earlier civil society law, and therefore, a new law was issued.
El-Sisi said the new law, which came into force earlier this year, has included facilitations and guarantees that enhance civil work after a societal dialogue involving 1,300 Egyptian and foreign NGOs was conducted.
Personal and political freedoms
El-Sisi said the Egyptian state is committed to respecting and protecting personal freedoms, the right of political participation, the freedom of expression and the right of the formation of civil society organizations.
He added that Egypt welcomes differences in opinions as long as they respect the freedoms of others and aim, through constructive criticism, to achieve the better for the country and people.
During a roundtable discussion on the new strategy at the event, the President cautioned against the consequences of people imposing their opinions on others.
"We respect diversity and difference, but if someone seeks to impose their opinion on the rest of society then that leads to a dictatorial path," the President said.
El-Sisi said the state has attached special importance to the right of participation in the political and public life as an "important component to advance human rights fields and contribute to establishing the pillars of democracy and the rule of law."
He noted that many legislations have been issued and many independent entities have been formed in support of these rights.
"The political and public life in Egypt has witnessed intense activity during the past period, which culminated in the achievement of all the constitutional entitlements," the president said.
He added that these entitlements "ensured the people's expression of their free will through presidential and legislative elections."
The President said the formation of legislative institutions have also been completed through reinstating the Senate and conducting its elections.
Freedom of thought and creativity
"Egypt has always adopted freedom of thought, creativity and expression, which resulted in a fruitful Egyptian contribution to its regional surrounding in art, literature and culture," El-Sisi said.
The President affirmed that the field of culture has received direct support from the state's leadership to encourage creators.
Religious freedom and equality
El-Sisi affirmed that the Egyptian state will continue to exert "tireless" efforts at the level of the freedom of religion and belief.
"Egypt, the country with a rich religious heritage, continues to make unremitting efforts to emphasize the values of citizenship, tolerance and dialogue, and to combat incitement to violence and discrimination," El-Sisi said.
The state has achieved "remarkable progress to ensure equality among the children of one nation in rights and duties," he said, citing the issuance of a law on the construction and restoration of churches as an example.
The President said this law has resulted in the legalization of the status of 1,800 unlicensed churches and adjacent structures.
"Standing side by side in the New Administrative Capital, the Al-Fattah Al-Aleem Mosque and the Nativity of Christ Cathedral harmonized as witnesses to those achievements," El-Sisi stated.
During the roundtable, El-Sisi stressed on Saturday his support for the right to freedom of belief and religion as "a right that God has granted us."
"If somebody told me I'm not a Muslim, Christian, Jewish or from any other faith, I will tell them you are free to not be. Because I am protective of my own religion, I respect others' freedom," El-Sisi said.
Religious affiliation in National ID cards stands
During the roundtable discussion, Egypt's Minister of Justice Omar Marwan explained why the state has opted not to remove the field of religious affiliation of citizens in the national ID card system.
Marwan said the inclusion of religious affiliation in the national IDs is a necessary measure to preserve the rights of Egyptians to be governed in their personal status matters by the jurisprudence of their religions.
The Egyptian constitution stipulates Muslims, Christians and Jews have the right to be governed in personal status matters by their own religious laws, and, therefore, an official proof of each citizen's religion in the ID system is required for the government to protect this right, Marwan said.
"We need the religion affiliation field for marriage, divorce and inheritance because there is no single law that applies to all Egyptians in personal status," the minister explained.
Egypt’s mandatory national IDs, which every citizen must carry at all times, contain basic information about individuals including age, occupation, place of residence, marital status and religious affiliation.
Minister of Justice Omar Marwan
"Disdain of religion" cases?
During the roundtable discussion, well-known Egyptian writer and media figure Ibrahim Eissa called for a revision of the two-year pretrial detention periods for those accused of crimes, saying the measure "was associated with very specific, complicated circumstances [especially] the threat of terrorism in Egypt, but now the state has become strong and solid."
Eissa also called for the abolition of prison penalties for "disdain of religion", in order for such cases not to be used as "a sword hanging over writers' heads and pens," adding that such penalties restrict the freedom of interpretation of religious texts.
The new National Strategy for Human Rights aims to develop a comprehensive approach to human rights as an integral part of implementing the country's national development project.
The strategy is the "first comprehensive and long-term homegrown-strategy in the human rights field in Egypt," presidential spokesman Bassam Rady said in a statement on Saturday morning.
At the start of the event, the president viewed a documentary film which discusses highlights of current efforts to bolster human rights in Egypt.
The event was attended by a number of ministers, state officilals and representatives of human rights and civil society groups.
Foreign ministry led effort
Speaking at the event, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry explained that the Supreme Permanent Committee for Human Rights, which is chaired by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, prepared the new strategy.
The permanent committee was established in 2018 as per a decree by Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly to manage the human rights file in Egypt under the foreign ministry.
The establishment of the committee constituted an "important addition to the institutional structure supporting human rights," Shoukry stressed.
The committee's establishment also "reflected the firm political determination to translate all constitutional obligations and regional and international conventions' commitments into a tangible reality."
It also confirms the government’s keenness to implement human rights as a pivotal component in line with the country's 2030 Vision strategy, Shoukry added.
Shoukry said the state has prepared the National Strategy for Human Rights through a scientific and consultative approaches.
Over the course of a year, the state has studied human rights recommendations put forth by Egypt's National Council for Human Rights and coordinated with more than 30 ministries and bodies to assess the requirements of their implementation, Shoukry said.
Shoukry said Egypt has assessed the final recommendations issued by regional and international human rights mechanisms and studied the human rights strategies of more than 30 countries.
The consultative approach included expanded community dialogue and hearings involving the National Council for Human Rights, the parliament's human rights committee, civil society groups, NGOs and others, Shoukry added.
The strategy spans five years and is based on four main axes: the civilian and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; rights of women, children, disabled people, youth and the elderly; and education and capacity building in the human rights field.
Shoukry added that the state aims to achieve progress in these four axes in a balanced way through the legislative and institutional development.
"Human rights represent universal, integrated and interdependent values, and therefore must be dealt with comprehensively, and in a fair and equal manner," Shoukry said.
Shoukry noted that human rights should also not ignore national and regional particularities as well as religious and cultural backgrounds.
"What is reasonable and prevalent in one society is not necessarily acceptable in other societies," Shoukry said, affirming that "recognizing and respecting this diversity and specificity is an added value and an activation of human rights."
The country's top diplomat said developing the human rights situation is a "continuous and cumulative process that begins with the commitment of state institutions to their duties towards their citizens to uphold their dignity and safeguard their rights."
"We have a sincere determination to uphold the dignity of the Egyptian citizens and guarantee equal opportunities," Shoukry stated.
He also explained that the protection of human rights constitutes a governmental policy and goal and is backed by an "independent and impartial judiciary that acts as a guarantor of the rule of law and the protection of rights."
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry speaking at the event
Political rights and religious freedoms
In his speech at the event, Ahmed Ihab Gamal El-Din, Egypt's permanent representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said the new National Strategy for Human Rights highlights the right of citizens to participation in the political life and formation of political parties.
This right, which has been enshrined in various legislations issued since 2014, guarantees civilian and political rights and leads to the building of a state of law that befits Egypt and the people, Gamal El-Din stressed.
He noted that the strategy also aims to continue efforts exerted by religious institutions to renew the religious discourse.
The strategy also contributes to the promotion and development of public awareness of the culture of practicing all forms of peaceful assembly, Gamal El-Din added.
The strategy seeks to consolidate the values of citizenship and create societal awareness of the importance of respecting religious freedoms, he said.
It also works on ensuring the continuation of the work of the committee tasked with legalizing the status of churches, Gamal El-Din said.
The strategy aims to build skills and capabilities of political parties' cadres for leadership, he added.
Gamal El-Din said that Egypt's draft new labour law, set to be discussed by the parliament in October, could represent a beginning for a strong partnership between the state and the civil society.
The new labour law reflects the state's commitment to the enhancement and protection of the work of civil society organizations as a key partner in protecting human rights, he said.
Ahmed Ihab Gamal El-Din
Ahmed Ihab Gamal El-Din
UNHRC president hails Egypt on new strategy
The President of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) Nazhat Shameem Khan praised Egypt's launching of the first National Strategy for Human Rights.
In a recorded video message screened at the ceremony, Shameem Khan said the new strategy aims to boost and protect human rights for all in Egypt and is a "significant" step for implementing international human rights criteria and guaranteeing human rights,
The new human rights strategy in Egypt is a key tool to protect and promote human rights, a pillar of the work of the UNHRC, she noted.
It targets translating the commitments into concrete steps on the ground, with the aim of strengthening the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights as well as protecting the human rights of vulnerable segments, atop of which are women, children, challenged people and seniors, she added.
She also praised Egypt for taking into consideration during the preparation of the new strategy previous recommendations of the UNHRC on the human rights file in Egypt.
The UNHRC has several useful resources that can be used by Egypt to support the strategy, she stressed, adding the UN council's agenda will ensure the implementation of the strategy effectively.
Nazhat Shameem Khan
File Photo: UNHCR head Nazhat Shameem Khan
Economic and social rights
"The integrated development vision of the state, Egypt 2030, is based on the concepts of comprehensive, sustainable and balanced growth, allowing a fair distribution of the benefits of development, achieving the highest levels of societal integration for all groups, and guaranteeing the rights of current and future generations to use the resources," El-Sisi said.
These concepts also reflect the achievements made during the past seven years through the establishment of mega national projects nationwide, according to El-Sisi.
"This has been directly reflects on the level of enforcing the economic, social and cultural rights, especially regarding the right to proper housing and health care, regular work, healthy food, pure drinking water, developed sanitation and good education," the president added.
El-Sisi said the state has taken into account the social protection measures while implementing the economic reform program to ease its effect on the low-income people.
These came through the implementation of many initiatives, the most prominent of which are "Takaful w Karama" and "Decent Life" that seeks to develop the countryside inhabited by more than half of the Egyptian population, El-Sisi said.
"This first national strategy stems from an Egyptian will that believes in achieving integration to advance the society," El-Sisi said.
Human rights: 7 presidential directives
During his speech, El-Sisi called on the Supreme Permanent Committee for Human Rights, which prepared the new strategy, to continue implementing the mandates entrusted to it.
The president also urged the government to take all measures to enhance the strategy as follows:
- First, continuing efforts to integrate human rights goals and principles into the state’s public policies and within the framework of implementing the sustainable development strategy, Egypt Vision 2030.
- Second, inviting political entities and civil society groups to care for enriching the Egyptian political experience and building trained cadres through expanding participation and expression within a climate of creative interaction and objective dialogue.
- Third, ensuring equal distribution of the benefits of development and the right of every person to enjoy a proper standard of living for themselves and their family to meet their basic needs.
- Fourth, enhancing communication with various civil society institutions and providing all facilitations for the effective implementation of the law organising the civil society work and its executive regulations.
This comes to secure an adequate climate for the civil society organisations to work as a main development partner and spread the culture of human rights in society.
- Fifth, ensuring, while implementing an integrated vision of administrative reform, to build an efficient administrative apparatus that follows the mechanisms of good governance and is subject to accountability.
It also has to enjoy the approval of citizens regarding the level of services provided to them and should be characterised by efficiency, justice and non-discrimination.
- Sixth, developing the system of receiving and following up on complaints regarding human rights to achieve quick and effective response to any complaints.
- Seventh, intensifying national efforts for capacity building and training in the field of human rights.
Human rights and development
The new strategy "includes the main axes of the comprehensive concept of human rights in the state, which is to be integrated with Egypt's national developmental path that consolidates the principles of the establishment of the New Republic and achieves the goals of Egypt's vision 2030," Rady said in the statement.
The strategy will build on the progress achieved during the past years in the field of maximising freedoms and rights and overcoming the challenges in this regard, Rady added.
This comes with the aim of enhancing and respecting all civilian, political, social, economic and cultural rights, the spokesman added.
The strategy strengthens the state's policies in backing the rights of women, youth, the elderly, the disabled and all stratas of society, Rady concluded.
*Mohamed Soliman and Amr Ramadan contributed to this report.