This year brought important steps in the development of the intangible aspects of the Egyptian state and society through significant reforms affecting human rights, civil society, the media and human development. Taken as whole, they mark the beginning of a new phase of national development in the post-2013 era.
Since the 30 June 2013 Revolution, Egypt has completed two stages of development and is now on the threshold of a third. While sustaining the impetus that received priority in the first two stages, the third will see a focus on matters that had previously been considered less urgent.
In the first phase from 2013 to 2016, the fight against terrorism and the struggle to restore stability and secure the state were the most pressing concerns. Although these challenges continued to exist in 2016, great strides had been taken towards the defeat of terrorism, and the government had acquired the experience, expertise and resources needed to ultimately win this battle. It therefore felt confident to proceed to the second phase: economic and material development.
By the end of 2016, the political leadership had taken the most important, and also the toughest, decisions necessary to reform the economy. It had floated the Egyptian pound, overhauled the national budget and reformed the fuel-subsidy system so as to ensure the benefits of subsidies reached their intended beneficiaries, namely the poorer and lower middle classes.
The government had also amended the tax system so as to increase the amounts contributed by the well-to-do to public revenues, thereby enabling it to better perform its duties to safeguard security, develop infrastructure, build the social-security system and push the development process forward.
Had it not been for Covid-19, progress could have proceeded more quickly, and 2020 would have presented an opportunity to reap its fruits while channelling more resources into social programmes and human development. However, because of the pandemic it suddenly became necessary to divert these resources into helping to cope with its impacts and support the economy, which was faced with dwindling resources, the loss of jobs and a decline in investments.
Due to the need to curb the economic deterioration and help people weather the crisis, the government could not move on to the third phase of its social development plans in 2020, as had originally been intended.
As the pandemic continued to exact its social and economic toll, it became evident that there would be no rapid end to the crisis and that 2021 would bring more of the same if not worse before it brought light at the end of the tunnel. However, this did not mean that the government could not begin to prepare for the post-Covid phase in the hope that it would arrive in 2022. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi thus launched a number of important initiatives in 2021 in human rights, human development, civil society and media development.
The unveiling of Egypt’s National Strategy for Human Rights (NSHR) was the landmark event in this regard in 2021. This was not a position statement about a commitment to respect human rights. Instead, it was a fully-fledged plan that broke down human-rights reforms into guidelines, programmes and achievable aims with sights set on the realisation of the goal to achieve full respect for human rights by the end of the strategy’s five-year timeframe.
The NSHR’s gradual approach reflects the reformist vision espoused by the Egyptian government, which believes that the strategy’s goals are more securely achieved through incremental and cumulative steps. The realisation of full respect for human rights is not only contingent on the existence of the commensurate political will, as dogmatic rights activists, liberals and leftists argue, but also on the existence of the economic, social and cultural conditions that enable society to exercise those rights.
Ultimately, the aim is to ensure that the state and society are better off after the completion of the cumulative phases of rights development. What the dogmatists fail to appreciate is that a precipitous rush to apply rights could backfire if implemented in an environment where the appropriate social, cultural and economic conditions for the exercise of those rights have not sufficiently matured. It is for this reason that the government believes that respect for rights does not come by releasing pent-up freedoms, but instead must be through a process of empowering society itself so that it can exercise rights and freedoms without incurring unsustainable costs.
A glance at what has been happening around us in the region is sufficient to support this point. The present situations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Tunisia are the result of the lack of a plan for gradual reform and progress towards the desired goals.
The Egyptian vision for human rights presents an authentic and legitimate approach to achieving the desired goals. It is based on the need to work with dedication to bridge the gap between the philosophy of rights and existing social and cultural realities. The NHRS has no intention to review or critique international human rights law or to reconsider Egypt’s commitments under the charters and declarations it has signed. On the contrary, the Egyptian vision takes its commitments to international human rights conventions as one of the fundamental pillars of its National Strategy.
These are the criteria that are used for gauging progress during the implementation of the strategy’s plans and programmes over the next five years. According to the NHRS, rights are not just a legal question, but also a developmental one. It is for this reason that the strategy takes Egypt’s national social-development plans and Vision 2030 for sustainable development as pillars alongside the Egyptian Constitution and the international conventions to which Egypt is a state party.
Soon after the launch of the NHRS, Egypt reconstituted the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR). The new 27-member council includes many individuals known for their strong reformist outlooks, including the council’s chairperson, the diplomat and politician Moushira Khattab. It also counts among its members a number of noted rights activities and political opposition figures. The NCHR is thus poised to enter a new phase in which it will be endowed with all the needed vigour and efficacy to contribute valuably to the implementation of the NSHR.
Another important development in 2021 was the release of the Egypt Human Development Report (HDR) after an 11-year hiatus since its last publication. The decision to revive it is a reflection of the government’s desire to read the impartial assessments and recommendations on the state of development in Egypt by the experts in charge of preparing the report. HDR reports are prepared under the auspices and supervision of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which is a guarantee of their professionalism and objectivity. This is a further token of the sincerity of the government’s determination to achieve real development in Egypt.
The release of the new Egypt HDR coincided with the launch of the largest social-development programme in Egypt’s history. The “Haya Karima” (Decent Life) initiative aims to improve the quality of life in the more than 4,000 villages in Egypt that are home to about half of the country’s population. By the end of the three-year initiative, every home in rural Egypt will have fresh water and wastewater disposal, and every home that does not meet the minimum standards for human habitation will be upgraded. Every village will have at least its main roads paved and will be equipped with enough clinics and schools to meet the inhabitants’ healthcare and educational needs.
The Haya Karima initiative is very ambitious. It would probably even be called unrealistic were it not for the success that has been seen in marshalling the necessary funding through the reallocation of resources, additional government allocations and innovative funding mechanisms along the lines of those used to help finance the nationwide urban expansion and infrastructure development plan that the government set into motion in 2015.
The fact that the Egypt Human Development Report, the Haya Karima initiative and the NSHR were all unveiled roughly at the same time attests to the balanced and holistic Egyptian approach to human rights, which accords equal value to social and political rights.
In this regard, President Al-Sisi has declared 2022 as the year of civil society in Egypt. This comes less than a year after parliament passed a new NGO law that eliminated many of the restrictions that had existed in the previous one. The legislation has opened the door to a large increase in civil-society organisations, a trend that has also been driven by the government’s keenness to give civil society a major role in conceiving and carrying out developmental, educational and social projects, ushering in a new formula for collaboration between the state, civil society and the private sector.
The media also underwent important changes in 2021, most notably the reorganisation of the largest company responsible for media and dramatic production in the country. New television channels have been granted licences after a period in which the government had stopped issuing new broadcasting licences. At the same time, more and more new and unconventional voices have begun to appear on television and other media, while dialogue and debate has been opening up to accommodate issues and voices that had previously been marginalised.
When we put all the pieces of the puzzle together, we see a picture of a state and society that are progressing with confidence towards a higher phase of reform that focuses on rights, the freedom of expression and greater and greater inclusiveness.
*The writer is an adviser to Al-Ahram’s Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.