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Human rights in Egypt

Egypt has an honourable history in the advocacy and defence of human rights, unlike some countries that always attack Egypt on its human rights record, writes Laila Takla

Laila Takla , Saturday 9 Nov 2019

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted 10 December 1948 as UN Resolution 217. Proclaiming “the common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”, it urged all individuals and nations to “to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and ... to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance”. Many other international human rights conventions and treaties followed. During his term at the helm of the UN, secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali introduced two major documents titled “An Agenda for Peace” and “An Agenda for Development”. All these instruments combined form the international legal framework that defines the human rights that peoples, governments and societies should safeguard, promote and respect. 

Unfortunately, the question of human rights is sometimes used as a propaganda tool. In this regard, Egypt has recently been the focus of another wave of criticism by parties driven by political, economic or personal agendas and whose attacks rely on unsubstantiated sources or plain fiction. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the mother of human rights instruments, it seems worth making a calm and reasoned assessment of how Egypt truly fares in terms of its provisions.

The right to peace, justice and development is enshrined in the declaration’s preamble. Egypt has a solid record in the pursuit of these goals. It has struggled to realise ambitious developmental aims despite arduous circumstances and limited resources. Its war against terrorism helps protect the region and the world from this blight while the government has made more progress in development in recent years than previous governments had in 50 years. 

Articles 1 and 2 of the declaration uphold the principles of equality and non-discrimination. The Egyptian people who took part in the June 2013 Revolution now feel this equality tangibly in terms of their equal right to a share in development, progress and improved services without discrimination. Egyptian society is comparatively free of classism, racism and sectarianism.

With respect to “the right to life, liberty and security of person” (Article 3), Egypt’s efforts to fight for peace and security through its fight against terrorism have received worldwide admiration and recognition. One of the government’s main responsibilities is to meet the people’s need for safety and security and it has met with considerable success in this domain. 

Egypt has also been in the vanguard in the fight against new forms of slavery and human trafficking (Article 4) and it was among the group of UN members to promote the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

It has also made remarkable progress in the promotion and protection of women’s rights (Article 16). There are currently around 100 women members in parliament, compared to only five in the past, and there are eight female ministers, up from one in previous governments. Women also have access to other public offices and jobs that had previously been out of reach for them. 

Freedom of religion (Article 18) has been furthered by virtue of the recently passed law, for which Egyptians had been campaigning for 30 years, upholding the right to worship in especially designated houses of worship. 

Egypt has long had free, universal and compulsory education (Article 26). The current government has been unflagging in its efforts to promote educational development through a comprehensive overhaul of curricula and pedagogy.

The government has organised free and fair elections (Article 21) and it provides social security (Article 22) through a specialised ministry that conducts diverse activities towards this end. 

There is no gender discrimination in pay (Article 23). Women obtain the same salaries as men for the same work, which cannot be said of women in Europe. 

Egypt has also scored considerable progress in providing care for the ill and infirm (Article 25). In addition to the recently introduced comprehensive health insurance programme, there has been a boom in attention to those with special needs and the World Health Organisation has affirmed that Egypt is free of Hepatitis C. In addition, the Nour Al-Oyoun project provides ophthalmological care free of charge.

As for “meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare” (Article 29), this is an integral part of Egyptian heritage. Egyptian culture promotes and safeguards moral principles as ordained by religious scriptures, in contrast to European countries that encourage religiously prohibited behaviours. 

In Europe, too, racism — one of the worst human rights violations — is widespread. Related to this is the way European countries handle the problem of refugees. There, they are not even treated as human beings, in contrast to Egypt which, according to a report by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, is one of the most humane countries in its treatment of refugees (see Article 14). Egypt does not pen up refugees in camps. They are welcome as ordinary members of society and enjoy the same rights and duties as others. 

One can cite other articles in which Egypt has not only made progress but has taken the lead. As for the articles with respect to which Egypt has come under the glare of criticism, they concern the treatment of lawbreakers. Clearly, the EU parliament has not studied the situation in Egypt as well as it should have. Egyptian law upholds the right to equality under the law and the right to protection of the law without discrimination (Article 7), it ensures access to independent tribunals to remedy acts violating fundamental rights (Article 8), and it prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention (Article 9). 

Egyptian law prohibits the maltreatment of people under arrest and detention. The Ministry of Interior has issued strict instructions to all members of the police force in this regard, and while it is true that there have been violations, these are punished. Indeed, a number of officers and police soldiers are currently under investigation. Recently five policemen from Sharqiya were sentenced to three years in prison on charges of violating the ethics of their profession. But whereas in Egypt these are the exception to the rule, we find that in some countries it is virtually state policy. In Turkey, for example, protestors and opposition figures are arrested and subjected to all forms of maltreatment at Erdogan’s orders, and the perpetrators are often rewarded.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights concludes with a provision (Article 30) that prohibits interpreting anything in the declaration in a manner that would justify any act aimed at destroying any of stipulated rights and freedoms. This includes the right to sovereignty. The preamble underscores the need to promote the development of friendly relations between nations which implies the principles of equality between nations, non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries, and refraining from hurling unfounded and misleading allegations. It is time all countries respect the substance of this declaration and it would be best if they held up a mirror to themselves first before casting aspersions against others. 

In light of the above, it is important to bear in mind the following considerations:

- Governments are responsible for fulfilling their obligations in accordance with the provisions of the Declaration and their national laws before their own people and the UN, not before other countries and their parliaments. 

- Egyptian government officials, MPs and representatives of civil society spared no effort in their attempts to contact EU parliamentary officials and governments to explain Egypt’s position with respect to human rights. Yet, the EU parliament ignored them, preferring instead to listen to groups and parties that do not have Egypt’s interests at heart. Among these is an organisation whose anti-Egyptian bias is well-known. 

- Surely the principle of fairness demands attention to the fulfilment of the requirements of the welfare, rights and guarantees of all people, rather than just focussing on offenders. When, in 2000, the UN dedicated its Human Development Report to the question of human rights, it advocated a holistic approach to the question. The study evaluated countries in accordance with a diverse array of criteria among which were the justice system and rule of law, the status of women and children, care for the elderly and persons with special needs, the conditions of detention centres and prisons, the existence of national human rights organisations, and much more. Rather than adopting such a comprehensive approach, the EU Parliament narrowed its focus to lawbreakers. Of course, such people should be afforded protections, but at the expense of peace, development, innocent civilians and all other honest citizens who obey the law? The EU Parliament should have named its report, “Rights of lawbreakers in Egypt.” 

- Egyptian law does permit protest demonstrations, but under certain conditions that people are obliged to observe or else face legal consequences. The same applies in other countries. The purpose is to safeguard law and order and people’s safety. When demonstrations promote violence or the overthrow of a government, police arrest the offenders and then sort those who instigated or practised violence from those who did not. The latter are released and the former are brought to trial. Do any other countries have a mechanism to perform that sorting process in the middle of a demonstration turned violent? Do any of the 28 nations in the European Parliament permit demonstrations that deliberately incite violence and promote the overthrow of the state? Does freedom of opinion and expression cover calls to extremism, violence and destruction?

- All governments require demonstrators to designate, in advance, the place, time, duration and purpose of their protests. In some countries, placards are inspected before a demonstration. In New York, for example, its forbidden to carry posters on sticks because the sticks might be used as weapons which, of course, are prohibited. 

My purpose, here, was not to defend Egypt or to reply to the EU Parliament. It was to tell the Egyptian people the truth about their country’s commitment to human rights so that they do not fall for the falsehoods and misinformation spread by agencies with certain agendas of their own. I am convinced the Egyptian people are aware of this, and seek only to confirm their realisation. Egypt has  an honourable history in the advocacy and defence of human rights. What is Europe’s past in this regard? What is the state of human rights in those countries that always lead the attacks against Egypt? 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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