Egypt entered 2023 by taking three important steps to revise its human rights policies. It set into motion the National Strategy for Human Rights that will be implemented by 2026, activated the Presidential Amnesty Committee overseeing the release of prisoners of opinion, and published the annual follow-up report by the Supreme Standing Committee for Human Rights (SSCHR).
Since adopting the National Strategy for Human Rights a year ago, the government has introduced 226 changes in order to bring policies and regulations into line with the need to protect and strengthen rights and freedoms in keeping with the 2014 Constitution and Egypt’s international commitments. The strategy includes three tracks for following up targets that include 37 legislative changes, 136 institutional changes, and 53 measures to promote a human rights culture and capacity building.
According to the SSCHR’s report on the strategy’s first year of implementation, the majority of the measures identified have been undertaken on the institutional track. Awareness raising and capacity building measures accounted for the second largest group of actions taken, and legislative measures were the third. The report said that these steps combined had contributed to strengthening civil and political rights, as well as economic, social, and cultural rights, and had improved the status of women, children, the elderly and persons with disabilities.
They had also helped to develop educational and capacity building programmes in human rights, it said.
The measures reflect a shift in the government’s approach to human rights and, specifically, the extent to which human rights are acquiring increasing priority as a prerequisite for achieving just and sustainable development across the country. For the first time, we now have an official document laying out the government’s vision on this subject, providing us with concrete objectives to which we can refer when gauging policies and actions relevant to human rights and freedoms.
The significance of this cannot be overstated as for years Egypt, like many other countries, had no such official document clarifying its policy outlook, the challenges it had identified, and the programmes it would implement to address them. Foreign and non-governmental sources tended to set the agenda for discussion of the state of human rights in Egypt instead.
At another level, the steps that the government has taken to strengthen human rights are a way of laying the political parameters for the new republic in Egypt. They are founded on a balance between security and fighting terrorism, and they safeguard human rights and freedoms in a comprehensive way across all sectors of society. At the same time, they also help to remedy a number of matters that have troubled Egypt’s relations with the US and some European countries.
Still, as significant as the progress has been, more concerted and systematic efforts are needed in order to advance developments on the legislative track. According to the SSCHR’s follow-up report, the legislative proposals and deliberations have addressed 17 of the targeted areas. Focus on this track is essential, because laws form the basis for the legitimacy and sustainability of any institutional framework established as part of the National Strategy.
They are the bedrock of sustainable progress in the implementation of policies and programmes related to human rights and freedoms and in delegitimising practices that violate human rights and in bringing their perpetrators to account.
Substantive progress in attaining the targets on the legislative track will also help to advance progress on the educational and capacity building track. We have already seen how recent legislative changes related to sexual harassment have contributed greatly to awareness-raising on this issue and to changing social and institutional behaviour.
It is to be hoped that the SSCHR will continue to produce its progress report on the National Human Rights Strategy on an annual basis. This will require enhancing the SSCHR’s powers and its ability to monitor the implementation of the measures called for by the strategy and for assessing the progress made. Above all, it will require overcoming the challenges mentioned in the strategy, which include a weak human rights culture, low levels of participation in public affairs, obstacles to attaining economic growth targets, and terrorism and unrest in neighbouring countries.
As the SSCHR is a governmental mechanism for self-evaluation with respect to performance and progress in the framework of the National Strategy for Human Rights, it is important to consider creating a systematic mechanism or platform that will encourage public discussion of the follow-up reports.
This would be a useful way of raising awareness of the changes in public policies on human rights and related issues and of developing a culture of human rights more generally.
The writer is head of the Security Research department at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a visiting professor of political science at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.