This is not the first time I have written about the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together signed by Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church and Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, in February 2019 and the need for Muslim societies to implement it. On this occasion, however, I am motivated by a different context: my position as president of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) to which I had the honour of being appointed last October.
To my good fortune, the appointment came at a time when Egypt had grown stronger as a civil state built on a constitution that guarantees human rights as an essential component of governance. Citizens of Egypt are entitled to all their rights without discrimination on the basis of religion, gender, or any other affiliation. Indeed, discrimination has become a crime punishable by law.
The great achievements that I have watched take shape in our country recently have strengthened my conviction that we can overcome challenges that we had chosen to ignore for decades only for them to multiply and worsen. A main reason for this was our long immersion in the anti-colonialist struggle, after which we were swept up by a socialist totalitarian tide, partly in reaction against colonialism and everything associated with it, including its democracy and open and pluralistic culture.
We locked ourselves in for decades, but during that time the outside world changed radically. A revolution in communications and information technology shrank the planet to a small village in which peoples and governments were increasingly dependent on each other. Rates of progress and prosperity rose in societies inspired by Egypt’s lead. The time has come for Egypt to take the lead again, not just in liberating our own citizens, but also Muslims across the world from the sirens of an arrogant insularity that exploits religion in the pursuit of designs that have lured us backwards and broadened the gap between us and the rest of the world.
We need to liberate ourselves from attitudes that see human rights as a Western agenda at a time when various factors have combined to strip Egypt of its soft power, that portray the expression of religious faith as the antithesis of modernity, logic, and the desire to benefit from the achievements of the information revolution, or that interpret the commitment to Arab nationalism as shirking our commitment to Egyptian identity.
We Egyptians have been caught up in a situation characterised by a strangely contradictory alienation. We live in a country at the geopolitical centre of the world and one that has had an extremely powerful influence on its environment and has played an active part in formulating the universally accepted criteria for human rights that were enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 1940s.
Yet, due to various local and international circumstances, too often we have applied blinkers to our eyes. The first signs of this appeared as long ago as the 1920s, but we paid them no heed at that time. Perhaps we lacked the vision or the courage or the will to address them. But today our region and the world as a whole face unprecedented and pressing challenges that demand a dynamic Egyptian role, and this requires the use of tools that we may not earlier have considered to be important.
This is an alarming and turbulent time for humanity. The Taliban have emerged victorious in Afghanistan and taken control of an arsenal filled with the latest weaponry. In Europe, tensions are mounting in relations with Muslim communities that took root there decades ago. Not long after the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) group was announced in Iraq, the resurgence of IS fighters has rattled nerves around the world.
To compound our fears, some European countries are turning away people who were raised and educated there, leaving them no choice but to return to countries their families had left in order to escape harsh circumstances.
EGYPT’S ROLE: Such problems have increased the pressures that compel Egypt to assume a pioneering role armed with its enlightened understanding of Islam. And nothing could better encapsulate the required spirit than the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together to which both Muslims and Europeans have pledged themselves.
I believe this document can safeguard and promote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It can also save Muslims from deceptions and delusions because it is conscious of the tragedies they have suffered due to misguided interpretations of the faith that deny human rights to millions of Muslims, above all women and children.
The reason I am optimistic is that I am certain that we in Egypt can set the right example for the rest of the world to follow. We stand at the beginning of a new path, one whose course was set by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi when he championed the principles of the Egyptian civil state, a state for all its citizens without discrimination.
Soon after he took office, President Al-Sisi spearheaded the drive to renovate religious discourse and bring it into harmony with contemporary realities. He launched a process of educational reform with the dual aim of instilling in our children the powers of reason, independent thought, and innovation and protecting them from extremist recruitment and deception.
He has pledged to empower Egypt’s women, and he attended Christmas services at the new Coptic Cathedral whose lofty vaults reverberated with the celebration of love. As a result, Egypt’s women enjoy their rights as never before. Perhaps many are even unaware that more than 70 per cent of Egyptians have won an unprecedented level of civil rights.
The president has been unwavering in his determination to root a culture of human rights in Egypt. Perhaps the defining moment was when he launched the National Strategy for Human Rights on 11 September 2021, putting paid to claims that human rights are part of a Western agenda. In a splendid affirmation of the spirit of human rights, he qualitatively raised the bar for religious freedoms. On the day he launched the strategy he said that “whether you are Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, you are free. Whether or not you believe, you are free. You have a Lord to whom you will account.” His words echo the substance of Article 3 of the Egyptian Constitution.
The foregoing developments qualify Egypt as a pioneering leader for Muslim peoples, and this is its natural place. Perhaps it had been taken away during lean years in the past, but today Egypt has returned in force, fortified by its awareness of the rights of its people and ready to prove to the world that it is a source of security for the Middle East and the world.
As Egypt resumes its much-needed historical role, the government and people need to be absolutely certain that turning back is not an option. As we have seen before, moving backwards can be extremely costly. Vibrant diversity and pluralism are the keys to releasing the latent energies of Egypt’s soft power and enhancing the credibility of Egypt’s leadership as it steers the Muslim world back to a rational appreciation of the role of faith in the lives of the Muslim peoples and humanity as a whole.
Continuing the implementation of Egypt’s National Strategy for Human Rights in both text and spirit will bring incalculable rewards for the Egyptian people and the nation to which they belong.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.