The launch of the first, homegrown National Strategy for Human Rights earlier this week marks a milestone in Egypt’s history. It is a key step for upgrading human rights in the country for the first time in many decades. The fact that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi personally attended the launch, and his declaration that 2022 will be the Year of Civil Society, leaves no doubt that the Egyptian government and its institutions mean business.
After more than a year of meetings and consultations led by the Foreign Ministry, which brought together all concerned parties such as government ministries and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the strategy provides a practical, comprehensive roadmap for safeguarding all kinds of political, economic and social rights.
This roadmap includes concrete proposals to deal with issues raised by local and international human rights groups in recent years, such as pre-trial detention and freedom of expression, but also stresses the need to work on vital basic rights such as the right to education, healthcare and housing. The strategy also notes the need to resume ongoing efforts to protect and expand women’s rights, those with disabilities, and the young.
Dealing with political rights alone in terms of laws and legislations is indeed a vital aspect, assured by the 2014 Constitution. But improving living conditions and providing basic needs for millions of Egyptians is what will strengthen and safeguard those political rights.
Political Islamic groups, especially terrorist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Group, Jihad, Al-Qaeda and more recently the so-called Islamic State or Daesh, all feed on hardships and inequalities that exist in poor and developing nations. They offer the false promise that adhering to their extremist ideologies will yield a better life, if not on earth then in heaven.
By offering basic social services funded by foreign countries and individuals, such as schools and medical clinics, political Islamic groups expanded their popularity and ideology, allowing them to reach their goal of seize power in several Arab countries in order to impose their extremist vision that only serves the interests of the group’s leaders and their transnational organisations.
While doing this, they disregard all basic human rights highlighted in the 2014 Constitution, including women’s rights, freedom of religion and freedom of belief.
Since taking office in June 2014, President Al-Sisi has been aware that hard work is required on several fronts: political, economic, social and religious, where moderation and awareness need to be boosted, in order to protect the country and prevent a takeover by political Islamic groups that once threatened the integrity and existence of the state.
Egypt was among the first countries that contributed to wording the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since then, Egypt has continued to contribute to promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The first National Strategy for Human Rights hopes to meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people, providing a domestic agenda that stems from the country’s needs, and not the agenda of external parties or transnational organisations aiming to weaken the Egyptian state.
Egypt’s vision for human rights is based on a number of key principles, topped by integration and interconnection among all rights and freedoms. There is a strong link between democracy and human rights, but this can only be seen when the balance between rights and duties, the individual and society is realised.
In his speech marking the launch of the Strategy, the president vowed that the Egyptian state would remain committed to respecting and protecting the rights to physical safety, personal freedom, participation in political life, freedom of expression and formation of non-governmental organisations. He added that Egypt has always welcomed different opinions as long as they do not harm the freedom of others and are aimed at constructive criticism. He also pledged that the state would continue to exert painstaking efforts to promote the values of citizenship, tolerance and dialogue, while combating violence and discrimination.
The commitment to protecting rights and freedoms can be achieved through effective and efficient legislation and sound general policies as well as the efforts of national institutions. Egypt has a rich national institutional infrastructure that works on promoting respect and protection of human rights which witness continued development, and the human rights strategy further strengthens this by noting the establishment of the permanent higher committee for human rights, a key step in enhancing coordinated national work in this domain. The national councils for women, childhood, motherhood and the disabled also play a pioneering role in promoting rights in these categories.
As the independent national institution having powers under the constitution, the National Council for Human Rights also plays a pivotal role in promoting relevant principles, spreading awareness in this regard and presenting an annual report to the state.
The strategy also recognises that civil society is a key partner in promoting human rights at all levels: political, economic and social. Civil society’s contributions are clear and its partnership with the state is indispensable. Therefore, it was President Al-Sisi who asked the government to amend the old law regulating the activities of NGOs and civil society organisations. This resulted in issuing a new law regulating civil participation and the activities of civil society institutions. The executive statute of this law will mark a new stage of partnership between the government and civil society.
As for religious freedoms, Egypt has achieved great progress to ensure equality among all citizens in rights and duties. A law was issued to build and restore churches, thus contributing to legalising the conditions of about 1,800 churches and affiliated buildings.
Egypt still has a long way to go to perfect the human rights situation, but the National Human Rights Strategy is definitely a heartening start.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly