On Saturday, Egypt will see the launch of the new National Strategy for Human Rights, a document of around 100 pages that stipulates a set of government commitments to improve elements of socio-economic, cultural, and political rights in the country over the next five years.
Better access to job opportunities, education, healthcare, and religious freedoms are among the highlights of the document co-drafted by government officials and a group of civil society figures during a period of over a year.
According to government and civil-society sources familiar with the text, the document also shows a commitment to improving political rights. However, on this issue in particular there may be different reactions.
Chair of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights Essam Shiha said the state was offering a comprehensive overview of different types of rights in the new strategy, including “the socio-economic rights that are the priority of the people and the political rights that have been heavily lobbied for by human rights organisations in Egypt.”
“The authorities have accommodated a good part of the ideas that civil society has introduced on political rights,” Shiha said. “But there is the context as well, which among other things includes the majority wish of the people to have stability and security,” he added.
According to a government official involved in the drafting of the document, the text is designed for a five-year term. This, he said, was a recognition on the part of the government that the strategy is a step that can be followed by other steps.
Another government official said that it was important to note that the document “is not just about the ‘middle of the road’ of what the government and civil society could agree on.” It is also “the ‘middle of the road’ of what different government bodies think is plausible and can be done.”
“Finding a consensus was hard work,” he stated.
“When we talked about the rights of elderly people or citizens with special needs, for example, we certainly would have wanted to commit to doing more, but we had to be mindful of budget constraints. So, we committed to what we are sure today that we can do, and we hope that we can do more,” he said.
He added that “the same applies to political rights and liberties. There had to be agreement among the many concerned government bodies [including the security side] on what could be done in view of the crucial security agenda.”
Both government sources, who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity, argued that “it made perfect sense” for the greater part of the document to be dedicated to socio-economic and cultural rights because the strategy is designed to be “in line with national and government concerns”.
They added that the right to an end of all forms of religion-based bias was a lot more important to the vast majority of the population than “the demand to facilitate the right to demonstrations, for example.”
According to Nigad Al-Borai, a long-time human rights activist who was involved in the consultations over the document, the references in it to political rights and liberties “are not bad at all — in the sense that this is the first time that the government has taken upon itself the task of working towards improving these rights and liberties.”
“Looking at the glass as half-full rather than half-empty, this strategy offers a precedent in the sense that it is a commitment on the part of the government to working on improving the quality of human rights, including political rights and liberties,” Al-Borai said.
He added that “it was better to start somewhere than object to the document as insufficient and then get nothing from the government.”
But neither Al-Borai nor Shiha overlook the voices within the human rights community that argue that the circulated content of the document falls short of their expectations, especially on the issue of pre-trial detention. Al-Borai is also aware of demands in some human rights quarters for the government to reconsider its position on some detainees associated with political activism.
These, he said, were legitimate concerns. However, he added that most such issues were already addressed in the text of the 2014 constitution and legal texts that have been public for a long time.
“It is not as if we don’t already have some decent legal and constitutional framing for human rights. We do. It is a question of the levels of implementation,” he argued.
“The difference between the 2014 constitution, which I think is a very good and very progressive text, and this new National Strategy for Human Rights is that the latter is a commitment that the government co-wrote,” Al-Borai said. “And it is quite something to have the government signing up to what it is willing to do,” he added.
Human rights developments in Egypt traditionally get a lot of world attention, especially from the organisations concerned. They are also sometimes brought up in high-level political talks.
Egyptian officials for their part have often said that the country’s security bodies have to face up to militant groups that try to provoke instability.
“We have international obligations, and the state has shown its commitment, especially within the UN Human Rights Council, to honour these obligations. It has been a work in progress,” Shiha said. “The very fact that we are now having this comprehensive strategy is part of this progress,” he added.
“The issue is not closed — as is the case with all other countries in the world, the debate on human rights in Egypt is an ongoing question,” he said.
“We do discuss all matters of human rights with the Egyptian government on a regular basis, but we do this behind closed doors for the most part to ensure a candid conversation and some good outcomes,” said one Cairo-based Western diplomat.
With the upcoming release of the new National Strategy for Human Rights, the diplomat added, “all the friends of Egypt will be in a better place to discuss the matter with the government.”
Egypt, government officials say, will always act to address matters of human rights “in line with the Egyptian agenda where security inevitably figures highly.”
According to Al-Borai, what counts now is the implementation of what the government has committed itself to in order to keep the momentum going.
The release of the National Strategy, he added, had come side by side with “a few, but systematic, releases of political figures that had been in pre-trial detention in Egypt,” with some in a complex legal situation due to a sequence of charges.
Al-Borai and Shiha credit the “hard and diligent work” of civil society for having secured the release of the new strategy. It was, they said, testimony to the power of incremental steps.
“We in civil society can help the government to improve its performance on human rights. We cannot just confine ourselves to criticism, even when criticism is due. We have to encourage the positive steps to keep them coming,” Al-Borai said.
While some critics have called the new strategy an act of PR on the part of the government, Al-Borai and Shiha argue that the issue is not about the intentions of the government but rather about what the government is now committed to doing.
“It is a strong show of political commitment, and we never expected to have all our concerns fixed in one go,” Shiha concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.