Some 31 European countries sent an inaccurate report on human rights in Egypt to the UN Human Rights Council in March this year. The report was full of falsehoods and ignored Egypt’s achievements on human rights, confirming that its sources were not objective and were hostile to Egypt. I doubt that at a sensitive time like this during a global pandemic and when the European countries are wrangling over Covid-19 vaccines amid darkening economic troubles that the focus on this issue is just to censure Egypt.
When I was three times elected to serve as chair of the Board of Trustees of the UN Voluntary Fund for Technical Cooperation in the Field of Human Rights for nine years, I was able to inform myself more fully about the state of human rights around the world. My experience allowed me to see the truth of the saying that there is no country without a skeleton in the cupboard. The only difference is that the poorer countries have no cupboards in which to hide any abuses.
Countries that proclaim themselves to be the defenders of human rights and interfere in the sovereign affairs of other countries are violating the latter’s right to dignity and independence and are denying their citizens the right to know the truth.
I will not respond to the European report and the interference in Egyptian domestic affairs by listing the abuses it contains, as by doing so I would not be practising what I am preaching, which is not to criticise others. Instead, I will simply assume European good intentions and that the reason for the inaccuracies in the report is simple ignorance. I will try to clarify the human-rights situation and developments in the field of human rights in Egypt in order to rectify the information the Europeans have received with a view to their enlightenment.
Progress over the past five years on human rights in Egypt has been worthy of admiration and encouragement. A review of the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Egypt’s position on them confirms Egypt’s commitment to varying degrees, even as the European report ignores this and instead focuses as usual on the rights of delinquents, suspects and those with criminal records. The Egyptian state has been trying to keep such cases separate as part of its policy of protecting the rights and security of millions of law-abiding Egyptian citizens, something which is at the forefront of human rights.
Advances that help to guarantee citizens their rights can be seen in several areas. I will begin with two areas that I am most familiar with: the rights of women and what is sometimes called the issue of Eastern Christians.
Egyptian women today are living in a golden age, and many rights that my generation unsuccessfully demanded are now in place, helping to rectify the position of women. Discussions have continued around women’s rights, women’s contributions and the empowerment of women in Egypt, and the president coined a new phrase that is comprehensive, noble, and all-encompassing when he spoke of the need to respect women.
Anyone who respects a woman will not deny her a job because she is not a man, will not harass her on the street or in the office, will not abuse her at home, and will not marry her at nine years old or give her away in marriage when she is underage. Respecting women leads to equality, participation and improvements in the services provided for them.
Egyptian women now have access to jobs that were never available to them in the past, including the jobs of governor and public prosecutor. The president’s national security adviser is a woman. In the past, there were at most two women in the cabinet, but today there are eight. In parliament, there were no more than five women, but today there are 200 in the upper and lower chambers of parliament.
There is a greater emphasis than ever on educating girls, women’s healthcare and funding for female entrepreneurs. The president is personally focused on issuing a law that defines the legal age for girls to marry and ends child marriages. Many examples of this emphasis can be found in a recent report by Maya Morsi, which is available in Arabic and English and which I recommend reading and sharing with friends and family abroad. In English, it can be found at https://bit.ly/31CvQsR and in Arabic at https://bit.ly/3uc2eib.
EGYPT’S CHRISTIANS: The second area that I will address here stems from the fact that I am myself an Egyptian Christian citizen.
The atmosphere in Egypt today is one founded on partnership without any hint of religious extremism. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s statements about the results of the last parliamentary elections highlighted the fact that there is now representation from across the spectrum in Egypt, including among the political parties, young people, women and people with special needs. But he did not refer to the large number of Christians who have seats in parliament, since he does not view them as a separate category. In the past, there were no more than three or four Christian MPs, but today there are nearly 100.
Over the past 50 years, many Christians have been calling for a law regulating the building of churches. Today, this law has been passed, and the Pope of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church participated in its drafting. An official in Pope Tawadros’s office said that building churches in Egypt was now easier than it is in Europe. The status of 1,600 churches and religious centres in Egypt has been settled, and the state has built a cathedral in the New Administrative Capital that is the largest and most stunning in the Middle East.
Long-awaited progress has been made in redacting the educational curricula to remove anything that hints of discrimination, intolerance or support for a religious state. The president goes to church on Christmas Eve to celebrate mass with Egypt’s Copts, an unprecedented custom for an Egyptian head of state. The Pope’s office has sent out these facts to 500 Coptic churches around the world to inform them of them and to publicise the work that is being done in Egypt.
There are many other achievements that are helping to guarantee citizens their rights. In the health sector, there has been the 100 Million Good Health Initiative, the Health and Dignity Programme, the provision of health insurance to all and the protection of all from the Covid-19 pandemic by taking precautions early. In education, along with the revision of curricula, there are now mechanisms in place to ensure the transition from teaching to learning. Decent housing is being provided for tens of thousands of people, removing the stigma of slums by building new villages and cities. New roads are being built across the country to ensure safe transportation and the transportation of goods for export.
Conditions in prison and correctional facilities have significantly improved, and parliament will soon issue positive laws on this matter. The environment has been given the priority it deserves, and Egypt is playing a global role in fighting climate change. There is also a commitment to good governance and local government, a new law has been issued to facilitate the creation of NGOs, and special attention is being given to young people, those with special needs, and the elderly.
The UNHCR, the UN refugee organisation, states that Egypt has one of the best records in the world in dealing with refugees, integrating them into society and not interning them in camps.
My only criticism would be that the government should do more to publicise these achievements by producing material in Arabic and English so that they can reach more people. Such information would help to give people confidence and would confront those at home and abroad who want to do harm to Egypt.
Many countries face the dilemma of having to choose between providing security or achieving development. Egypt does both. It helps to protect the region, Europe and even the world from savage terrorism that brutalises people. It has been dealing efficiently with a pandemic that has challenged the world as a whole, and it has been providing its citizens with services that are fundamental in human-rights charters.
In the area of human rights where cultures can differ, relationships and communications between countries must be based on coordination and cooperation and not on criticism and defamation. That is what we expect from our friends in Europe.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly