Applying the Theory to Egypt

Which factors impact human rights conditions in Egypt? Any analysis of human rights conditions in Egypt should begin with the authoritarian nature of the state and its centralizing, patronage-based form of governing. The state discourages and suffocates autonomous political or social forces, such as opposition political parties, local government, the press, professional associations, and private voluntary organizations. The government may be characterized as non-ideological, primarily concerned with sustaining itself—a pursuit at which it has excelled.

Egypt appears to fit the model for a state that has been subjected to the various types of interactions that have been observed to contribute to human rights progress elsewhere. Egypt has a long history of interaction between the state and domestic political and civil forces pressing for greater popular participation in government, and for respect for civil liberties and human rights. It has, for example, one of the longest parliamentary traditions in the region, dating back to the late nineteenth century. Its bar association, labor unions, professional associations, women’s movement, and student movement have at different times made substantial contributions to human rights progress. The long anticolonial struggle, culminating in the Free Officers seizing power in 1952, mobilized many different elements of political and civil society over decades of struggle against British occupation and domination.

In recent decades, in line with global trends, interactions between domestic human rights advocates and international human rights networks have increased. Nongovernmental organizations established with the specific purpose of promoting respect for international human rights standards developed in Egypt in the early 1980s. The movement grew in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and organizations proliferated from the mid-1990s. The movement grew initially as a domestic branch of a regional international organization, the Arab Organization for

Human Rights (AOHR), founded in 1982. Cooperative ties with

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Western-based, international human rights organizations grew with the development of the movement.

Egypt has a tradition of granting access to international human rights research missions. As a relatively open country, it has been the subject of much reporting and monitoring over the last two decades. Transnational human rights networks came to the aid of Egyptian human rights advocates when they were the targets of government persecution. For example, in 1989, when Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) executive board members Amir Salem and Muhammad al-Sayyed Sa’id were imprisoned, the work of Egyptian human rights NGOs rose to international and domestic prominence. The international campaign on their behalf was successful in that the two activists were released promptly.

Transnational advocacy networks have tried to apply pressure through Western governments and available international human rights mechanisms for many years. Egypt has submitted reports to the UN Human Rights Committee on its compliance with its treaty obligations, and has from time to time replied to inquiries from UN special rapporteurs on various human rights issues.

As the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid (after Israel), the potential for the aid relationship to be used to promote human rights exists. In addition, Egypt is also involved in complex trade and aid relationships with the European Union and its member states. Human rights conditions are increasingly part of the bilateral relationship between Egypt and the United States, and Egypt and Europe. Western powers and international organizations have supported training programs and other events designed to promote human rights and democratization in Egypt.

Thus we can see that Egypt has been fully exposed to the four levels of interactions by which human rights norms have been internalized elsewhere. In seeking to persuade the Egyptian government to reform its human rights practices, different modes of social interaction have been employed. Sticks and carrots through threatening to condition aid have been employed, as well as arguments that have appealed to Egypt’s sense of itself as a distinguished member of the world community, a regional leader with a strong liberal tradition. And yet Egypt appears to have made precious little progress along the spiral of positive human rights change.

Egypt has had its share of repression throughout its modern history, although this has ebbed and flowed with the prevailing political conditions. Repression has usually remained within limits, allowing most people to feel somewhat free most of the time, and single devastating

incidents of human rights abuse, such as have occurred in many neigh-

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boring countries, have largely been avoided. Thus the government has been able to maintain a relatively benign international image, despite persistently failing to live up to international human rights norms. Egypt’s international reputation is important to its leaders, not only because Egypt relies so heavily on revenue from Western tourists who might be less willing to visit if they thought it was a wild, lawless place, but also because Egypt is proud of its image as a cradle of civilization.

This sense that human rights conditions are not so bad in Egypt has enabled the government to engage in a kind of soft denial when faced with human rights criticism. Egypt has never engaged internationally in public denial of the validity of international human rights norms. It participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights in 1982.6 While international standards have been largely free of official criticism, nongovernmental human rights advocates and organizations have been regularly upbraided for defaming Egypt, engaging in double standards, giving aid and comfort to terrorists, and even acting as agents of hostile foreign powers. This is certainly a form of denial because for the most part local and international human rights NGOs have done none of these things.

The Egyptian government has been under sustained international and local pressure to improve its human rights performance for many years. Much of this pressure, which arguably increased throughout the 1990s, was the kind of concerted (if not always coordinated) internal and external pressure, involving a diverse mixture of local and international actors, that has brought about change elsewhere. Despite this pressure, the government has made few tactical concessions to the demands of the international human rights movement. Although it has ratified a raft of international human rights treaties, many of the rights and freedoms they contain are not applied in practice. In fact, the Egyptian government appears immune to the phenomenon of self-entrapment and limiting of its own margin of maneuver, which has been a precursor of change elsewhere. As international and local activism for human rights reform increased through the mid- and late 1990s, the government set about systematically dismantling domestic sources of criticism while ignoring international objections. Throughout this period it never let slip the pretense that Egypt was a firm supporter of the international human rights regime.

Thus we can observe that human rights in Egypt have not attained the fourth stage of the spiral. For the most part, they cannot be said to have a prescriptive status in law and practice. It is questionable whether the

third phase has been reached, that of tactical concession, because the

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“concession’’ of ratifying international instruments has had so nugatory an effect on practice. Although the Egyptian government has paid lip service to international human rights norms, it has not engaged in vainglorious claims for its human rights achievements or sought to make protecting human rights a basis of its political legitimacy, as the Ben Ali regime has done in Tunisia, for example.7 It is worth noting that the government has made some apparent tactical concessions in 2004 and 2005 with President Mubarak’s formal acceptance of the political reform agenda and such measures as the formation of the national Human Rights Council and the agreement to hold contested presidential elections in 2005. Such concessions carry risks that eventually the international community and the local population will begin to take the government at its word and begin to expect the human rights the government so freely promises and boasts of being implemented. Egypt had until the early years of the new century eschewed such risks. As noted above, the denial phase in Egypt has focused on the messenger and not the message, and an all-out confrontation with global forces for conformity with human rights norms has thus been averted. So Egypt remained becalmed in phase one of the spiral, practicing repression at a level that to date has not elicited an effective response from transnational human rights networks.

This is a remarkable state of affairs. How can a state that appears as susceptible to the transnational power of international human rights norms in fact remain so resistant to it? Is Egypt a greater exception to the spiral theory than Tunisia, where now, belatedly, the combined forces of international concern and a resilient domestic human rights movement seem to be putting some pressure on the government to change? At least until 2004, pressure for human rights change in Egypt over the prior decade seemed to recede rather than increase.

The rest of this chapter presents a brief typology of the human rights violations from which Egypt suffers. It will then review the development of the local human rights movement, its integration into transnational human rights networks, and the ensuing problems and difficulties. The government’s deliberalization policies and the extent to which they may be seen as a response to human rights criticism will be assessed. The chapter concludes with some reflections on the Egyptian case and its implications for theories of human rights change, as well as for the practice of domestic and international human rights advocates.

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