INTERVIEW: A new approach to human rights

Sahar Zahran, Thursday 6 Jan 2022

Moushira Khattab, the first woman president of the National Council for Human Rights, speaks with Sahar Zahran in Washington about Egypt’s efforts to advance human rights

Moushira Khattab

In October, the House of Representatives announced its decision to appoint Moushira Khattab as the new president of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR). The decision marks the first time a woman has been selected to lead the NCHR since it was established in 2003.

Khattab, a former ambassador to South Africa and to the Federal Republic of Czechoslovakia and a former minister of family and population, was recently in the US as part of a delegation of parliamentarians and politicians representing Egyptian civil society in an international dialogue group.

She told Al-Ahram Weekly in Washington that the aim of the trip was to reflect the real picture of what is taking place in Egypt, to dot the i’s and cross the t’s accurately and transparently. “We have nothing to hide,” she said.

Khattab views her appointment as NCHR president as an example of women’s empowerment in Egypt. She is hopeful the council will transform Egypt’s rights and freedoms positively.

Khattab is grateful to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi for endorsing her candidacy for the presidency of UNESCO, for launching the National Strategy for Human Rights (NSHR), and for declaring 2022 the Year of Civil Society. President Al-Sisi, she adds, fully supports the NCHR, and cites his decision to suspend the state of emergency in Egypt as a truly positive signal.

The NSHR, and the reconstitution of the NCHR, are expressions of the new path Egypt is adopting. The state, she says, is keen to implement the articles of the Egyptian constitution that bolster human rights, and is doing so for the sake of Egyptians, not to appease the West.

Khattab points out that no country has reached perfection when it comes to human rights, and the challenges the international community faces have been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and the inequitable distribution of vaccines which has exposed the urgent need for effective international cooperation.

What does it feel like being the first woman president of the NCHR?

I am very grateful for the confidence President Al-Sisi has placed in me. I am very honoured. This is the most important position I have held in my career, and an enormous responsibility.

Egypt is in the process of building a new republic based on a solid system of human rights under which citizens face no discrimination on the basis of religion, gender, race, disability, social/economic status, or geographic location.

When parliament made the announcement of my appointment in early October I was thrilled, not least because my nomination came from NGOs and civil society groups. The democratic process of selecting the new council makes me even more proud.

People are pinning high hopes on the NCHR and I hope we will be able to meet their aspirations. The appointment was made at a time all eyes are on Egypt. Egypt is an influential country and what happens here affects not only the region but the entire world.

How do you view the National Strategy for Human Rights?

When President Al-Sisi launched the NSHR in September it was a critical step in bolstering Egypt’s efforts to improve human rights and a strong response to sceptics and people who want to tarnish Egypt’s reputation.

The strategy is a leap forward that cements the pillars of the new republic and shows the world that Egypt’s political leadership is up to advancing human rights. It will, first and foremost, focus on the groups most in need and most at risk. The strategy will be translated into plans that will be implemented within a fixed timeframe, which is why all bodies concerned, including the authorities and civil society groups, should cooperate to implement it.

What is the role of the NCHR in responding to criticisms issued by the international media and organisations?

It is important to remember that Egypt is a part of the world. In every country there are discussions over human rights. Everybody followed up on the Black Lives Matter movement that made international headlines following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white policeman, and everybody can see how the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the ugly face of the unequal treatment of rich and poor countries.

Within the international community there are countries that don’t have a problem with being criticised; they respect differences, study their problems, discuss them in public, and seek better alternatives.

We need to react to criticisms without raising the issue of cultural specificity, and with a true desire to check their authenticity and deal with them calmly and confidently. We need not be overly sensitive about them. By the way, President Al-Sisi has on more than one occasion publicly criticised conditions Egyptians have been suffering from for long, but he is working to improve them.

Some patently false claims are unworthy of response. Others we refute by presenting evidence. When criticisms are justified, they should motivate us to do better. It is not wrong to try to improve our performance. We need not be defensive.

Since the announcement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Egypt has been at the centre of the global movement promoting human rights. The world expects us to be a regional leader and is pinning its hopes on Egypt due to the courage and sound leadership of President Al-Sisi and his determination to confront challenges others cannot overcome. I call on people focused on human rights issues to deal objectively with the subject and to record the efforts exerted by President Al-Sisi, especially in the field of human rights.

As president of the NCHR, I dream big. I believe Egypt respects the rights of its citizens and though it is true we face challenges we have the courage to admit them and try to resolve them. No country is without problems. The largest democracies have problems but these are contained because they admit to them and solve them gradually, raising public awareness about them.

Thanks to Egypt’s economic and security achievements, we now have the confidence and strength to deal with the human rights file with the same seriousness with which we resolved other problems that were like ticking bombs.

What about pretrial detention?

We have laws, but what we need is to monitor their implementation and address any gaps that surface. The issue of pretrial detention needs to be addressed to protect the rights of detained persons as stipulated by law, without extending the period or implementing measures not stipulated by law. And of course, we respect the judiciary and don’t interfere in the course of justice.

The NSHR was not drafted in a vacuum. It involved studying and learning from the experiences of other countries that have made progress in the field of human rights.

Regarding demands to improve the conditions of places of detention, we have followed up on efforts to establish rehabilitation centres in Wadi Al-Natroun and Badr City. The centres have been designed and built according to international standards that guarantee the human rights of detainees.

There are incidents when local rights organisations complain about restrictions that constrain their work. Some bodies abroad use these incidents to tarnish Egypt’s reputation.

President Al-Sisi’s declaration of 2022 as the Year of Civil Society will put these associations at the forefront of the scene, enable them to present their needs, and will enable citizens to follow up on their work. I believe there is an opportunity for a détente in this field.

No government, however powerful, can fulfil the demands of its citizens alone. It is important for civil society to participate, be active, and complement the role of the state.

We must also be aware that NGOs vary in their ability to implement their programmes on the ground. NGOs need to be transparent, adopt a democratic approach and adhere to the concept of rotation of power. Just as we talk about governance and combating corruption in government bodies, the same standards should be applied in NGOs.

What is the outcome of the Washington visit?

The visit of the international dialogue group that represents civil society has been successful beyond my expectation. We met the assistants of the secretaries of state for Middle East affairs and human rights and held important meetings in Congress. One measure of the success of the visit is that the officials we met in Washington will soon visit Egypt. They requested to meet with us and follow up on the topics we discussed.

In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of the visit were our meetings with Egyptians residing in the US. Our talks were very fruitful. Many of the Egyptians we met occupy influential positions, including in research centres. I was impressed with the breadth of their knowledge and their ability to express opinions in a considered, rational manner.

Egypt has a respectable lobby in the US which has the ability and desire to serve its country. I have high hopes in this regard, especially now the question of foreign funding has been resolved.

One issue that was raised in our meetings in Washington, and which I hope to be resolved soon, is the desire of scholars and researchers to be enrolled in research centres and universities in Egypt.

During the visit great importance was given to discussing pending issues. We spoke about these issues with honesty and impartiality and I am hopeful we will succeed in building bridges and winning loyal and supportive friends.

President Al-Sisi has launched many initiatives to provide a decent life for Egyptians, which is, after all, the crux of human rights. How do you view these steps?

The president has adopted a rights approach that grows stronger by the day. He began by visiting a victim of sexual harassment, who was attacked in Tahrir Square. He gave her flowers and apologised to her, promising the incident would not reoccur. Shortly afterwards, people’s awareness about the crime of sexual harassment increased, and penalties were toughened.

President Al-Sisi has also demanded a renewal of religious discourse, which is crucial to ending religious discrimination, and has called for education to be reformed. Access to quality education should be a non-negotiable human right.

The 100 Million Health initiative has facilitated access to quality healthcare for all Egyptians, regardless of income. Egypt has also managed to eliminate Hepatitis C.

The president is also focused on the rights of people with disabilities, and has said on several occasions that society is responsible for removing any obstacles that stand in the way of their rights, as enshrined in the constitution and international human rights accords.

The Decent Life initiative is a mega national project that champions the less fortunate, providing for their basic needs. The initiative’s targeted groups make up more than half the population, and work is continuing to upgrade infrastructure, healthcare, and education. In the past, residents of impoverished villages would migrate to urban cities in an attempt to find work and improve their living conditions. The Decent Life initiative is redressing that trend.

In addition to these efforts, the president raised the motto Long Live Egypt, restoring the right of every Egyptian to their identity. His support of women is unwavering and he is courageously negotiating a new personal status law. He has vowed that he will not sign a law that does women injustice. It is no secret some people use fallacious religious interpretations in this battle.

On 11 September 2021 President Al-Sisi said in an address “you are free to be Muslim, Christian, or Jewish… You are free to believe or not.” In my opinion, his words represent a revolution in the field of human rights. With these words he stood up against notions that have permeated the hearts of some people for more than 100 years.

We have to implement the NSHR. Religion has been used as an excuse to subjugate women and believers of other religions, even other Muslims, for too long.

My view is that the freedoms the president referred to mean that differences due to religion, gender, disability, race, or any other reason should not affect the ability to enjoy rights guaranteed by the constitution. This is what Article 53 of the constitution is about. It also states that discrimination is a crime punishable by law.

Non-discrimination is one of the key foundations upon which the human rights system is based and which Egypt has actively participated in during the drafting phase. Egypt has declared its commitment to this system since the beginning of negotiations over the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The steps President Al-Sisi has taken prove Egypt is determined to remain a symbol of fraternity and equality, a country that embraces different nationalities and celebrates all religions and that has long called for peace, respect, and prosperity.

The president’s decision to suspend the state of emergency is evidence Egypt has regained its power.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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