The universality of human rights

Mohamed Abul Ghar
Saturday 21 May 2016

At a joint press conference with his French counterpart, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said that the concept of human rights is "different" for Egypt than it is for Europe.

This is a statement that reflects a deep conviction of the head of state that Egyptians are not apt to accessing the same standard of human rights afforded to European citizens.

Obviously, the president is not comparing something like standards of housing, education or healthcare with those available to European citizens.

We all know that it takes long years of hard work to build up an advanced economy; and actually some well-established democracies are still working on securing for their citizens adequate standards of living.

Yes, there are some exceptions where dictatorships have managed, with an exceptional access to natural wealth, to provide their citizens with considerably high living standards – but even still, this was not sustainable due to the lack of democracy and the subsequent lack of accountability.

It is clear that what the president was referring to is matters of freedom of expression, personal rights and democracy; where the president of Egypt thinks that what is enjoyed by the citizens of Europe is not what is needed for Egyptians.

As such, an Egyptian must simply accept that he would end up in prison should he venture too far in expressing his views. An Egyptian citizen should simply accept that he is not equal to the European citizen and consequently has no place to pursue the same right to freedom of expression.

This statement reflects not only the authoritarian tendencies of the leader of the executive branch, but rather the dominating social concepts of supremacy, as seen in the tendency of many from the Muslim majority to believe that they are entitled to more rights than their Christian counterparts.

In fact, most of those who subscribe to extremist Islamist ideas tend to view Christians as second class citizens.

The same concept applies to gender, as most Egyptians have an engrained belief that men are entitled to more rights than women when it comes to anything from employment, to political participation and access to family wealth and inheritance.

 This is also evident in the thinking of the military, which has been running the country since 1952.

They too think that they are more capable than anyone else to run the country – and if a choice has to be made, it would have to come from the top brass and be separate from any serious civilian interference.

Worse still, the president, who comes from the ranks of the military, tends to think that his views have to be accepted without question or debate.

This perhaps explains his attitude when he decided to hand over the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to the Saudis without consulting the prime minister, the parliament or the people.

The bare fact of the matter is that he thinks that he has a monopoly on the right decision, being from a military background, and that everybody else’s views just do not count.

Along the same line of thinking, a police officer may accept that he comes second to a military officer, but he would certainly insist that he comes ahead of a civilian.

This is the heritage of the authoritarian regime that we have been living under for years. This is why it is considered almost perfectly normal for the police corps to see an officer attacking and harming, or even killing, a citizen.

Others in society have adopted a similar sense of social supremacy, such as businessmen, medical doctors and university professors.

Consequently, we ended up with a set of deep classist values, wherein members of society accept that they are not all equal and not all entitled to the same rights – rights that are inadequate and limited to begin with.

This is why President El-Sisi thinks that, unlike the killing of an Egyptian at the hands of police, the killing of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni was a major crisis because it involved a European citizen.

For their part, the police corps remains unable to grasp the fuss over the killing of Regeni.

The point here is that when President El-Sisi spoke about different standards of human rights for Egyptians and for Europeans, he was actually reflecting a dominant culture that is adhered to by society at large.

El-Sisi was revealing a deep conviction that his prerogatives go way beyond those to which his French counterpart is entitled.

Needless to say, the French president is not in any position to send thousands to detention or to kill a segment of the population or to engineer the composition of the national assembly.

The French president is in no position to take a unilateral decision to handover the Mediterranean island of Corsica to the US. But the Egyptian president did just that – and he admitted to it outright, because he believes it to be within his reign of unlimited authority.

Any Egyptian president is entitled to far more authority than his French counterpart, but the Egyptian people do not have even one-tenth of the rights to which the French people are entitled.

This French president certainly knows that, like all his predecessors, he may or may not run in the next presidential elections, and that there is always the possibility that he would end up retiring at a little house in the countryside.

This is something that no Egyptian president has had to even consider, as they have all exited the political scene under extraordinary circumstances.

I am very grateful that the president said what he did during this joint press conference, so that we can all know what he really thinks, and we all get to see that when he said that the people of Egypt are “the apple of his eye,” he was merely using a sweet line.

The people of Egypt will, however, always strive to gain their full rights and will always act to protect these rights and their territories, even when it comes to two small islands.

Egyptians know full well that they are not inferior to any other peoples and they will always strive for the rights they deserve.

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