The art of the possible: Politics and human rights in Egypt

Nadine Wahab
Tuesday 26 Oct 2021

The president canceled the extension of the state of emergency this week; an important step for Egyptians to be able to exercise the full range of civil and political rights. This was not only a demand of the January 25 Revolution, but it has been a top recommendation by many experts and advocates.

Some will still condemn this as a PR stunt to reduce pressure by the US and Europe for Egypt to improve its human rights record. They will say these are cosmetic changes.

Otto von Bismarck put it best, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” This is how peace is made and how modern states are built.

In a world where compromise has become a bad word and finding common ground has become all but impossible, polarisation and political obstructionism have become the favourite tactic of many with "just causes" on all sides of most public debates across the word. 

There are many root causes for the ever growing chasm. Social Media algorithms being a huge culprit as was pointed out by Frances Haugena, a Facebook whistleblower who recently testified in front of the US Congress. But putting the blame only on the shoulders of private companies absolves us from putting in the work needed to begin to build common ground in our public discourse.

The launch of the National Strategy for Human Right (NSHR) has been received with widespread praise in Egypt and viewed by many outside of Egypt with scepticism. Scepticism is healthy, but we have moved far past healthy scepticism. It has become a shibboleth to either criticise or praise every action by the Egyptian government, leading to two realities and two distinct narratives that are very antagonistic to each other. 

Political polarisation is detrimental to democracy, both for developing and established democracies, and to any political reform agenda. In Egypt, one reality calls for a patient slow measured development process and views all calls for change and protest as irresponsible and dangerous. They value stability and maintaining the status quo over progress. 

The other view believes any engagement with official channels is a betrayal of the cause and that any political demand can only be fulfilled with mass protests. The chants for revolution have become a drug for the masses. Like addicts they are always chasing the next high. They believe a dismantling of the status quo is only the acceptable way forward. 

And in the middle a lot of people are left behind trying to get things done on the ground in Egypt, having to navigate a political minefield of a battle fought and decided years ago. They are viewed with suspicion by both sides, and constantly attacked as being both too progressive and not progressive enough. They knowingly embrace the art of the next best thing. 

In 2016, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi launched Sustainable Development Strategy (SDS): Egypt Vision 2030. While the strategy mentions economic, social, and political rights under the fifth pillar for social justice, there were no clear key performance indicators (KPI) listed that reference human rights. With the launch of the NSHR, the Egyptian government has brought civil and political rights to the forefront of national discourse. 

Since the launch of the NSHR, most comments have revolved around the public relations angle as part of Egypt's international relations strategy. Very few pundits, however, have deconstructed the strategy or commented about its specific targets.

The strategy in itself is not the end, but simply a means. It is a political document that needs to be viewed within a greater context. It may not meet lofty goals for our beloved Egypt, but it does expand what is possible and attainable.

This month, Moshira Khattab and Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat, nominees for the National Council for Human Rights, visited Washington DC and met with US officials, civil society, and Egyptian expats. Many people condemned the visit as an attempt by the Egyptian government to put lipstick on a pig, going as far as condemning those who met with the delegation. But in politics, optics are an important motivator for action. Viewed within this context, this mission could be a way to raise the bar for what is possible by providing the right optics for the implementation of the NSHR. 

Since the launch of the NSHR, the government has taken steps to demonstrate that the implementation of the strategy is not only possible, but attainable. It has released more detainees without imposing new charges. The courts have dropped charges against some NGOs in Case 173 of 2011, lifting travel bans and unfreezing assets on some individuals. While many of these actions took place prior to the launch of the strategy, the pace of this activity has increased. 

More importantly, human rights is no longer a taboo topic. Improving the human rights situation has become a topic for discussion not only by the president, but by officials and Egyptian media. This change should not be undersold. In a recent comments on Egyptian TV, the president clearly stated that all Egyptians deserve human rights and admitted that there have been violations in this regard. This is a significant shift in the tone of the discourse around human rights. Most significant is the public recognition that we need to improve the human rights situation.

The end of the state of emergency is not an inconsequential step in improving the rule of law in Egypt. The legal implication of this is yet to be fully understood, but the optics of this step is a foundation for shifting the rights discourse away from a national security framework.

It is the role of watchdog groups to call for greater reforms and protections, and as such they are an important component of society. However, we need more people willing to work in the middle ground, more people willing to work on the next best thing.


Nadine Wahab is a human rights advocate and former director of the Arab Centre for the Promotion of Human Rights.

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